Ellen has been an online writer for over twelve years. Her articles focus on everything from gardening to engineering.
Elevation Map of Texas
Why Aren't There Basements in Texas Homes?
My mother is a Texan, and I remember sheltering in an inner hallway of my grandparents' house while tornado sirens went off. It was pretty clear to me at the time that we were not safe if the house took a direct hit: the walls were too flimsy, and the easy-peel roof was right over our heads.
I have always wondered why homes in Texas don't have basements as emergency protection against tornadoes. Tornadoes churn across the surface and move quickly; they skip over ditches and holes.
After the April 2012 spate of tornadoes that hit Dallas suburbs—and the Dallas airport while my uncle was in it—I once again started wondering. Basements are the best way to shelter from tornadoes, and yet many parts of Tornado Alley don't have them.
I'm not an architect or a home builder, but I'm a compulsive researcher. So I've been scouring for trustworthy answers from actual builders and architects. I hope the answers I've found here are right, but since I'm not an expert, I'd welcome any real homebuilders from Texas double-checking me and leaving a note in the guestbook below.
1. The Frost Line
In the north, housing regulations require home foundations to be dug below the frost line, which may be 5 to 6 feet down. Builders must sink the pipes that far down so they won't freeze and break. At that point, one might as well build a basement. In the south, the frost line tends to be less than a foot, so digging down is an unnecessary expense.
2. Expansive Clay Soils of Texas Shrink and Swell
Texas was formerly under the Gulf of Mexico, and a lot of the eastern half of the state has what are called "expansive soils," a kind of clay that heaves and flexes and plays havoc even when houses are placed on slab foundations. These clays expand up to 30% when wet, and dry quickly. Texas homeowners are known to water their lawns on hot, dry days to try to prevent their foundations from cracking. The pressure exerted by these swelling soils can exert up to 15,000 pounds of pressure per square foot! (Source: "Soil Issues and Residential Construction in Texas" from this site.)
That makes it very difficult and expensive to engineer basements for Texas houses.
3. High Water Table in Eastern Half of State
Historically, the water table in half of Texas has been very close to the surface, because the state is not that high above sea level. In Houston, for example, you can strike water just ten feet down in many areas. Basements too near the water table are often flooded. Recent droughts have pushed the water table lower, but homebuilding construction has to account for ordinary and wet years, not just drought.
4. Limestone Bedrock Is Difficult to Dig
This may be an excuse rather than a valid reason, but there are widespread complaints about the limestone (old seabed) in central and western parts of the state making it hard to dig, even to plant trees in the back yard. Limestone is the same kind of rock that forms the Alps! In many parts of Texas, there's only a thin layer of dirt above limestone.
Limestone is softer than many kinds of rock, but it's still rock. So it costs more to excavate a basement in limestone than ordinary soil. It can be done, and some new upscale homes in the Austin area do have basements, but I suspect they're out of the price range of most Texans.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Cap on May 02, 2020:
Thank you Dum Bass for showing the ignorance of this country. Texas isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Clearly you don’t live here and we are glad someone like you doesn’t because your gene pool is probably atrocious. Too bad there are original Texans all over the country spreading some actual brain power In the gene pool.
Fredrick on March 16, 2020:
I grew up in Galveston. Lots and lots of old houses there have partial basements with some unfinished crawlspaces. It's one of the only places in the state where it virtually never freezes AND it's at, near, or below sea level. Go figure
Dum Bass on January 12, 2020:
Texas: most Tornados in the country, least amount of basement shelter, most amount of lousy excuses
The real reason is: the level of intelligence in the state is not that high. Take a look at how the religious right tries to remove science and history from classrooms if you want an example. I hope this state gets wiped off the map and all of the ignorant christians with it. Keep building slab houses Texas! We don't need any more of your children in the gene pool!
Roy. Texan Born on August 06, 2019:
Now that I have read all of the fine opinions I would like to add one that I am sure has been debunked by someone; however, I have seen it happen on more than one occasion. It is how most of us in San Antonio learned that a resident in a neighborhood had a basement.
They tend to explode. Not all of them, but enough to cause the tornadoes to seem less of a danger.
