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Why We Don't Like Our Underground House

MizBejabbers is a writer who has lived in this underground house since 1994. She writes from experience, not advertising hype.

The front entrance to our underground home—an atrium that is accessible by a double staircase, one of stone and the other of wood.

The front entrance to our underground home—an atrium that is accessible by a double staircase, one of stone and the other of wood.

Our Experience in an Earth-Sheltered Dome Home

Eighteen years ago, we moved into an earth-sheltered dome home built into a hillside. We were so excited! It was really lovely inside, and surprisingly well-illuminated with natural light. Our house has approximately 2,500 square feet, including three bedrooms, two baths, and an oversized garage. The rooms are large and spacious, with 14-foot domed ceilings.

The domes and floor of our underground house are built from poured concrete reinforced with rebar. Out front, an atrium can be accessed by a staircase that is just the width of the driveway from the street. Large windows on the east side of bedrooms front the atrium and let in more daylight than a typical traditional home built during that time period. The garage is on the opposite side of the atrium.

Out back is a 14’ X 14’ greenhouse and decks on three levels with a south view of the Arkansas River and a line-of-sight view of the Arkansas State Capitol on the hill across the river. The large south-facing windows and patio doors of the great room lead out to the greenhouse and two of the decks. A half-domed third bedroom has a window wall that shares the same views. The third deck can be accessed from the rooftop and was built on top of the greenhouse.

We were in Hog Heaven—literally. After all, this is the Razorbacks’ home state.

Our beautiful view.

Our beautiful view.

Pros and Cons of an Underground House

These are based on our experiences living in the side of a hill. Before you buy an underground home, do your research and perform a thorough inspection. Trust me.

ProsCons

Protection from tornados

Leaks

Lots of natural light

Floods easily

Great views

Limited landscaping

No noise from the street or neighbors

Cracks during earthquakes

Pets seem to love it

Difficult and expensive repairs

Being closer to nature

Mold

 

Depreciating home value

 

Pest problems

 

People will invade your privacy.

Why We Don't Like Our Underground House

Unfortunately, our enthusiasm didn't last more than a couple of years. Our dream home was less than perfect and certainly didn't live up to the hype from the advertising brochures.

Bear in mind that this house is in the price range of typical underground homes. It is not a staged million-dollar display home that you might see in many brochures and websites. Our underground house cost close to $150,000 to build and finish back in 1986, which is above the median price of a conventional home in our state in the 1980s.

This is our true story. I don't want to imply that all underground houses are like ours. I truly hope that they are not. Did we get a lemon? If so, we have not been able to make lemonade.

Problems We've Encountered

  1. Leaks
  2. Floods during heavy rains
  3. Limited landscaping
  4. Cracks during earthquakes
  5. Difficult and expensive repairs
  6. Constant mold
  7. Depreciating value
  8. Pests
  9. People invading our privacy

1. It Leaks!

I think the design of the house is part of the problem. The dome construction on a hillside may make the house more vulnerable. The problem began in what appears to be a bad mix of concrete on the west side of the dome that serves as our great room.

A year and a half after our purchase—and wouldn’t you know it, during the Christmas holidays—a small, wet spot appeared in the ceiling over the couch. Then another spot appeared, then another. We called the manufacturer, Terra Dome, and were told that our house was built by a franchise in Oklahoma that went out of business. Just our luck! The only remaining franchise was in Missouri, and it assumed no responsibility for damages to our house.

They did “feel sorry for us,” and said they would send materials so that we could repair the leak ourselves. They shipped us a box of bentonite clay, the primary ingredient in conventional cat litter. We were naïve enough to dig up part of the house, install the glorified cat litter, and replace the dirt (see photo). Most people know what liquid-soaked cat litter is like, and we learned that it certainly is not advisable to put it on a roof in a wet climate.

After the cat litter experience, we called probably every concrete repair company in the yellow pages, but none were willing to look at it. We gave up and tried to fix it ourselves by ejecting costly liquid epoxy into the holes and cracks from inside the house. That was a laughable experience. Our attempts merely rerouted the water farther along the dome and into the adjacent half dome, which covered the master bedroom and walk-in closet.

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Trying to find the source of one leak.

Trying to find the source of one leak.

We probably have the only house in Arkansas with stalactites on the ceiling. Honestly. Red earth from the top of our house runs down the ceiling and living room wall. I’ve joked about building a waterfall in the living room to divert the water.

