Cellar vs Basement – Not Knowing This One Thing Backfires(How to fix)10 min read

Cellar vs Basement – Not Knowing This One Thing Backfires(How to fix)10 min read

I have always wondered why some call the space below ground as a cellar and many calls them as a basement. Are you equally confused too?

There is no universally accepted standard definition. However, NYC, for example, has a strict definition and guideline.  It classifies anything as a cellar if more then half of the floor-to-ceiling height is underground. If you have more then half of it above ground-level, then you have a basement.

It’s legally worded in New York City Planning authorities (and includes other building requirements to meet).

Why do you care for this right? Big Deal?

In fact, knowing the difference is worth your time. Especially, if you are in municipalities where the building codes are strict, you want to take a second look at this.

For example, if you are anywhere near New York City, you can read the “Cellar vs Basement” as “Getting into trouble vs Playing safe”.

It’s that serious.

But, many places in the country is very lax with the definition and they all use IRC code.

What is Cellar and What is a basement

Depending on where you live, it’s called interchangeably.

Main reason being, there is no standard definition.  Home inspectors, I have spoken to, have a different standpoint. It’s an ongoing debate even among the experts.

I have to come to see this pattern among the professional related to this industry – that is, real estate agents, brokers, builders, remodelers, developers, home inspectors and such.

Original Wine Cellar used for storage with no windowsThe definition loosely is copied from the standards set by NYC planning.

An exterior elevation appearance-based approach is what they use. It’s how you perceive the house when you see the house from the curb.

If you have more than half of the floor-to-ceiling height above grade, then it’s basement. And if you have more then half that height below grade, it is a cellar.

But a vast majority of municipalities use the IRC code and have made slight changes.

So, they will consider anything with Egress windows (access) for a normal adult to escape in an event, then it’s a basement.

By the way, the bottom of the egress windows must be no more than 40 inches from the floor.

Is there a difference between a cellar and a basement?

Even though we don’t have a strict definition, I have come to see other identification criteria used by experts.

Exterior Access:

If the access to that space is from inside, it is considered a basement and if you ONLY have an access from outside then that is a cellar space.

Dirt Floors:

Cellars have dirt floor vs basements do not – however, this is not a proper way to classify as some basements are left unfinished (with dirt).

Included Level:

Basement is considered a floor, whereas cellar space isn’t counted.

Height Considerations:

Floor-to-ceiling height considerations. If the ceiling height is less than 7 ft. (some people consider 8) then it’s a cellar, if not it’s a basement.

Windows Restrictions:

Space that has egress windows (with other conditions) is considered basement, if not cellar

Why is differentiating Cellar and Basement important

real cellar used as a commercial joint serving wineKnowledge is always good, application of that knowledge is better. If you go without know why it is important, it is going to backfire badly.

A couple of important ones. Mostly potential issues that you should steer clear of.

Radon issue

If you are trying to buy (or sell) a house, you might want to know this.

Home inspectors must test for radon – if not waived.  So, they place the Radon vials in the basement.

But, what if you have the space that resonates with that of a cellar?

Well, in that case, the home inspectors will consider cellar as a non-habitable place (or consider it as a storage space) and not test for Radon.

If you are buying the house and will convert the dirt floor into a finish floor.

And if you inspector is using the dirt floor as the condition to call it as a cellar, then…

…your inspector is not going to test for radon.

You will come in later and finish and live without knowing the seriousness of radon.

Think you can sue your home inspector.

No, you’re out of luck!

The EPA guideline suggests checking for radon in the lowest level of the house that is suitable for living or occupying.

By the way, Radon is a biggie. No one is doing anything about it.  We don’t know the seriousness. If you haven’t read my other blog on that subject, just know this.

58 deaths per day due to radon poisoning. So this is a big deal to pay attention to.

Renting issue

You are potentially buying and planning to rent it out to help with your mortgage.

The math works fine, and you are excited.  Let’s say you live in NYC.

Your nosy neighbor will get fussy if you rent and will call the authorities.

I saw this happening when I lived in the NY/NJ area (and heard several times over).

Local housing authorities will send you a notice and inspect the place. Looking at your finished space is just enough for them to consider you are renting.

Fines in NYC are irrationally high, so you will end up losing money, not be able to rent, and have trouble meeting up with your mortgage payments.

Beware of this, and make sure you are extremely certain before making a move.

Not knowing the difference is affecting (or will) you badly. Err on the side of caution and consider a basement as a cellar.

Does a basement count as a story?

