The rich have deep pockets, and even deeper basements

In London, luxurious—and multilevel—basements have become a way that the wealthy can add more space to their homes in posh urban neighborhoods, when restrictions prohibit them from adding floors to the top of the buildings.

Building these “iceberg homes” (named because only the tip of the much larger home is visible from the street) has often angered neighbors, as the process to dig down can be both messy and noisy—and can take a long time. But they can be very cool looking.

Don’t salivate too much over them, though—you’re not likely to find multilevel basements in the U.S., those in the real-estate industry say. Even in London, they’re becoming relics; recently, creation of these multistory basements was outlawed in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and other areas may follow, according to media reports. There are also restrictions on how far they can stretch under a garden.

An underground staircase in a luxury London home.

London Basement

That isn’t to say wealthy Americans don’t use their smaller, one-floor basements to their fullest. The spaces can be used for fancy wine cellars and cigar rooms, swimming pools and even basketball courts. But when homeowners want more living space than that, they have to find other means to gain the square footage they so crave.

Why U.S. basements aren’t as deep

For one, current safety standards in the U.S. won’t likely allow basements deeper than one floor.

The International Residential Code (used here) requires each basement level—even if there are several—to have at least one way of getting out, other than interior stairs, said Gary J. Ehrlich, senior program manager for construction, codes and standards at the National Association of Home Builders. “Typically this is either a window leading to a window well, or a separate set of exterior stairs leading up to grade. The window well or stair well must open onto a public way (e.g. sidewalk) or onto a yard or court that leads to a public way,” he wrote in an email.

A basement pool in a London home.

London Basement

But in the U.K., all that’s required is “a protected exit…capable of withstanding fire for 30 minutes,” said Stephen Merritt, managing director of London Basement, a contractor of subterranean living spaces, in an email. “This means that doors should have closers on them or alternatively the use of sprinklers/fire curtains can be used.” Closers make sure that when the door closes, the compartment is safe from fire. (With a single-level basement, escape ladders can be placed in light wells, Merritt added.)

The other issue: In U.S. cities where space is most at a premium, there are environmental reasons why you wouldn’t dig down for more space. In San Francisco, for example, the most expensive neighborhoods are on hills made of bedrock, said Patrick Carlisle, chief market analyst for Paragon Real Estate Group in San Francisco. In fact, one rarely finds basements of any kind in that area. You’d also hit bedrock under New York homes, said Paul Purcell, managing director at William Raveis New York City.

And in some of Chicago’s swankiest neighborhoods, a high water table would keep many people from digging deep—there’s just too much potential for water damage, said Chicago broker Jennifer Ames, with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. Even some one-level basements are being met with a critical eye in Chicago, Ames said. “People were extending their basements under their backyards to connect to their garages,” she said. But these basement add-ons could create draining issues, she said.

In the U.K., there are varying ground conditions, including clay, sand and gravel, Merritt said—and the engineering of each project takes into account the home’s soil conditions.

Even if someone were to try an iceberg house in the states, one crack in a neighbor’s wall or a noise complaint would be all it would take for lawsuits to start flying, Ehrlich said. Plus, “the International Building Code does have extensive requirements for protection of adjacent properties during construction,” he added.

How Americans add on to homes

Of course people in the U.S. extend their properties in other ways—if they have the means. In Chicago’s expensive neighborhoods, it isn’t uncommon for people to buy homes on two consecutive lots—or more—and knock them down to build a new home, Ames said. “The more width you have, the less you need to go down,” she said.

In Washington, D.C., the trend is to build up when space is scarce, adding floors to the top of row houses, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services for the NAHB. The city is looking at ways to make sure that these homes, referred to as “pop-ups” (or “middle fingers” to those who are critical of the way it changes the character of a block), can be done in a way that maintains the character of the neighborhood, according to a Washington Post article this summer.

Getting natural light into a basement space is an architectural challenge.

London Basement

In New York, where people value natural light above most things—and being on a high floor with a great view can be paramount to homeowners—buying the apartment next door to you is often the preferable way to expand your living space, Purcell said. You might see this happen in San Francisco as well, especially among older buyers, Carlisle said.

But in San Francisco, the “megawealthy are more likely to buy an estate, ranch or vineyard in Napa or Sonoma as a second home—[with] high prestige, within easy driving distance to the city…than try to go down two or three more levels underground,” Carlisle wrote in an email. Younger high-tech billionaires in their 20s and 30s, many of them raised in middle-class backgrounds, are more likely to have urban homes that are not nearly as ostentatious. “They want to walk to the coffee shops in Cole Valley in their jeans,” he said.

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