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What is a basement apartment?

Basement apartments are as Canadian as maple syrup and Sarah Harmer songs. If you’re from a sunny place, the thought of living underground might seem strange. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Basement apartments offer an affordable way to live in some of the city’s best neighbourhoods and may give you access to a garden or yard. Especially if you want to live alone, they are a great option to avoid over stretching your budget. And some of them are really nice!

Why do Canadian houses have basements?

Soil contains water and Canada is a country of temperature extremes. In the winter the ground freezes and expands; in the summer it thaws and contracts. The depth at which groundwater freezes is called the frost line.

The basement is the foundation of a house. If a building’s foundation moves up and down as the seasons change it will eventually crumble. To avoid movement, the foundation must be built below the frost line, which lies much deeper in colder climates than warmer climates. The frost line in Canada varies by latitude. For example, it is 6 feet in Ottawa and 4 feet in Toronto. As a result, most basements are dug deep enough to walk around in.

Canadian basements are ‘finished’ to different degrees and used for many different things. For example, they may serve as storage areas, kids’ playrooms, or exercise rooms. It’s also very common for home owners to create basement apartments for extra income.

If you’re thinking of living in a basement apartment, there are a few extra things to consider before you sign a lease. These include things like heating, moisture, flooring, neighbours, security and exits. If you live in a basement apartment it is also a very good idea to purchase tenant’s insurance. Flooding and burst pipes are a real risk in basement apartments. You’ll want to make sure your stuff is insured and you will have somewhere to stay in case the worst happens.

Heating

Because warm air rises, basements are typically cooler than the rest of the house. Make sure to ask the landlord if you have control of the temperature and how it’s heated. The most common heating systems are warm-air, hot water, and electric.

Warm-air systems circulate hot air from the furnace throughout the house via ducts usually found in the basement ceiling. Look for air vents along the floor and in the ceiling; those that carry air all the way down to the floor are the warmest, while those that blow down from above are less warm. Hot water systems carry water from the boiler to radiators or baseboards around the house. Hot water is warm but slow to react and very drying. Both systems may be powered either by electricity, natural or propane gas, or oil.

Moisture & mold

Basement apartments are never as dry as those above ground. Concrete is porous and ground water has a way of seeping in. Plumbing leaks and poor ventilation can also cause problems. Look around to see if the current tenant is using a dehumidifier. Indoor humidity levels should ideally stay between 30 – 50%.

Smell the apartment when you first walk in. If it smells musty, consider it a red flag. Mold is terrible for your health. Check to make sure there are exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens, and ensure the clothes dryer is exhausting moisture to the outside. Ceiling fans move air around the apartment, but they do not get rid of moisture.

Flooring

Basement floors are made of concrete and concrete is cold (unless it’s heated – see above). Ideally, the floor of a finished basement is raised an inch or two above the concrete to provide a layer of insulation. Because most concrete floors slope to a drain, you might be able to spot a raised floor as it will be perfectly level and doesn’t feel as hard. It may be covered with laminate, carpet or tile. Laminate flooring that is separated from the concrete by a thin foam underlay, carpet that has been glued to concrete, or tiles that appear to have been laid directly over top of concrete are less ideal. Hardwood is an unusual choice for a basement and should be avoided as it is porous and collects moisture.

Upstairs neighbours

Some basements are sound proof as a bunker, others more like broom closets. It is always worth asking about who will be living above you. You will almost definitely hear them moving around.

If your landlord lives upstairs, try to get a sense of how long they’ve been renting the place out and their experience with tenants. They may be new to this and unprepared for the work it takes to be a good landlord. It doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, but it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into. If one or both of you have children or dogs this could be particularly important to consider.

Security

Basement doors and windows can be easy entry points for intruders. Solid hardwood doors with deadbolts are your best bet for secure doors. Bars made of iron or steel offer good protection for windows. They should be installed so they can be easily released from the inside in case of emergency. If there are no bars, ask what kind of glass the windows are made of. Ideally (but unlikely) they will be shatter-resistant and designed to hold together when broken. Small panes held in place by the trim are more easily popped out than big pieces that extend to the frame. Be mindful of windows concealed by bushes and doors that are poorly lit or located around the back of the house.

Emergency exits

Due to fire code regulations, basement apartments are required to have an emergency exit such as a second door or a window big enough to crawl through. In the unlikely event of an emergency these might come in handy. More importantly, their absence is a warning sign of the landlord’s legitimacy.