Do You Call It a Basement or Cellar? In New York, the Difference Is a Legal Matter

Photo via the Urban Edge Apartment Living Blog

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    Unbeknownst to many, the difference between a basement and a cellar, often misconstrued as an endearing colloquial difference, is, in fact, a nuanced legal matter.

    At least half the story must be above ground to qualify as a “basement” in New York City. Otherwise, it’s considered a cellar and is not legally habitable — no matter how nice it looks. (Covering up the rubble walls and removing the shackles won’t cut it, sorry.)

    To put it in legalese, a basement is “a building story that has at least one-half of its floor-to-ceiling height above curb level or the base plane,” in the words of NYC Planning. And this space is included in floor area calculations — aka the square footage of the building.

    The cellar is legally defined as “a level of a building that has at least one-half of its floor-to-ceiling height below curb level or the base plane,” says NYC Planning. It is not included in floor area calculations.

    This becomes important when determining if the bottom floor of a Brooklyn home is legal to rent. But merely being a basement is not enough. Its light, air, sanitation and egress must also be in line with the required conditions noted by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

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    The residents of a Prospect Lefferts Gardens row house transformed its below-grade cellar space into an office. Photo by Matthew Arnold

    In classic high-stoop brownstones, garden-level floors are almost always legal living space. As there are only typically a few steps down to that floor, 50 percent of the floor-to-ceiling height is usually above grade, and thus meets the requirements of being a basement. There is also likely a cellar below with building mechanicals.

    In a low-stoop house (such as a limestone and typical circa-1900 two-families), legality may be more ambiguous. The under-stoop floor may be the lowest level of the house, and may contain the building mechanicals. To be legal living space, the floor-to-ceiling height must be more than 50 percent above grade, and other conditions must be met as well.

    One solid sign of a space not meeting requirements is a lack of windows, or very small windows, according to NYC Buildings’ list of tips for renters.

    Rent Basement Brooklyn Cellar

    142 Underhill Avenue

    Related Stories
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