Despite all repairs, the leaks continued to spread. While making the repairs, we discovered that the house had experienced leaks even before we bought it. The previous owner had jack-legged the repairs and smoothed them over just long enough to unload the house on naïve buyers like us.

We consulted an attorney, but he said the discovery came too late to hold the previous owner or the realtor (who lived next door and must have known about the leaks) responsible or charge them with fraud. (By the way, the realtor probably couldn't have cared less about a fraudulent sale charge because he moved to Mexico immediately thereafter and died a year later.)

Would insurance fix it? Not with all the pre-existing problems that were hidden from us. The specifications for the house state that the skin is a “tar modified polyurethane elastomer that is applied as a liquid and forms a bonded synthetic rubber membrane… [that] will permit the membrane to span ordinary shrinkage cracks up to 1/16 inch.”

We found it to be as effective as the Bentonite clay. An ordinary house settles more than 1/16 inch in its lifetime, which renders a glorified tar roof basically useless. These same specifications come with a disclaimer at the end. In our case, it appears that the subcontractor would have been the one legally liable. Doesn't give an owner much confidence, does it?

We installed bentonite clay to prevent leaks from the corner above the atrium.

We installed bentonite clay to prevent leaks from the corner above the atrium.

In 2010, I found a roofer who made an estimate of $100,000 to repair the roof, but he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to tackle the job. We told him that we owned a backhoe and would remove the layers of dirt and insulation ourselves. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly only two weeks after making the estimate.

Around the same time, cracks began appearing in the floors, which are now spreading to the walls and ceilings. It would cost our retirement savings to make the necessary repairs, and at this point, I’m not sure it is even repairable. We owe much less on it than the cost of repairs, so we are talking about paying it off and walking out.

Front steps leading to another staircase off the landing.

Front steps leading to another staircase off the landing.

2. It Floods!

Location makes all the difference. I do not advise building on a hillside, but if you do, make sure that you have an oversized drainage system. Water can’t flow underneath our concrete slab like it can with a house built on a foundation, and the french drains in the atrium cannot handle a deluge.

One particularly stormy night, a torrent poured into the front atrium from the street above the house and flooded the great room. We finally gave up mopping and just opened the doors. We swept water out the back doors as a river poured through the front door. Luckily, the carpet had been removed years ago.

It wasn’t any consolation to hear one of our neighbors say that the bottom floor of their two-story house flooded, and they were forced to live upstairs for a couple of months until repairs were made to their house. We don't have an upstairs to move into. Who would have thought to buy flood insurance for a house high up on a hillside?

Spider lilies are the crowning glory of the entrance to our underground home.

Spider lilies are the crowning glory of the entrance to our underground home.

3. Limited Landscaping

The rooftop and front yard area were landscaped when we bought the house. We even installed a sprinkler system to keep the areas watered. However, when the leaks began, the sprinkler couldn’t be used. We removed trees and plants with deep roots and shut down the sprinkler system. The landscape is now plain and unattractive.

Most of the plants died, including three large shrubs, the roses, and the hardy hibiscus. We replaced the shrubs with a bulb bed. We removed two beautiful pine trees, a golden chain tree, two crape myrtles, and a large Russian olive bush because we feared the root systems would grow into the roof and cause more problems. We would not recommend that you follow the latest trend and plant a rooftop garden in sod—ever!

4. Cracks During Earthquakes

The house was advertised as “earthquake-proof” but inside, we feel tremors that don't register locally on the Richter scale. The house was old enough to be settled when we bought it, so we suspect mini-tremors may be cracking it apart. In the meantime we keep our fingers crossed for an earthquake large enough to register to occur so we can prove it is causing the cracking. I know I shouldn’t joke about earthquakes, but that the insurance would pay for.

My husband building the third deck with hot tub.

My husband building the third deck with hot tub.

5. Limited Access for Repairs

The ductwork is made from ordinary materials that don’t hold up underground. The duct boots have rusted through and need replacing. We are not sure if we are even able to access the ductwork to attach the new boots. The plenum of galvanized steel rusted through after 12 years and collapsed into the hole, taking the central HVAC unit with it.

We replaced the plenum with one built with ¼ in. stainless steel. Since no sheet metal shop in the area would build a stainless steel plenum, we fashioned and built it ourselves. Then, we installed a larger central AC and blower, completely forgoing the central heating unit. Fortunately, my husband’s repertoire of skills allowed him to handle the installation, so it cost us less than $2,000 total.