Texas has a lot of natural gas. It is not all collected in the oil and gas fields across the state. In its natural state it is colorless, odorless and still quite volatile. It is also heavier than air, so it tends to collect in the lower portions of a basement and waits to accumulate enough volume to meet the first careless smoker or spark producer that enters the area of flammability. The result is a crater where the house use to be and, from experience only, the household will be distributed over a half-area around the former home.
There are some basements in the state, older homes built in the early parts of the 20th century would have root cellars, smoking indoors was not as prevalent at the time and the proliferation of electric motors not as common.
McDonalds does not seem to be able to build a store without a basement so they invest in wall with very low porosity, maintain water levels and exhaust fans to facilitate the evacuation of the gases.
And I am sure that there are more in some areas that have low levels of natural gas.
About the water levels, stone and clay. They may or may not have had an effect on peoples decision to build a basement, just like my "theory" on natural gas; but I have seen the craters (3) in my lifetime. I always wanted a basement for building trains, and decided to change hobbies.
Kura in IA on December 17, 2018:
I have a pet frog who likes pineapple. He eats it so much but is always so hungry! What do I do?!?!?! Help!
John in North Texas on August 25, 2017:
A simple reason. People buy "square footage". It's cheaper to build up than down.
Tom in Houston on May 22, 2017:
I've always wondered; if you can have a in-ground pool, why can't you have a basement?
annemarie strunge on May 20, 2016:
Here are the problems with the reasons above.
Parts of the state are actually mountainous or certainly WELL above sea level (*San Angelo is 1800 feet above sea level)
2. Limestone is hard ... so is granite, but every home in Minnesota has a basement.
3. clay soil exists in lots of places with basements, easily dealt with by constructing a french drain and good thick walls.
Tom on March 31, 2016:
I’ve reviewed this post and feel compelled to add 40+ years of experience and facts in response to it. The author offers up 4 reasons for a lack of basements in Texas – let’s review:
Rock – false. Rock’s presence has only affected cost twice out of hundreds of basements done to date. Rock exist on a site to site basic and therefore is not a general reason for lack of basements in Texas.
Water table – false. Once again ground water is a site by site issue if at all. We’ve seen 2.5 gallons per minute of water coming into an excavation. That project has been dry for years due to proper drainage and management.
Soil movement & frost line – false. Soil movement is a result of moisture changes in the dirt. Freeze is only one – rain, wind, and sun cause moisture changes also. Up north they acknowledge the potential and know how deep to put a foundation to eliminate damage. The Texas soil moves due to summer drought shrinking the ground and the winter rains expanding the soil. So, the issue in Texas is that it’s not understood. Texas drought will cause foundation damage down to between 30” and 36”. The typical Texas “foundation,” which is a shallow slab, usually only penetrates the dirt less than 16” resulting in potential damage. Therefore, I label soil movement in Texas a “3’ drought line.”
If Texas would identify and acknowledge the 3’ drought line and built deeper foundations on footers the foundation failure rate in Texas would dissipate in new home construction immediately.
Founder, President of North Texas Basements, Inc
Ruby from United States on March 28, 2016:
because there are no stoners in texas! lol interesting read.
mike carlson on March 27, 2016:
I know of a house in western Travis county that they wanted a basketball court underneath the house. It cost's 200k to did that hole. Blue rock all the way, that had to be chipped a couple of feet down at a time. This is just west of Austin.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on December 29, 2015:
Moonlake, I'm trying to remember where Manila is. Siloam Springs is in the NW, which is known to be an area of few or no basements.
Darla Sue Dollman from Greeley, Colorado on December 29, 2015:
Ten years ago my husband and I moved to the Texas Hill Country searching for a home. Naturally, I wanted a house that had a basement for protection from tornadoes, but I quickly learned that the flash floods were a greater concern. We lived near Marble Falls and Granite Shoals and after trying desperately to plant trees on our five acres it didn't take long to figure out why the house did not have a basement! Thanks for the article!
moonlake from America on December 28, 2015:
MizBejabbers, I was born in Manila Arkansas no basements there. My sisters live in Siloam Springs. My sisters and other friends there don't have basements, but maybe there are basements around.
Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on December 28, 2015:
I found this article interesting, especially in light of the fact that large swaths of Garland and Rowlett in north central Texas were flattened by massive tornadoes at speeds up to 200mph just a few days ago. Sadly, at least eleven people died in those tornadoes.
I lived in the Dallas area for eight years, but now live in Mississippi, which also experiences a high level of tornadic activity. Some of the same issues are in play here; for example, the shallow frost line and (perhaps more important) shifting clay in the soil make basements almost non-existent here--especially in older homes.
Fortunately, the tornado that hit my property a few years after I moved into this house wasn't as destructive as those that hit Texas last week, but the sound of the tornado sirens still makes me tense. I've either been in or very near too many tornadoes during my lifetime not to be afraid of them. I've also seen firsthand what the worst ones can do.
Thanks for an excellent article. HP no longer lets us vote on hubs, but I'll say "thumbs up" anyway. A lot of people who live in other parts of the country probably wonder why we don't have basements when there are so many tornadoes. You provided the answers.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on December 28, 2015:
Moonlake, Where did you live in Arkansas? I've been told that basements were almost nonexistent in Northwest Arkansas, but we had them in the Ozarks and they are very popular in the Little Rock area dating back to the late 1800s. In the hilly areas, the walkout basement is very common. Several of my neighbors have walkouts. Somehow I don't see basements in the Eastern Arkansas Delta either. That's why I'm asking.
moonlake from America on December 28, 2015:
We lived in El Paso, Texas when I was a teen and had one of the only houses with a basement at the time. It did flood one time but Dad got it fixed and there was never another problem with it.
Arkansas doesn't have basements. We ran for outside storm shelter when storms came in.
DougGraff on November 30, 2014:
I think most of these reasons can be accommodated using modern house-building know-how. In areas outside the flood plane, 1-2 feet of sand topped with loose garden rock (cosmetic) between the outer basement wall and clay/soil should keep the swelling from having too much impact on the basement walls. I've often wondered if Kevlar fabric could also be used to line outer foundation walls for both reinforcement for ants and water in case of cracked walls? I'd like to build a home with a basement in the Dallas area or slightly north of there. I'd definitely be looking into creating a basement for a long list of reasons. Hot summers in a cooler area of the house, tornado safety and sound proofing (musician) are just a few reasons.
Blackspaniel1 on October 14, 2014:
In Louisiana we also do not have basements, our water table is very high. You can dig a hole two feet deep and it just might fill with water overnight.
Lynn Nodima from United States on August 18, 2014:
As someone who has tried to plant trees in central Texas, I can attest to the fact that there is much more rock than soil. To have a basement, you have to use dynamite to get the rock out. Very expensive.
Jayme Kinsey from Oklahoma on October 28, 2013:
These and other issues are definitely part of the reason that certain areas of Oklahoma don't have basements. My mother's house has a concrete storm cellar and droughts and earthquakes have rendered it useless. I know a lot of people with similar damage to basements. Including the house of the local guy who builds basements!
We signed up for a raffle here a few months ago to win a storm cellar. They said we couldn't win it unless we had a house, garage or shed with a concrete slab. Then they said that it wouldn't matter because we are in a flood zone, so they wouldn't install it anyway!
Good info here. I know they are working all the time to improve materials so that basements and cellars don't have structural issues. Let's hope they make it affordable for everyone too!
Ellen (author) from California on June 12, 2013:
I'm afraid this is all that I've learned about the subject, Texas Mommy! Besides, as my Tyler grandma reminded me often -- God rest her soul -- I'm a damyankee, born after my Mom emigrated from Texas. So take what I say with a grain of salt. ;)
txmommylady on May 27, 2013:
First of all, thank you for posting this question in your hub! I am a lifelong born and bred Texan (Fort Worth, now about an hour west). To https://hubpages.com/@wkingkick : I'm so glad you cleared up some information. I knew nowadays there were many more options in construction and materials, but didn't really know where to begin. We are going to build a home in the next couple of years and I THINK we are staying in central TX and we are set on wanting a basement, or maybe even a story below ground and one above. I remember in the house I was born in, in NW Fort Worth, there was an abandoned farmhouse I used to play in (we were in the country) that had an old storm/root cellar. It was probably from the 10's or 20's, and had a rounded cement and native-rock roof. It was still perfectly intact, not cracked, and located about a half mile from a creek. I had wondered even if you had the expanding soils, if you built a house on pier and beam, which we have, and put the concrete walls away from the soil so it isn't subjected to the contracting/expanding. I figured there are additives you can put in concrete to keep it from absorbing moisture and perhaps make it more pliable(?). As for the swimming pools, I figured that the water pressure from inside the pool helped stabilize the walls to keep it from cracking so soon, but then after 20 years or so may be subjected to cracking (again, ?). I only go by my neighbor who had rocky/caliche soil, and some other people I know. Anyway, I'm glad to know a source so when we are ready to build we can call you for more info :)
Willie E King Jr. from Fairview, Texas 75069 on April 09, 2013:
Great article but unfortunately today it is outdated.
