All rules and codes related to basements are not the same everywhere in Texas

These are the articles written by a reporter named Ken Fountain with a local paper called the Examiner.

After reading these articles you will find that not only builders don’t want to build basements, but lawmakers in some cities would like to restrict building them as well.  The joke is the reasoning of why they think basements should be restricted or banned altogether.

The long-contentious issue of whether to allow basements in West University Place may have been buried Thursday, at least until City Council unearths it again.

After a protracted discussion and a few straw votes, members of the West University Place Zoning and Planning Commission and the Board of Building and Standards Commission, meeting in joint session, decided to recommend to City Council that the city not allow homeowners and builders to construct basements or other subterranean structures.

But that goes against the direction the council gave the commission members last summer, when the issue of homeowners building basements in the low-lying municipality became somewhat contentious. Currently, there’s no prohibition against basements in the city, but it became an issue about two to three years ago when the construction of some basements caused concerns with neighboring homeowners.

Last summer, the council asked the commissions to draft language that would prohibit the construction of basements with “special exceptions.”

The Building and Standards Commission held its own discussion of the topic in a meeting January 6. Then, the commission members decided to recommend language for the amendment of a city ordinance that would prohibit basements but allow special exceptions (that would require city approval) for spaces of 100to200 square feet to house mechanical equipment and not habitable space. The recommendation was that such structures not extend beyond the middle “footprint” of a house.

But there was also a recommendation that such spaces could be used as wine cellars, which was one of the sticking points during Thursday’s joint meeting between the bodies.

Planning and Zoning Commission member Bob Higley was adamant from the start that allowing basements in West University, much of which is below the 100-year floodplain, was “absurd.”

“I think basements ought to be prohibited, period,” he said, “no special exceptions.”

P&Z Commission member Bruce Frankel was more circumspect, saying that since council had directed the bodies to draft language allowing for special exceptions, they should do so but make sure to make those exceptions very narrow and not allow them to be used as “habitable space.”

But Higley was emphatic, saying it was not the job of the boards to recommend a bad idea to council, even if that’s what the members said they wanted..

“If they want to pass it, fine,” he said. “This sounds like passing on something that is literally absurd.”

Higley said West University was different from the city of Houston, which does not have zoning or rural areas in the region, in that it is “very restrictive” in its desire to protect the city’s character and property values, which he said would be damaged by allowing basements.

Steve Brown, chair of the ZPC agreed.

“West U is a lot like a big condominium since we live so close together,” said Brown, adding that his thinking was very close to Higley’s.

David Flame, a member of the B&S Commission, said he was already “on record” opposing basements, saying that engineers had told the city that if they were allowed, it wasn’t a question of whether they would fail but when.

But there was some disagreement. APC member Lauren Griffith said she had had a River Oaks home with a basement that never flooded (although she acknowledged that West University’s elevation is lower) and had lived in homes with basements in the northern United States.

Referring to the discussion about whether to allow basements to be used as habitable spaces, Griffith said, “I don’t think it’s our job to worry about whether people are using their basements right.”

Laurinda Lankford, a B&S Commission member, said she was against restricting the private property rights of homeowners. As long as the construction of a basement was done properly and didn’t impact neighboring homes, she said, “I don’t see what’s wrong.”

Brown, the P&S Commission chair, saying he wanted to “square the circle” between doing what the council had asked and heeding their own counsel, called for a series of straw votes of the two separate entities.

They first voted on whether to recommend prohibiting basements with special exceptions. The two bodies narrowly approved that idea. When he called for straw votes on prohibiting basements altogether, the support was stronger.

Finally, Higby made a motion to draft language prohibiting basements in the city, with no exceptions. The P&Z Commission approved the motion 5-1, with Frankel voting against. The B&S Commission voted 4-1 to approve, with Lankford dissenting.

Months later everything changed just as quickly as it did when the entire discussion started.  Note today’s changes from

these articles written by a reporter named Ken Fountain with a local paper called the Examiner in Texas.

All rules and codes related to basements are not the same everywhere in Texas.

West University Place Mayor Bob Kelly launched a sustained, eleventh-hour effort Monday to prevent the building of basements in the city. But in the end, his was the sole City Council vote against an ordinance which its chief proponent said was the most restrictive in the country allowing the subterranean structures.

At the meeting two weeks prior, the council voted 3-2 (with Kelly and Councilmember Steven Segal dissenting) to approve on first reading the ordinance that would allow basements to be built with several restrictions— principally that they be no more than 200 square feet and lie completely within the middle “footprint” of the house.

Then, Kelly, who had been adamantly against the idea of allowing basements in low-lying West University since the issue was raised more than two years ago, hinted there would be a fuller discussion of the issue when the ordinance came up for its second and final reading.

On Monday, Kelly made good on that prediction by extensively questioning several people —- including the chairs of the two city commissions who had voted overwhelmingly in January to recommend an outright ban on basements —- during the public comments portion of the meeting.

“The hallmark of this city is zoning,” which is essentially concerned with weighing individuals’ property rights against the community’s interests, Kelly said at the outset of the discussion.

Guided by the mayor’s questions, Bryant Slimp, chair of the Buildings and Standards Commission, and Steve Brown, chair of the Zoning and Planning Commission, discussed the history of their respective commissions’ grappling with the issue since it came to the fore when the collapse of a full-size basement being built under a house on Lake Street caused damage to a neighboring property.

Slimp and Brown both said their respective commissions had considered the issue extensively over a period of months, and after hearing from three engineers, in the end the majority of both bodies decided that allowing basements in West University was not a sound idea.

