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What Is a Michigan Basement?

If you have ever house hunted in the American Midwest or New England, you have likely come across the term Michigan basement. Many people have these basements, but they are not extremely well known. Are Michigan basements simply basements in Michigan? Not exactly.

A Michigan basement refers to a crawl space that has been modified, usually by hand, to create a larger space. They are most often found under old houses, and their functions have been largely made obsolete. Here is an overview of exactly what a Michigan basement is and what it is not.

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The Definition of a Michigan Basement

A Michigan basement refers to a space under a house that has been enlarged from the original crawlspace. These areas are excavated out of the small crawl spaces in order to make them big enough to be usable. Most crawl spaces require you to crawl or crouch to get into them. A Michigan basement is large enough for someone to stand hunched or stooped and is more functional than a typical crawl space.

The ceilings in a Michigan basement are typically very low. The walls are unfinished earth, cinderblock, or rough stone. The floors are usually just sand or dirt left over from the original digging job. Original or crude Michigan basements do not feature any power, water, or ventilation. However, many people over the years upgraded these spaces to hold water heaters, circuits, and other simple appliances. Generally, these spaces are not finished like other basements. A finished Michigan basement can usually be called a cellar.

The state of Michigan fittingly provides an official definition of a Michigan basement in their state glossary. The definition reads as follows:

“A former crawl space which has been dug out, generally to a depth of 5 to 7 feet to allow a basement. The excavation begins approximately 2 feet in from the inside of the existing foundation walls in order to preserve the soundness of the existing foundation walls and footings.”

Michigan basements can be used for crude storage, as a root cellar, or as a storm shelter.

Crawl Spaces
Image Credit: JPJPJP, Shutterstock

Where Are Michigan Basements Typically Found?

Michigan basements can be found in Michigan, hence the name, but that is not the only place they are found. Michigan basements are common features of homes built before 1950. These spaces are commonly found beneath old northeastern farmhouses and large homestead dwellings. Any old home has a chance to have a Michigan basement underneath. The term Michigan basement is most commonly used in Michigan and neighboring Midwestern states. In other places, Michigan basements can also be referred to as a crawlspace, root cellar, or old cellar.

The term Michigan basement has nothing to do with Michigan itself, and a Michigan basement does not have to be located in Michigan to meet the criteria.

Advantages Of Michigan Basements

Michigan basements provide little in the way of benefits for a modern homeowner. Back in the day, these spaces were used more effectively by people who stored a lot of fresh produce, roots and jarred food. Today, the only benefit a Michigan basement offers is that they are slightly more useful than a crawlspace. Some of these spaces have been upgraded and shored up to serve as a laundry room or electrical room, and some people use them to store things that do better in a cool damp environment. They also have a positive use as storm shelters in areas that experience severe storms in the spring and summer.

Michigan basements are also much cheaper to buy and maintain than a traditional basement. Indeed, one of the earliest drivers of the Michigan basement craze was money. Crawlspaces dug out by hand are much more affordable than having a contractor and inspector come in and do the job.

Generally, people aren’t searching out homes with Michigan basements. They are either present, or they are not. They do not have a lot of intrinsic value to a modern home. Especially considering they have a whole lot of downsides.

Crawl Space
Image Credit: JPJPJP, Shutterstock

Common Issues with Michigan Basements

Michigan basements suffer from a large list of common issues. First, they are almost always damp. Since they are encased by porous dirt and stone, these spaces let in a lot of moisture and trap it there. They are also extremely prone to flooding. When there is a hard rain or a lot of melting snow pushing water into the ground, these areas can quickly fill with water which severely reduces their usefulness.

Michigan basements are also places that let pests enter and fester directly under your home. Things like spiders, ants, rats, bats, and raccoons can find their way into your Michigan basement and be content to live down there. Michigan basements can also let radon gas into your home. A home’s air pressure above the crawl space will cause air to move upward through the bottom of the home, and this movement of air from the soil to the home can carry dangerous radon gas with it. Experts suggest testing your home for radon if you have a Michigan basement.

Lastly, Michigan basements can be a hazard to your home’s foundation. Since these spaces were dug out of the original crawl space and down into the foundation of the home, they have the potential to make a house unstable. Michigan basements that have not been inspected, reinforced, or are prone to flooding or erosion could be damaging your home’s foundation. Foundation problems can be extremely expensive and dangerous if not treated. Many Michigan basements have been reinforced over the years with cinderblock, earthen walls, and retaining walls, but not all of them have been.

The numerous issues with Michigan basements often far outweigh the limited positives that these spaces possess.house divider

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Were Michigan Basements Built?

Michigan basements were often dug out by the homeowners on their own. There were not many professionals going around digging out these spaces. They were dug out almost entirely by hand simply by entering the crawlspace and going downwards. That is why some of the poorly managed Michigan basements have so many problems. Very few of these root cellars were done by professionals. Homeowners started digging out their crawlspaces to create more storage space as families grew or storage in the house above grew tight.

How Do I Know If I Have a Michigan Basement?

If you have a space under your home that is larger than a crawl space but smaller than a basement, you likely have a Michigan basement. The ceiling will be no higher than 6 or 7 feet, and the walls and floors will typically be earth. Michigan basements differ from cellars in that they are larger and cruder. Cellars are more finished, better enclosed, and are more insulated than Michigan basements. Any crawl space that has been dug out or started to be dug out is considered a Michigan basement.

If you can enter the space, but the ceilings are too low to stand, it is likely a Michigan basement. If the space looks more like a crawl space than it does a basement or a cellar, it is likely a Michigan basement. If the space looks old, crude, and done by hand, it is likely a Michigan basement.

Daylight Basement
Image Credit: real-twin-photos, Unsplash

Can You Turn a Crawlspace into a Michigan Basement Today?

Technically, yes. You can still dig a crawlspace into a Michigan basement. However, you would not want to. With modern technology, there is no reason to dig out your crawl space in this way. Digging under your home is risky if it is not done properly. Many early Michigan basements were often the result of people digging out their crawl spaces on their own to meet a specific need.

There are better options today. There are plenty of sheds, garages, outbuildings, and barns that would be a much better alternative to a Michigan basement. Michigan basements are only good for storage, and there are better storage options. If you want to upgrade to a full basement or cellar, there is no need to start a Michigan basement first.

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Any crawl space that has been enlarged to create a crude basement is a Michigan basement. They do not have to be in Michigan to earn the name. They are remnants of a bygone era and often create more problems than they solve in today’s modern world. However, many homes still have these spaces, and some people still use them on a daily basis despite their issues. Next time you hear the term Michigan basement, think of enhanced crawl space found in the United States.


Featured Image Credit: Kdwk Leung, Unsplash

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