Like I mentioned before if you can legally classify the lowest level (below grade) as a basement, you are pretty sure to count this towards a living level or story.

If your local build authority or home inspector classifies it as a cellar, you are out of luck.

brownstone with cellar and not basement restriction to rent

Even then, if you are in a place as strict as NYC, then you are out of luck.

Otherwise, you can find the reason why it was classified a cellar and try to fix the triggering issue to be reclassified as a basement.

Let’s take an extreme example.  If you have 7 feet floor-to-ceiling height that you purchased.

And that is the primary reason for your home inspector to classify the lowest level as a cellar in the report.

Don’t worry we have a solution. You’re just shy of few inches to make it a legal living space.

You could dig the floor dirt and lower the floor by a foot or more. That will totally put you in green for a basement consideration.

And obviously pull the permit to increase the floor height, finish the floor and meet other requirements.

Same goes with all other requirements. If you don’t have egress, consider putting it in.

Can you finish a Cellar Basement?

Yes. I don’t think any local authority restricts you from finishing the cellar.   If it is a basement you have no issues.

Now, if you truly have a cellar space (and not a basement) you should consider a few things before finishing.


Anything below grade, moisture is the first thing that should come to your mind.

It is notorious. If you don’t consider and plan well, you might end up with mold and mildew. Then you should spend the time to kill the mold and fix the space properly.

Indoor humidity below grade is a big problem. So, you should plan and rectify all issues, so you maintain the correct indoor humidity.

Usable Height

Remember if you finish the cellar, you will try to finish the ceiling and put in some sort of flooring.

When you shave a few inches off the ceiling and floor, you are taking more vertical space.

Since you are dealing with a cellar space, you are probably looking at 7 feet or below in height.

So, you are reducing the already tight vertical space you have. Even though you might have a basement if you put in subfloors and do ceiling you might turn in to a cellar.

Other Uses of Basement Cellar

When you don’t have the budget to redo the basement like a cellar to store wine, you still have othVery old cellar stone structureer uses.

One, you can use it as a storage place to store your stuff – just as it.

But if humidity is your problem, use what people in the 30s used – Tin can and store it in.

Also, if you can take care of the humidity issue, you can store pretty much anything there- that doesn’t need refrigeration.

What if you want to rent – especially, if you are in NYC- authorities will crack you down.

Here is a super-secret way to deal with that.

Want to know how to rent a cellar – legally?

Don’t rent to a family or don’t rent the room.

Instead, you write a lease with someone and specifically mention the use as storage.

Make sure your contract is ironclad (check with your attorney, I don’t claim to be one).

If someone rents a storage space and stays there (and you don’t know about it … wink, wink!) then the tenant is violating the contract and you are not illegally renting.

Legal disclaimer: I am not suggesting anything, but just want to throw it out there.

Cellar Style Basement – What is?cellar style basement with shelves and wine stacked

Well, this is a super awesome project.

It’s what is considered a truly rustic man cave.

When you convert the basement or part of the basement to cellar styled space, that will look really amazing.

It will transform you and will take you back in time. Seriously!

I have seen several DIY enthusiasts convert a small room in the basement.

A small fully functional finished room.

What they do is, make it very dark.

Use wrought iron gates instead of panel doors and have nice dark shelves, made of premium redwood.

Combined this with ample use of stone veneers on walls, instead of drywall and flagstone for flooring.

Even some use wood strips to cover the ceiling instead of drywall.

So that is the true cellar style basement.  See these pictures of finished cellar style basement and you will appreciate the rich look of an awesome cellar style basement room.cellar with shelves in basement

Is it legal to live in a basement?

Yes, but…

…you have a lot of things to consider.

What you think as a basement, might be viewed as a cellar by some.

A basement you think is livable might be considered not livable – an illegal apartment in the basement.

So, making sure that it is a legal basement and your county, city or local municipality allows is a wise idea.

Basement Cellar NYC

If you have a cellar space it is a Big NO.

However, if you can classify your space underground as a legal basement by the definition of NYC Planning, you might be in luck.

You must also have other conditions met – such having an access in all the rooms below grade and such.

Wrapping Up:

The argument between basement and cellar seems to be never-ending. Primarily because there is no agreed definition.

However, there are some common understanding that will identify a cellar.

A cellar usually has a dirt floor, way below grade, with an access from outside the house.

It might also have no egress windows or access in case of emergency.

In any case, make sure if you are going to convert the cellar space into a legal living basement, check for radon.

And more importantly, make sure your local housing authority approves of it.

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