They said some of the concerns about basements included structural issues, the possibility of flooding or mold, and that such structures could lower property values. While the engineers had told the Building & Standards Commission that basements could be designed and built safely, they weren’t recommended for West University.

But Councilman George Boehme, who had pushed hardest for the ordinance, questioned whether the current membership of the Building & Standards Commission had even directly heard from the engineering experts cited.

Kelly later called on Les Albins, a mechanical engineer and homebuilder who has previously served on both the commissions. Drawing a diagram, Albins — who said he had built basements in two homes in Houston that later failed — explained why he believed building basements in the clay underneath West University was inherently dangerous. Primarily, he said, the drainage required would pose a risk to the very part of the clay where the house’s foundation was set.

But Councilman Chuck Guffey, who was second only to Boehme in his support of the ordinance, grilled Albins on why a builder couldn’t simply build “a concrete box” as a basement and drop it into the ground.

“I think you’re mistaken. I think you’re very mistaken,” Albins said. In the Houston area, the number of contractors with the expertise to do the job right is very limited, he said.

“You can design it, and you can build it. But the chances of there being problems is very high,” he said.

Kelly next called John Brown, the city’s chief building official, who reiterated his comments from previous discussions that while his staff was not taking a position on basements one way or another, the ordinance he drafted that would allow them complied with the standards of the International Building Code.

While the city’s staff could inspect and sign off on the construction of basements, there was no way that the city could guarantee builders’ and contractors’ workmanship, Brown said.

As the matter turned toward a vote, Kelly again referred to the two city commissions, which he called “our experts” on the matter. “Why do we want to go against our experts?” he asked.

But Boehme, who repeated that he himself didn’t believe building a basement in West University was a good idea, restated his position that the city shouldn’t make that choice for property owners.

Boehme said he’d researched cities across the nation — including coastal cities in Texas, Maine, South Carolina and California — and couldn’t find one example of a city that banned basements outright. Even New Orleans allows full basements, he said.

Boehme said the proposed ordinance was a fitting response to a problem that had arisen, and as written was the “most restrictive” one in the country.

Quoting an old friend, Boehme said “Public policy is several days late, and when it shows up, it overreaches.”

Boehme made a motion to accept the ordinance, seconded by Guffey. Kelly offered an amendment that would have changed the language to prohibit basements altogether, but that failed for lack of a second.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Fry, who is running against Segal to replace the outgoing Kelly as mayor, said that he appreciated the advice of the two commissions, but he felt that banning basements “is a step too far.” If the city staff said basements could be safely built, he was prepared to vote for the ordinance.

Segal, who had supported Kelly’s position in previous votes, said he’d wanted to be sure that sufficient rules were in place before allowing basements. He said he was now satisfied that those rules were in place.

When the question was called, the council voted 4-1 to adopt the ordinance. Kelly, without comment, moved on to other business.

The purpose of republishing these articles is to show that if you’re intending on building a basement in a southern state,it would be wise to check with your building department first.  Though the rules may be widely known it might be possible that the town may have restrictions on how a basement has to built in that local area.

If we build a basement with our new home, do we really need a sump pump?

No, the large majority of basements built in Texas were built without any kind of sump pump system. Some of them were built without waterproofing on the basement walls, and many of them don’t have any drains around the home’s exterior walls. Though you don’t really need a sump pump it is much better to have one. Consider they only cost a few hundred dollars to install, and they require nearly no maintenance. The problem is if you need one and it has to be installed later, it could cost you up to $6,000 in many places. Adding waterproofing later could cost you nearly $20,000 later so do you really need it? I guess the real question is: Do you feel lucky?

When banks calculate a basement in your home, is the basement included in their assessment?

It oftentimes depend on the bank and where you live. If the basement if finished out, most banks will include the square footage in their calculations.  If the basement is not finished, they treat the entire area like they would your garage. Beware of places like Texas because most bankers don’t have a clue of how to include it. I have heard cases  in which the basement finished was only half calculated, and a few times it was not calculated at all as part of its square footage.

The rule in places like Texas and Oklahoma is, expect them to have no rule that they follow. I think this is great because you can shop for the bank that does what you want.  You want it calculated so tell them you’re looking for a bank that calculates the basement into the square footage. On the other hand, if you want to keep the fact that your basement is living space hidden from the tax man, then look for a basement that does not calculate it as living space.

Who do we call if we think we have water in our basement?

If you live in the south you won’t have many companies to call to find the problem. The Basement Kings is the only company that serves all of Texas.  Another company called Basement Systems serves the largest cities in Texas, but very few towns if at all.  If you know exactly where the leak is coming from, a few waterproofing companies will try to fix your problem.

Is it possible to keep an old basement from leaking?

Definitely! The best time to consider a keeping a basement from leaking is before it starts leaking. Have a basement assessment done and it will save you a world of headaches and buckets of money. What it does is outline the areas where it will leak first and strengthen them for pennies on the dollar. They also check out your slope, check for clogged drains, and make sure your waterproofing is still doing its job. If you’re noticing all the areas around your basement always staying wet, call for an assessment.  If your basement starts having a wet smell that you never noticed before, then you may have a problem.

How long does it take to build a basement for a newly constructed home?

As a rule it is wise to plan sixty to ninety days from start to finish, which is why builders are not really a fan when it comes to building it in the first place if you live in the south. In many cases you may find that the basement was built in a little over thirty days, but I wouldn’t count on it. The basement portion of the project is not the place to rush, cut corners, or use un-tested methods so you can quickly stamp it done. The demand for skilled basement builders in the south is high, so consider building it during the winter and you might get it built faster and cheaper.  In the winter contractors and skilled labor are easier to find and rates are at their lowest.