Cellar versus Basement
Which term correctly describes the space? Is there a difference between the two terms?
There is actually a huge debate raging over this topic as there seems to be no actual standard definition used universally throughout the country.
And depending on what region of the country you’re from, it can be called either a basement or a cellar. And in many areas, people often use both terms interchangeably, despite the fact that they are most likely intended to convey a different meaning.
There’s a fairly simple rule of thumb that many builders use to clarify the difference. It goes like this:
If more than half of the floor height is above ground level, it is a basement. If less than half is above ground, it’s a cellar. This notion is in reference to the appearance of the foundation from the front of the house.
Many people actually consider that a basement is an actual floor level, whereas a cellar is not.
Others consider that a cellar is a space that can only be accessed from outside the home. If you have to exit the house to enter it, it is described as a cellar to some.
And this is actually a hotly debated issue amongst firefighters throughout the country. If they are dealing with house that has a basement during a fire, it’s considered a floor. So by mistakenly labeling the space as a cellar, this could cause a misunderstanding regarding the floor levels of a building during a fire.
Most firefighters agree that anytime you go down to enter, it’s considered a basement, even with split level homes when the basement space is finished.
Cellars are often times described as having dirt floors. This is a misnomer since many basements have dirt floors.
In fact, in some parts of the country, the term cellar describes a place for can food, fruit and wine storage, etc. These spaces are also known as root or fruit cellars.
They are also an ideal place for coal storage. The dirt floors are a perfect place for such a dirty material such as coal.
Some large municipalities claim that a basement is a floor with egress windows large enough for an adult person to escape through. Any space that doesn’t offer egress points would be considered a cellar.
So apparently the debate will continue to rage on unless a clear distinction is drawn between the two.
So why is this important for Home Inspectors? When we place test vials for Radon Air, we place the vials in the basement. And if there is no basement, we would place them on the first floor. So if we go with the idea that a cellar is not a floor – certainly not a habitable one in most cases, then it would make no sense at all to place the test vials in a cellar area.
In fact, the EPA guidelines are that Radon tests should be done in the lowest level of the house suitable for occupancy.