Basement vs. Cellar: 11 Things (2024) You Must Know

So you’re looking to build a house and your plans include a large basement…or do they?

Perhaps you actually have a cellar?

So what’s the difference?

You should know because that underground space may not be legally habitable if you haven’t built it right.

Fortunately, in this blog, we have the top things you should know about the differences between basements and cellars.

1. What is a basement?

A basement is defined as a floor of a building that is partly below ground level.

2. What is a cellar?

A cellar is defined as a room or floor that is almost entirely underground.

It is typically used for storage.

3. How are cellars and basements different?

The terms cellar and basement are often used interchangeably.

That said, they are different in quite a few ways.

bulletLegal definition: Basements and cellars differ in their legal standings.

Per most building codes, basements can often be used as habitable spaces, while cellars cannot.

For this reason, they are valued differently.

Having clarity on what you have is essential because it helps you to know how you can legally use and advertise this space in the future.

This may come up during your home inspection as well.

bulletPurpose: A dry cellar has a variety of different purposes, like storing wine, canned food, or produce, or it can double as a shelter in severe weather.

Basements, on the other hand, are more often used as a storage space, craft area, or game room.

bulletHabitation: A basement can be safe to occupy if finished and generally has greater living potential as a space overall.

Cellars are uninhabitable as they are below grade level and thus do not have an easy means of escape in the event of a fire.

bulletSize: Cellars are typically much more confined spaces than basements.

Basements can be rather large, which makes them more comfortable as usable living space.

bulletHeight considerations: A cellar is constructed at least halfway below the curb level.

Basements, on the other hand, are halfway above.

Thus, basements have more light and air.

Cellars also often have a low ceiling height.

If the height of the ceiling is less than 7 feet, it is typically considered a cellar and not a basement regardless of grade level.

bulletFloor level and type: Most people will consider the basement to be a floor level within their home while the cellar is not part of the home’s square footage.

bulletEgress windows: Depending on the municipality, windows can dictate whether the space is seen as a basement or a cellar.

A basement will have large windows that a person can use as an exit.

Any space without such windows would be considered a cellar.

bulletMaintenance: People often conflate the two spaces because they both come with similar maintenance and repairs.

The maintenance you may see with these two spaces includes foundation repairs, leaks, water intrusion, and waterproofing.

Based on how these spaces are finished, however, will change what you’re able to see and the signs of foundation flaws and other serious issues.

To maintain dry, comfortable below grade spaces like cellars and basements, you must keep them free from moisture and mold.

Regular maintenance can help to reduce repairs and ensure the space (whether basement or cellar) remains a usable part of the home.

4. How do you know if you have a cellar or basement?

The tell-tale difference between these spaces is what level they’re on.

A basement must typically be half a level above-ground and have windows.

For this reason, it can usually be considered a habitable space.

A cellar is below ground and may not have any windows.

Thus, in many jurisdictions, it cannot be legally used for anything other than storage.

Note: How the spaces are finished (or if they are not finished) doesn’t define them.

It’s the level that they are on that truly defines them legally.

Put another way, can you exit the space through a window?

If so, it is likely a basement.

It can be confusing to simply look at a space and try to decide what it is.

This is because someone may put a wine cellar in a basement or finish a cellar to make it look like a furnished basement.

Neither of these changes their value nor classification.

5. How do you know if there’s a problem in your basement or cellar?

Both basements and cellars help to hold up your home structurally.

However, because of how they are constructed, they are prone to leaks, dampness, and water problems.

You want to make sure there are no issues with your basement or cellar because this can cause issues with your home’s foundation.

Keep an eye out for the following problems so you can address them as soon as possible.

bulletMusty smells

bulletMildew and mold

bulletWet drywall

bulletCondensation on block walls

bulletCracked floors

bulletCracked concrete block walls

bulletDamp carpeting or warped flooring

bulletCracks and gaps appearing around windows and doors

bulletNoisy or struggling sump pumps

bulletNo grated pipes and interior gutters

6. What are the different types of cellars?

The form and construction of cellars can vary widely depending on their function.

Here’s what you should know about the different types.

bulletRoot cellar: This type of cellar is used to store farm goods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc.

Traditionally, a root cellar was used to store root crops (like carrots and radishes) during the wintertime so a farmer’s food supply wouldn’t be impacted by harsh weather conditions.

This is the reason it has “root” in its name.

Today, root cellars are built to store other food items.

However, it retains its name because the cellar is particularly effective at controlling the temperature needed for natural foods, like vegetables and fruits.

bulletStorm cellar: This type of cellar is a variation of an underground bunker.

Rather than being used to store and secure objects, it’s used to store and secure people during dangerous situations or severe weather conditions.

Most people use storm cellars during tornadoes.

There are two types of storm cellars.