I should have helped out last year with this posting but I could not find the time until now. Today these are the facts which are very difficult to find:
There are basements in Texas and only a handful of companies call themselves basement builders but we here. You hit a few items directly on the head but the majority of your information is a little outdated today. Builders want to avoid building basements because they don’t want to take on the responsibility of getting it right. Architects tend to send all the heavy lifting for a basement to a structural engineer which is why you don’t see many drawings by them.
You’re correct about the expansive clay soils shrink and swell potential in Texas but that does not automatically make engineering a basement expensive anymore. Today the majority of homes built in Texas are built as pier and beam. That was not the norm in Texas when the majority of homes were built. What surprises most people to hear is that a soil test was very rarely done so most homes were built as if they were all on stable soil. Today every basement builder that I know in Texas won’t consider building anything without a soil test and the same goes for using an engineer. The result is we can build a basement on clay soil with a variety of methods including simply extending the piers, which would be constructing anyway for many of today’s foundations. Choosing the most cost effective method will actually depend on the results of the soil test. One less expensive type is called a floating foundation.
You’re correct about the high water table in many areas of the state like Houston where you can actually hit water easily. Surprisingly the water table is not the primary reason those basement are leaking. You can find a number of basements in Galveston which are much closer to the ocean and the water table is much higher with no leaks. Today we have so many methods to keep a basement dry that your basement could literally sit in a swimming pool and the concrete would get even stronger.
You’re last point about Limestone was also correct. There are widespread complaints about it being hard to dig but only when you compare it to dirt or Texas sandy loom soil. It does make it difficult to plant trees and does cost more to excavate. Related to basements it may take an extra 2 to 3 days to dig a normal size basement which is not cost prohibitive. In some areas with clay an excavator will take the same amount of time to dig it out. Limestone maybe tough for trees but great for basements because a basement built on limestone doesn’t move, costs less to build and is easier to remove water from around it. There is a reason why upscale homes in Texas are building them like crazy. The best kept secret in Texas is that they can be built anywhere in the state and we have been doing so for a long time. Ask yourself one simple question: Why is it that you can have a pool anywhere in the state but not a basement? My family began building swimming pools in Texas over 50 years ago and the soil has never stopped us once. Food for thought…
I work for a basement company outside of Dallas who wrote the first book on how to build basements in Texas. Helping anyone who wants a basement is what we do. I would like to commend you on a great article because finding updated information about basements in Texas is not easy.
Marvin Parke from Jamaica on April 01, 2013:
This is true for a lot of the southern states. Thanks for doing the research and presenting this information.
Marie Alana from Ohio on February 27, 2013:
Wow! This is such an interesting topic. I love my basement! So, do a lot of the Texan houses have big attics instead? If not, do they have a separate room for storage?
Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on February 26, 2013:
Ellen, this is a good subject and question. My grandparents had a house in northern Louisiana and I used to wonder the same thing. And, especially as sweltering humid it would get, I would think the basement was cooler. Then, as I older, I figured it had to be due to the water table. Thanks for your hub.
Raymond on February 17, 2013:
Great article. Honest and insightful.
Carrie Lee Night from Northeast United States on September 10, 2012:
Interesting article, I too always wondered why there were no basements in Texas. Like you said in the North many people have basements, which is not always the greatest thing. You always have to worry about moisture problems and if you have a yard that slopes towards your house, all that water rushes towards the foundation, thus sometimes causing problems. Also there are problems with mold and mildew in the basement. However if there is a tornado, basements can be a life saver. Thank you so much again for this article.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on July 16, 2012:
Good facts and interesting discussion. I voted you up+.
