We're often contacted by people considering moving to Arizona about issues that concern them. Some of the most common questions we're asked by those unfamiliar with desert living relate to scorpions (are they everywhere?), the heat (can I keep CDs in the car?), jobs (are there any that pay more than $10 per hour?) and schools (are there any good schools?). There are others, of course, but the one we will focus on today is the question about basements. Why aren't there any homes with basements in Arizona?
What do people do with all their stuff when they move to Phoenix if they don't have a basement?
The time has come for us to address the issue of basement homes. We spoke to Scott McDonald of The Wall Company. They have been building basements for homebuilders in the Phoenix area for more than a decade. Having put in thousands of basements in Arizona, Mr. McDonald graciously agreed to answer some of the questions that I know are on many people's minds as they consider buying a home in the Valley.
In the following interview with Scott McDonald of The Wall Company, we separate the facts from the fiction about basements.
Phoenix Guide: We have heard that some of the older homes in the Valley have basements, but until recently not many new construction homes included the feature. How come?
Mr. McDonald: It's faster to build a home without a basement. Including a basement with a home adds about 30 days to the construction process. Also, if a builder is trying to provide a home with a certain square footage, it costs more to build the home with a basement than it does to add a second story to the home.
Phoenix Guide: Why do builders in other states, especially in the east, build their homes with basements? Don't they have the same time/cost issues?
Mr. McDonald: Not really. In colder parts of the country the foundation of a home must be set below the frost line. That means that they have to dig down several feet anyway. The additional few feet to put in a basement is not that significant. But here in Arizona, we only have to dig about 18 inches to put in a foundation, so putting in a basement for a builder represents a significant extra effort than is required.
Phoenix Guide: Please tell us a little about the extra cost we might pay to build a new home that has a basement.
Mr. McDonald: If you are building a custom home you are probably spending at least $90 per square foot, and maybe as much as $150 or $200 per square foot for some luxury homes. Including a basement involves the excavation, walls, footings, waterproofing, drain tile, back fill and cleanup, which may only add $15 to $20 per square foot. To make that space livable (finished as opposed to unfinished) may add $30 to $40 per square foot.
Phoenix Guide: We hear horror stories about "hard digs"' and "rocky soil" and "caliche" causing surprise expenses for people putting in basements. What's the real story?
Mr. McDonald: The truth is that there is rarely any surprise for a prospective buyer. The builder will do an analysis of the property before the contract is signed. We almost always know if a hard dig (digging into rock) will be required. As a matter of fact, less than 3% of the thousands of basements we've done required a hard dig. As far as the soil is concerned, that is a non-issue. A construction company that knows how to build basements has the proper equipment for our Arizona soils, and trained people operating the equipment.
Phoenix Guide: What are you seeing in the new home market today in Arizona? Are there more basements being built?
Mr. McDonald: Definitely! When we began this company in 1992 there was only one builder of tract homes, Hancock Homes, offering a basement option. Each year we've seen another builder jump on the bandwagon. You can now find basement options for homes in the $200,000 and up price range. What many builders are doing is offering a basement option, which replaces the upper level of what would have been a two story home. There's still only one staircase. The space in the basement averages about 1,100 square feet of livable (finished) space.
A common floor plan includes a game room, two bedrooms and one bath. An average cost for this option is about $60,000.
Phoenix Guide: Why do you think people would rather pay extra to have a basement, when they are ending up with roughly the same square footage in the house if they just had a second story?
Mr. McDonald: There are two reasons. First, privacy. Many tract homes are built on postage stamp sized lots. People really don't want to look out their windows into someone else's backyard. Second, having a basement instead of a second level provides energy savings--the temperature is much more constant, reducing heating and cooling costs.
Phoenix Guide: What if someone just wants an unfinished basement, for storage purposes or for a workshop?
Mr. McDonald: Some city ordinances don't allow for that. Right now, Scott Homes in Gilbert is the only builder offering unfinished basements.
Phoenix Guide: It seems that Arizona builders are now recognizing the demand for basements from consumers. Are you noticing any other trends?
Mr. McDonald: I believe that even more builders will start to offer a basement option. I also think that we will soon start to see basements becoming available in even more affordable homes geared to middle income families.