Why Oklahomans don't have basements

Wood is cheap, fast, hides the mechanicals and culturally acceptable. It’s not plaster, it’s drywall. Plaster takes time and tallent, not something that profit-hungry builders care to invest in.


You would think we would do more of that, considering how many public buildings (like courthouses) are built out of stone (Sandstone? Limestone?) and/or brick.

Our city pretty much entirely burned to the ground almost 150 years ago. Needless to say, there were a lot more stone and brick buildings that rose from those ashes.

This may come as a shock to some, but the building code doesn’t actually require a basement to be kitted out in twee little antiques and ironic coffee tables. The kind with spider webs and dirt will save your life too - plus it’s more fun on Halloween.


All respect to Ygret and NPR, I know of no one who views basements as part of cheap construction. Now, occasionally you come across a very old house with a root cellar which was used back in the pre-refrigerator days as a cool place to store food. Usually people tend to avoid those because they leak, are moldy and have a bad habit of collapsing in and ruining your foundation. Maybe that is what they are referring too.

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I agree, but try explaining that to your typical HGTV viewer.

For my part, the surprise about basements has absolutely nothing to do with natural disaster. Almost all homes in my area have basements, and I know of no one who considers their basement primarily a storm shelter. In most local homes, the basement is where the mechanicals of the house are hidden (washer, dryer, furnace, etc).

They also (when unfinished) make fantastic shop and work spaces, since they’re so easy to clean. When considered a storage and work space, there’s no extra furnishing cost to consider.

I would have to think long and hard before buying a house without a basement. They’re just part of the way of life around here.

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Basements have been bouncing in and out of favor recently. Slab construction and an extra floor may be cheaper and gets more sunlight, and avoids questions of flooded basements if mechanicals fail and/or groundwater rises, so there are arguments against. On the other hand, a basement naturally buffers both summer heat and winter cold and, like a cave, tends to floats toward the yearly average temperature if uninsulated – and slapping some insulation on it isn’t that hard, if you’re so inclined – so there have been people arguing that houses should be pushed further underground where possible (ideally leaving more of the surface as yard/social space).

Given those conflicting impulses, my own opinion is that I Don’t Care; for me it’s about the usefulness of the space, not where it is relative to grade level. Natural light is useful, but so is reduced need for air conditioning. Workshop space is necessary, but I don’t care whether it’s at grade, below grade (as in my case) or above grade (I know someone who had a woodshop on the 2nd floor) as long as I can easily get supplies in and projects out.

I think this goes with the debate over natural gas versus oil heat. People who grew up only with oil (and electric stoves) tend to be excessively paranoid about gas leaks; people who grew up with gas (at least for stoves) tend to take it for granted and, if anything, are paranoid about oil spills. The reality is probably that it’s as much a matter of taste as anything else.

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Friends who live in the Midwest in a 60-year-old, built-on-a-concrete-slab ranch home on a slight hill got the worst of it when their neighborhood had a once-in-100-years flooding: the waters didn’t recede for a week, but everyone with basements had a place for that water to sit without ruining everything. Some people had to replace water heaters, etc., but not their entire house. My friends will not be able to get back into their home for at least 6 months. Meanwhile, neighbors living downhill and closer to the river never even had to move out.

Basements are like insurance: you spend the money hoping you’ll never have the opportunity to really need that protection.


I cant speak for all Oklahomans but i can definitely say that a basement is desirable and worth a significant extra cost. I do have to say tho it does cost a considerable amount more. At least in my area the water table is relatively close to the surface so waterproofing becomes a problem. I was involved in digging out my parents basement when we added on an addition and because the soil here has lots of really big rocks the excavation alone was a large effort. when we finished we had a good sized addition and a large basement but it started leaking soon after. it ended up as a place to escape tornadoes and really musty storage space that floods when the pump goes out. id still say it was worth it as it may save someones life someday but over all it was a large investment for a less than desirable outcome

Oklahoman here: A lot of Oklahoma tends to have a high water table which results in basements often flooding. The article talks about new technology that keeps that from happening but I have personally never seen it. What I have seen is a lot of family and friends fighting with sump pumps that seem to never work when you really need them, fighting constant mildew and mold, and throwing away stuff ruined by the flooding and excessive moisture. During the tornadoes that hit Moore my brother in a near by city took shelter in his flooded basement with his two dogs who apparently enjoyed the swim much more than he did. So yes, basements help but they are also a PITA most of the time.