The first is above-ground and is made to look like a small house.

It is constructed with sturdier construction materials.

The second is a below ground cellar that appears like a typical cellar.

bulletWine cellar: This is the most popular type of cellar.

It’s built to store, preserve, and age wine.

It is a known fact that some luxurious wines taste better with age, and wine enthusiasts would rather age their bottles of wine at home.

This way, they can enjoy and learn more about the process of aging wine.

Wine cellars can control the temperatures of the bottles.

This way, the wine won’t get too hot/cold or lose its flavor.

If you’re a wine lover but don’t have an underground space, you can create a wine room that is above ground and connected to your house.

You just need to make sure the temperature is controlled properly.

Funnily enough, the creation of the first wine cellar also coincided with the invention of cork stoppers.

bulletSemi-basement: This can be both a cellar and a basement because it is built to have its bottom half below ground and its upper half above ground.

Semi-basements are typically used as kitchens where the smoke or the smell of food won’t go into the other parts of the house.

You’ll normally find semi-basements in large houses or mansions.

You’ll see the windows of these rooms in the front or at the back of the building.

The windows are generally too high for people to see through, but they allow air inside if it’s too hot.

7. What are the top uses for a cellar?

Unlike a basement, cellars cannot be used as a living space.

There can be no bedrooms or rental apartments in this part of your house.

Additionally, there is unlikely to be an emergency exit through your cellar.

However, there is still a lot you can do with this space.

Try using your cellar in these ways:

bulletWine cellar

bulletCigar humidor

bulletLocation to make your own craft beer

bulletBomb shelter


bulletSpot to add plumbing to old buildings

Cellars are unique features for homes.

A well-maintained space can ‘wow’ guests and add an extra appeal when it’s time to put your house on the market.

8. What are the types of temperature control?

Temperature control is one of the great aspects of a cellar.

However, different spaces control temperature differently.

bulletPassive cellar: A passive cellar allows the thermal insulation of the surrounding earth to control temperatures naturally.

This type of cellar is built below ground where it can normalize the temperature whether it’s too hot or too cold.

There is no additional technology involved in controlling the temperature in passive spaces.

Passive cellars are more energy-efficient, and will maintain a comfortable temperature even if the power is out in the rest of the house.

bulletActive cellar: Active cellars are more popular than passive ones because homeowners have an easier time controlling the temperature inside the room.

All you have to do is use the cooling or heating devices installed in the cellar.

For an active cellar, you need machines to help control the temperature.

Maintenance on these machines can sometimes be difficult to perform, especially if you are also looking for imperfections or damages on the walls, the floor, or the ceiling.

If you live off-grid, you may find it difficult to maintain an active cellar because it often results in high power usage.

9. What is the right temperature for a cellar?

The right temperature for a cellar will depend on what you’re using it for, the weather conditions outside your home, and the humidity level in the area.

When it comes to storing most wine and food, the suitable temperature is approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is a little bit below the normal temperature on a sunny day.

If the temperature gets too cold, then the wine will take longer to age.

If the temperature gets too hot, then the wine will have a shorter shelf life.

10. What are the top uses for a basement?

Depending on your location, basements are typically more appealing than cellars.

Here are some ways you can use your basement:

bulletExtra bedrooms

bulletRental apartments

bulletHome gyms

bulletGame rooms

bulletAdditional living rooms

bulletHome theaters

bulletHome offices

bulletLaundry rooms

bulletIndoor swimming pools and home spas

Before you transform your basement for any of these uses, look for any signs of a foundation problem, leaks, etc.

You’ll want to take care of these first before you do any renovations.

Otherwise, you’ll have to start from scratch if you discover them during or after the renovation.

Depending on what you envision for your basement, you may also want to put in egress windows that can serve as exits and entry points.

Windows can help with moisture, waterproofing, and light.

They can also help to qualify the basement as a legal living space if you want to rent it out.

11. Can you finish both a basement and a cellar?

Yes, you can finish both a basement and cellar.

However, a basement is more likely to be finished because you can inhabit it.

Cellars generally remain unfinished.

When finishing a basement, you’ll likely want to provide it with the same finishes as any other room in your home.

For example, flooring, paint, trim, insulation, vapor barriers, plywood, drywall, etc.

Lighting, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and other features are common in habitable basements.

This will make them just like other rooms in your house.

Depending on what you want to use your basement for, you may choose to have it wired for sound or multimedia devices.

If you choose to leave your basement or cellar unfinished, it may have exposed rafters, beams, and flooring.

It could also lack insulation, which could impact the temperature.

Final Thoughts

Whether you have a basement or cellar, these areas of a home both require regular housekeeping and periodic maintenance.

If you neglect them, then they fall apart.

However, if you take good care of them, then they can remain usable for a long time.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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