Why Don't California Homes Have Basements?

Nick Durante
by Nick Durante
California homes don’t tend to have basements, but have you ever stopped to think about why that is the case? Generally, homes built after World War II (WWII) tend to omit those from home design. Follow along as we explore why basements in California have become somewhat of a thing of the past.

Hopeful homeowners looking to buy in California may have wondered; where are all of the basements? At first glance, none of the houses on the market may come with a basement. Homeowners seek ought basements often, so why doesn’t California have basements?

California does have basements, but they were uncommon for 4-6 decades of construction. Old homes in California built post-WWII generally don’t have basements. However, during the 1980s, small basements known as “California basements” became common.

Today, bigger basements are making a slow comeback in California, but at a high price. Follow along as we dive into all that there is to know about basements in California.

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Why Isn’t There Basements In California?

Basements are rare in California because of the way that houses were developed in the aftermath of World War II. There was a massive housing boom in California at that time that lead to the fast development of homes. This fast development often excluded basements to speed up the construction process and maximize output.

There are basements in California, they are just uncommon, especially in older houses throughout the state. California homes are known for “California basements” which are small basements only big enough for a water heater and electrical wiring. Another key reason why basements are uncommon is that earthquakes are quite common in California and other western states.

Today, people know that basements are a safe method to get out of harm’s way in the event of an earthquake. Builders did not know that for several decades, so basements were omitted to reduce the chance of damage in earthquakes.

California Basements

The “California basement” is a term that applies to the small basements that this western state is known for. Granted, many homes in California do have large basements, but that wasn’t normal for decades of home construction. The most common type of basement in California for a long time was not necessarily intended for dwelling.

Instead, these basements were so small that they primarily served to house water heaters, circuit breakers, and HVAC systems. That is a practical use of space, but not appealing for homeowners looking for a fun basement to enjoy and take advantage of. Most basements in California were at half levels so you couldn’t even fit a window well or storm door.

The term “California basement” has mostly gone by the wayside as modern builder-owners go for bigger basements. If you buy a west coast home built between 1945 and 1980, it may not have a basement or simply a small one. Otherwise, many modern California homes come with nice basements perfect for dwelling or simply relaxing.

How Much Does It Cost To Build a Basement In California?

Depending on the materials, it can cost between $200 and $1,000 per square foot, or more, to build a basement in California. The total cost depends on several factors that make a huge difference in price, such as:

  • Choice of materials
  • Size of the basement
  • Professional labor rate
  • Layout and design

A traditional, small “California basement” is not going to break your bank, but a large basement can get pricey. Basements that are only suited for water heaters and electrical wiring don’t require fancy materials and finishes. Because of that, the infamous and tiny “California basement” is your cheapest option as a homeowner in California.

With that said, permit, labor, and construction costs are so high in California that a big basement can cost over $100,000 easily. Follow along and let’s look at some of the factors that determine the cost of your basement in California when all is said and done.


Nothing determines the cost of your basement in California more than size, and that should be your first consideration. A full basement is a basement that matches the size of the home above it. In other words, if your home is 1,000 square feet, a full basement would have a 1,000 square foot basement.

That would mean that you could pay as much as $200,000 for a full basement, if not more, in California. Smaller, unfinished basements would cost less, but even a 500 square foot basement in California could cost between $50,000 and $100,000. Housing and construction costs are higher in California than in most U.S. states, and that applies to basements.

Full basements aren’t the standard throughout the real estate, and especially not in California. Consider the cost of construction per square foot to consider how large you want your basement to be. Builder-owners in California face the steepest construction costs, so it’s important to get the most bang for your buck.


You can expect to pay up to $10,000 or more to lay a foundation for your basement in California. It can cost as little as $6,000, but larger basements can get up to $14,000 or more. A strong foundation is important in California due to environmental hazards, such as mudslides and earthquakes.

You can save money by choosing a foundation like a monolithic slab, and it can cost you $5,000-$12,000. However, it will cost you approximately $1,500-$4,000 more to add a bathroom over your concrete slab foundation. That seems exorbitant but remember that both basements and bathrooms add to the resale value for your home.

Foundation costs vary, but homeowners spend an average of $33 per square foot to have the foundation poured. This can be pricier in California depending on the type of foundation you want, and what the labor rate is.


You can’t build a home with a basement without excavating the land first. Excavation can be expensive if the soil is dry and tough, or if it is an extensive process. You can expect to spend between $15 and $30 per square foot to excavate land for a basement. Professionals run into trouble when it comes to steep land, poor soil, or tough weather conditions.

Each of these factors will determine how long it takes for the professional to excavate the land. Luckily, this process is generally quick and goes off without a hitch. Contractors include excavation in the bill usually, but it’s important to understand.

Finished vs. Unfinished

Do you want your basement to be a typical “California basement”, or do you want it to be another dwelling space? If you choose the latter, then you will want to get your basement finished to make it more welcoming. Otherwise, you can leave your basement unfinished if you’d prefer to use it to house your HVAC system and electrical wiring.

Finishing your basement can add another $20,000 or more to the bill depending on the materials you choose. That can dissuade many builder-owners from building a basement, but it’s worth the cost when it comes time to sell. You can return up to 80% or more of your investment when you sell a home with a basement in California.

Keep your basement unfinished if you’re not worried about adding value or creating a dwelling space. Otherwise, consider finishing your basement in California to make it more appealing to potential buyers when you sell it.

Related Questions

Why are there no brick houses in California?

There are brick houses in California, they just are not as common as homes made with siding or other prefabricated materials. California homes don’t need much insulation due to the intense heat at times, so brick houses are not sought after. Brick is not a great material for homes that experience extreme heat as it helps the house retain warmth.

Are basements safe during an earthquake?

Basements are generally no more or less safe in an earthquake than any other part of the house. The bigger factor is what kind of furniture and materials fill the room if and when an earthquake hits. Just like the other rooms, anything that isn’t weighed or nailed down runs the risk of falling and breaking.

Do basements count as square footage?

No basements do not contribute to the overall square footage of your home when it’s listed. Full basements are basements that match the square footage above, however. The inclusion of a full basement makes a home feel bigger, and thus more appealing to buyers.

What Did We Learn?

Homes in California do have basements, but they were quite uncommon for several decades starting in the 1940s. Builders rushed through development by eager developers that wanted to save time on construction. Later on, “California basements” were developed, and they are generally only big enough for a water heater and electrical wiring.

However, basements have become more and more common in California, but full, finished basements are still uncommon. Finished basements in California cost at least $20,000 more than unfinished basements, but they add value. It costs between $200 and $1,000 per square foot or more to build a basement in California.

Even though large basements aren’t too common in California, you’ll still find them.

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Nick Durante
Nick Durante

Nick Durante is a professional writer with a primary focus on home improvement. When he is not writing about home improvement or taking on projects around the house, he likes to read and create art. He is always looking towards the newest trends in home improvement.

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