If you really want something to be astonished by take a look at the articles about the city of Tulsa charging $400 + in fees to inspect and license new tornado shelters which is not optional. The city that charges the second highest was $50 i believe so who knows why they think $400 is an acceptable amount. Nothing like trying to do something to improve your situation like the city coming in and charging you half of what it took you to install your shelter just to license it. If you want people to do the right thing you should make it easier and not harder.


Just a reminder people: This is not the place to air your unfounded opinions about how totally stupid and inbred all Oklahomans are. If I see that, I’ll delete it. Because it’s crap.


I don’t think every house in OK needs a basement. As mentioned, they are expensive and the chance of a tornado actually hitting your house is fairly small. Given the availability of land, likely easier to build a storage shed, garage, etc to cover your extra space needs at a cheaper cost.

What the recent tornadoes have shown us is that evacuation plans for facilities housing those of limited means (children & elderly) are especially lacking. I think local authorities should look long and hard at providing storm shelters for such facilities. In general, given the speed of tornadoes, it is not realistic to expect anyone in an occupancy dense facility to seek shelter off-site.

TL:DR - storm shelters in schools and hospitals. Evaluate storm shelters for high occupancy buildings. Let private home owners make their own choices.


My brother and his family lived in SW Missouri for a few years in a house that didn’t have a basement. I asked him if he was worried about tornadoes and he said that most houses in his area did not have them because of the additional cost. We he later moved to Virginia he took a loss by having to sell his his four bedroom, half-acre lot house for a mere $160,000, which was about $20K less than he paid for it. The reason? He was doctor and few people in his town could afford that price–in 2003 just as the housing bubble was exploding in other parts of the country.

As often is the case, what some call a “cultural” issue is more accurately described as an economic one.

Tulsa use to have several public shelters built back in the WPA time period in addition to several commercial places like shopping malls that provided underground shelter when needed. Most of the public shelters have since been closed down due to cost of upkeep and the commercial sites, despite Oklahoma enacting a law to protect them from liability if they provide shelter and something bad happens, have closed and not reopened their shelter space because of perceived liability issues.

What it comes down to is the local government has largely decided that people are less important than upkeep costs and liability issues.

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Well, considering the impending potential apocalypses, be they biblical, cultural, economical, meteorological, viral, and/or zombial (sp?), I’d be building one of those basements if I was building a house anywhere, quite frankly.


Just out of curiosity, what about the alternative of a rudimentary storm cellar, as opposed to a full-blown basement? I.e., essentially just a small hole in the ground that’s solely for personal protection in a storm? Would that be financially feasible for people of limited means?

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One thing you may not get if you haven’t been around tornado damage is that ordinary masonry construction is no match for anything like a direct hit. Masonry just makes heavier projectiles. In the recent storm, many of the casualties were in a school, which was not wood and plasterboard. Old masonry construction will collapse on on occupants and kill them, but if you saw the Oklahoma storm footage, people were often surprisingly unhurt in collapsed wooden structures. Hurricanes are a reason to build more heavily, but tornados may actually be a reason to build lighter–but I’d still want a storm cellar at least.

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Exactly. Maggie’s article says, “How can we reduce the number of people who die in tornadoes? The death toll is the real problem here […]”

It isn’t a problem. Not that many people die from tornadoes. If the number was 10,000 a year in Oklahoma …people might be building basements (or moving to a safer place). Almost definitely if it was 50,000 or 100,000 a year. Since it is, on average, less than a few dozen or so (if that) who die each year in tornadoes …those that do die in such circumstances are simply a curious statistic, like how those struck by lightning.

I don’t even understand why this is surprising - people balk at paying for a taxi home from a bar and everyone knows driving drunk is fairly dangerous.

Agreed, with the caveat that you really can build above ground to withstand pretty much a direct hit from an EF5 tornado, you just need to go with steel reinforced concrete. The Warren Theater in Moore was hit dead center and took only cosmetic damage.

Article describing damage and repair cost

Building your home like a bunker is beyond the reach of most people, so they make a cost/benefit analysis of the remaining options. (Note: the cost/benefit analysis may be imperfect, or performed on an emotional rather than rational level, but it’s still made.)

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