I am from Arkansas, but I lived in New Mexico (2 yrs.) and Texas (6 yrs.). Our first home in Lubbock was a small older home with a basement that didn’t give us any problems, even during street flooding. We moved back to Lubbock several years later and had an apartment with a sunken bottom floor, about 4 feet deep, and so was the patio in the back. I always said that I would hide under our Danish modern sofa in the sunken living room if I knew a tornado was coming, but they usually came and went before I had the chance. We woke up one stormy night with six inches of water in the bottom floor, and it was a good thing that our furniture was mid-century modern on legs. The storm drain on the patio had stopped up and flooded the apartment. The carpet had to be replaced, though.
Here in Arkansas, our whole house is a basement because it is an underground house. It was a big mistake because this state is too wet for one like ours, but at least we are safe during storms.
Ellen (author) from California on July 12, 2012:
No, but I was stranded on the wrong side of one of California's biggest wildfires (Sawtooth) in 2006. Seeing the mountains burning from horizon to horizon, twinkling like embers from top to bottom, with occasional poofs of fire tornadoes marking where creosote bushes had exploded, and knowing that there's people's houses somewhere in that inferno... let's just say that wildfires scare me a lot more than earthquakes.
Milli Thornton on July 11, 2012:
"Eeee"? Have you lived in New Mexico by any chance?
Ellen (author) from California on July 11, 2012:
Eeee. Considering what was left of the Colorado Springs houses that got burned last week, I'd not take my chances in a basement. Every bit of them was burned up, including the floors, and all that burning material fell in the basement, leaving just a hole in the ground full of ash.
Then again, Aussies are tough -- some do that shelter-in-place thing for bush fires! You could probably make basements firesafe as well as anything, but I think it would take some extra engineering.
Kate Swanson from Sydney on July 11, 2012:
In most cyclone-prone areas of Australia, flooding rains are as much of a risk as cyclones - and I wouldn't be sheltering in a basement where there's a risk of flooding! We don't get tornadoes.
It's a good question why houses in bushfire-prone areas don't have basements, as that would be a sensible place to shelter. I suspect cost is a factor - excavating and making an underground room dampproof is expensive and would add substantially to the cost of a house.
Ellen (author) from California on July 11, 2012:
Now I'm curious why there aren't basements in Australia, although any of these three reasons could apply there too: clay soils, flooding issues, or does one hit rock that costs more to excavate?
Milli Thornton on July 11, 2012:
Fascinating. I admire the way you dug those facts up.
I grew up in Montana, where basements were standard. We moved to Australia when I was 12, where nobody I ever knew had a basement. Back in the States 25 years later, I lived in New Mexico, where basements are not common, and then Texas, and then Mississippi. In Mississippi we survived a tornado in our duplex where there was no basement. Now that we live in Ohio, I've come full circle from my childhood: back to having a basement. We went down there just last week in the middle of the night during a tornado warning.
tipstoretireearly from New York on May 13, 2012:
I've always wondered the same thing, especially since a small percentage of Texas houses have basements. Thanks for the explanation. The possibility of basement flooding in Texas sounds like a powerful reason to skip having one.
getwellsoon from US on April 06, 2012:
I often wonder why there are not more basements in certain parts of the US. In the west sometimes we have dry desert conditions fine for building basements but in the same state there are very wet ares that would be below the water table so building basements would be difficult.
PWalker281 on April 05, 2012:
Not that many tornadoes in Hawaii (although one touched down and caused damage on windward Oahu a couple of weeks ago), but your #1 and #3 are probably why there are no basements in Hawaii. I always wondered; now I know. Thanks for sharing this interesting info. Voted up.
Bible Studies from PA on April 05, 2012:
Thanks for the hub. I sometimes wondered about that myself. Now I know that sometimes it is near impossible to build a basement in Texas.
SilkThimble from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 04, 2012:
I think the water table issue is why you don't often find basements in parts of Florida, either, even though tornadoes often accompany hurricanes. Interesting topic!