There is a lot of controversy surrounding basement rental units and whether or not they are habitable. This is because basement apartments are usually located below the street level under an apartment building, house, or business, consequently exposing tenants to certain health risks. In order for a basement apartment to be legally rented out to tenants, it has to abide by strict regulations that make them habitable and safe.
Are basement apartments safe? Basement apartments are considered to be safe as long as they:
1. Regulations put in place for the safety of tenants living in basement apartments
Basement apartments that meet certain regulations are considered to be safe and can be legally rented. Here are some of the requirements that should be complied with:
- The height of the ceiling should be a minimum of 7 inches.
- The plumbing, wiring, gas lines and heating systems should be functional and well-maintained.
- The walls of a basement apartment should be water- and damp-proofed.
- The ceilings and walls of the basement apartment should be painted white or any other light color.
- The interior doors of the unit should be a minimum of 1.75 inches thick. There should also be a half an inch gap at the bottom of every door to improve the circulation of air. If this is not implemented, there should be return air ducts in place instead.
- The bedroom in a basement apartment must have at least two means of an egress-a window and a door.
- In order for a room in a bedroom to be legally listed as a bedroom, it should be at least 70 to 80 square feet in size.
- A basement apartment should include well-maintained smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
- There should be heating and cooling mechanisms in a basement apartment to regulate indoor temperatures.
- For a basement apartment that is located under a two-family home, a certificate of occupancy that indicates it is a multiple dwelling is a requirement in order for them to be rented.
2. Issues you may encounter living in a basement apartment
Living in a basement apartment could potentially expose you to certain health risks. Here are some of the things to look out for:
- Dampness – Due to their location below the street level, basement apartments tend to retain moisture that leads to dampness. This results in the appearance of hideous patches on the walls and ceiling as which negatively impacts the aesthetics of the apartment. Dampness also leads to the development of mold which can pose serious health risks to the occupant as well as the buildup of unpleasant odors in the apartment.
- Lack of sunlight – Basement apartments typically have small windows which are great for privacy but inadequate in allowing natural light into the apartment. The lack of sunlight may have a negative impact on your mood and potentially affect your mental health in the long run. A dark apartment also encourages the development of mold which is detrimental to your health as well.
- Mold and radon – Airborne spores can lead to the development of mold in damp areas that lack adequate ventilation such as basement apartments. Molds produce mycotoxins that could potentially cause allergic reactions such as itchy eyes, a chronic cough, migraines, rashes, difficulty in breathing and nasal blockage. Prolonged exposure to mold is particularly harmful, causing respiratory problems.
Radon is a radioactive noble gas that has been proven to increase the risk of lung cancer. Living in a basement apartment that is airtight or lacks sufficient ventilation increases the risk of exposure to radon.
- Prone to pest attacks – Basement apartments are vulnerable to pest attacks due to their location below the ground where most of these creatures thrive. Rodents and insects such as cockroaches could easily contaminate the surfaces of your home and potentially cause a number of illnesses as a result.
- Security issues – Due to their location, basement apartments are easier to access than units on higher levels of the building. Unfortunately, this makes you the ideal target for burglars and thieves, consequently compromising your safety.
- Prone to flooding – Basement units are prone to flooding especially if you live in an area that is at risk of heavy rains and storms, or the lawn slants towards your apartment. In addition to being potentially life-threatening, flooding also causes great damage to your belongings.
- They tend to be cold during the winter – While a cool basement is a great relief during the summer months, it can be harsh during colder seasons. If there is no mechanism to warm up the apartment, this could potentially cause the occupant to exhibit signs of mild hypothermia.
- Lack of enforcement of fire code regulations – It is not uncommon for landlords to ignore fire code regulations when trying to rent out an apartment, including basement units. In case of a fire in the apartment, a tenant could be easily injured or even die.
3. How to navigate the less than ideal aspects of basement living
Here are some precautions you can take when living in a basement apartment.
- Ensure that the basement unit is up to code – If you are not too sure if the basement apartment you are about to move into is up to code, you can bring in your own inspector to assess the apartment before you move in.
- Test for mold and radon – If you suspect the basement apartment that you live in contains radon, you can confirm this by using a home testing kit. Check for mold in damp and dark areas such as the bathroom, cluttered storage areas, kitchens, and areas that are generally poorly ventilated around the apartment.
- Secure the apartment – To secure basement apartments from break-ins, ensure that the windows are secured and locked, and the doorway from the outside should also have a strong lock.
- Ensuring the apartment is flood-proof – A basement apartment that is flood-proof should have a tar sealant on the inside and outside of the foundation walls.
- Eliminating excess moisture – Dampness in a basement apartment greatly contributes to mold and unpleasant odors. To get rid of excess moisture in your home, invest in a dehumidifier. A well-functioning AC unit is also efficient in reducing moisture in the air. To get rid of spores that may lead to the development of mold, use a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter
- Keeping pests out of your apartment – You can deter pests by sealing up any visible cracks and entrances and getting rid of excess moisture in the apartment. If the problem persists, you may have to call in pest control.
4. What you can do if your basement apartment turns out to be completely unsafe
In some cases, your basement apartment may have serious maintenance issues that are beyond your control. Many landlords are usually willing to help, but how do you deal with a landlord who is reluctant to take action?
- Give your landlord a notice – The first thing you should do in such a situation is to give your landlord notice of the defect(s) in your apartment. More often than not, your lease will have specifications on how to give notice. In some states, there might also be some requirements regarding giving notice to your landlord. Ensure that you comply with these stipulations to avoid liability in the future.
- Withhold rent – Most states allow tenants to withhold monthly rent if a property manager/landlord is not willing to carry out his/her maintenance duties. However, to do this, the condition of your apartment needs to be sufficiently severe that it prevents you from comfortably live in the unit. Examples of such dire conditions include toxic mold, flooding, and fire hazards.
Before you take this option, make sure you thoroughly research the legal requirements of your state or check with an attorney that specializes in landlord-tenant law to avoid potential eviction.
- Report the poor conditions of the apartment to a local housing authority – Another viable option you can take if your landlord is hesitant to take care of significant issues in your basement apartment is informing a local housing authority of the conditions. These agencies can impose fines or take appropriate legal action against your landlord. However, in some states, local house authorities may also condemn the residence, which may live you homeless. Before you take this course of action, consult with an attorney so as to be informed of the possible outcomes.
- Suing your landlord – Suing your landlord for negligence is usually the last option. While it is usually easier to settle matters out of court, especially when you consider the expenses that usually come with instigating a lawsuit, this may be the only option in some cases. If your situation is extremely dire and you simply can’t resolve the matter with your landlord, find an attorney that specializes in landlord-tenant disputes.
Living in a basement apartment has many perks: they are significantly cheaper than above ground apartments, they are often more spacious, indoor temperatures are relatively cooler in the summer, they allow for direct access to outdoor spaces, and they offer privacy, among others. However, before you move into a basement unit, make sure that it complies with set rules and regulations for your own health and safety.