Ranch over basement vs. two story on slab?

November 15, 2019

Hello. I have read similar posts on this topic, and I understand there are several variables. I'll try to provide some detail and photos, and I am hoping you can answer my questions.

We live in the Midwest and basements are common. The soils are conducive for basements. We currently have house plans for a ranch style home with attached 3 car garage and a full basement with walk out on one end. We plan to finish almost the whole basement. The total square footage is 3,600 and the garage is 30x40. This is a lot of concrete and rock. We're looking at $70,000 in just the basement. The approximate cost for the entire home is $325,000 to $350,000.

This got us wondering, would there be significant cost savings if we switched to a two story home on a slab or a crawl space, all else equal? Essentially we would take what we have planned for the basement, make some tweaks, and make that the upstairs. This brings me to my second question. I like the idea of the second kitchen in a basement. I make soap and we entertain a lot, and that was my original reasoning for the second kitchen in the basement. However, a second kitchen on the second level of a two story home seems weird to me. What do you think?

Here is the site where we want to build, on the ridge on the other side of this pond. The house would overlook the pond.

Here is a photo of the ridge.

Here is a sketch of the outside for our current plans - a ranch style home over a basement with walk out on the right side.

Here are the main level plans. Garage is 30x40. Home is 30x60. Front porch is 10x60.

Here are the basement floor plans.

I found this photo on houzz, and this is what I imagine a two story would look like, only longer.

Comments (43)

  • everdebz

    I'm not a pro and surely you've discussed rare high water -- [no one thought it could happen] one time that did happen and what a mess.

    A walkout is nice to have.

  • chispa

    You do know that conventional footings must be placed lower than the deepest expected frost depth, right? You'll probably have to dig 48" down for a slab in your climate, so a full basement doesn’t cost that much more. I don't think you will save as much as you think.

    If you had a walkout that spanned the whole back of the house, I would probably say to go with the ranch and full walk-out basement, BUT your small walk-out is going to get very little light and will mostly feel like a regular dark basement. Is this where you want to spend your time, in a dark view less craft room, family room and second kitchen?

    I think your floor plan could use some work.

    It looks like a lovely location and it would be a pity not to have views from more than half of your square footage ...

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  • Lynn Heins

    This pond has a spillway which is well below the level of where the house would sit.

  • Lynn Heins

    Thanks @chispa!

  • tangerinedoor

    I don't see how you could look out and see that great environment from a basement.

    One consideration for a pad.... whether it can stand a freeze/thaw cycle. In northern New England, they get cracked.

    My house is actually on helical piers, the same kind that are used for lighthouses and bridges.

  • shadyks2

    I vote for basement, but to save money, don't do the walkout. Just make it all underground.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    I'm from the Midwest and I would never want to live on a concrete slab or sleep on the ground floor especially if there was a great view.

    Don't assume a slab is cheap or a second floor is expensive. At least get a price for 2 stories with a basement.

  • littlebug zone 5 Missouri

    I’m in the Midwest too. Basements are expected here. Can’t you find plans that provide daylight in at least one end of the basement, besides the actual walkout? Looks like you have a nice ridge to work with and lots of room, and you don’t have to build the house straight-on with the pond, do you? Angle it a bit.

  • PRO
    Patricia Colwell Consulting

    Chispa is right by the time you dig down for footings you might as well have a basement I am wondering why such a small walkout . I live in a climate where you need to worry about footings but we have a walkout the whole 72’ with a long storage room on the buried side and I love it . I also ;love that the house will be quite nice for us to use for a long time as we can easily live on the main floor and convert the walk out to a suite if it comes to a time when we can’t handle stairs. Our walkour faces S. and we have huge windows so lots of light . What is your architect telling you about where to build and what to build there. As to a kitchen on the second floor IMO that would be weird .I see hardly any windows in the walk out maybe put those to be visible IMO a walkout is nice with big windows in all the spaces you will use and the storage where windows are not able to install

  • rrah

    Being a Midwesterner I'd go for a basement for a couple of reasons. First, it's a great place to go in the event of a tornado. In addition to that, we've found that our walkout basement is less expensive to heat and to cool. In the summer we rarely need the AC. We do run it because of humidity. In the winter the areas fully below ground stay warmer for much of the winter. Chances are you're going to need some kind of dual control HVAC system given the size of the house. That would allow you to take advantage of the natural cooling/heating in the basement. I've lived with a slab. Even with carpet, the floors tend to be colder than with a basement.

    I do think it would be odd to have the upstairs of the pictured house have a kitchen, etc. No one every thinks they will have to sell their dream home, but things happen. Using a second story as a basement type area will make your house "odd," and make it more difficult to sell should you ever need to do so.

    I notice a couple of things I would change in your plans. I wouldn't put a second sink in the main floor guest bath. Why would you ever really need it? More counter space would be better.

    Is there a way to get a proper foyer into the plan? Anytime the front door is opened the heat or cold will come into the main living areas. With that in mind, I would also try to close off the laundry/mud room area. A door that can be closed will make for a quieter house when you're doing laundry and will keep the cold/heat out of the rest of the house when you come in from the garage.

    Can you make the windows in the basement bedrooms larger? I can't tell what size they are in the plans, but they seem small. I don't know what direction it is, but I'd want more light in those bedrooms.

    Beautiful property.

  • whaas_5a

    You ‘ll want to think about your own preferences for how you live and how you use the space.

    I lived in a 1.5 story house for several years and for whatever reason I never went upstairs and it had a better view.

    With the next house I had full exposure on the back of the home and I was down there all the time

    There’s something about having a cozy space in the basement with windows and exposure

    The latest house I am in is a ranch with a flat lot and no exposure. I somewhat loathed landscaping and maintaining the hills of the exposure which is why I wanted to have a flat lot surrounded by hills.

    Whatever you do take your time integrating the home and the landscaping into that excellent piece of property.

    To me the two-story you show just doesn’t feel right on that property

    Also your costs seems really low unless you’re doing low end finishes and it doesn’t include lot improvements for well and septic.

  • functionthenlook

    Ranch with basement. Basements are king here. There are very few houses with crawl spaces since you have to dig below frost line anyway plus having to keep the pipe from freezing in a crawl space. The few homes without basements are harder to sell and sell for less than a comparable size home.

  • lucky998877

    I live in a ranch with a basement (and walkout). When my new neighbor came over for the 1st time (he has a 2 story with a crawl space) I was surprised when he said that he loves ranches because of the opportunity for vaulted ceilings. White he bought a 2 story, he said that he misses the openness vaulted ceilings create.

  • chiflipper

    Give careful consideration to energy costs. Every choice made at the start of a build is important. If you decide on living space located below grade be sure to insulate below the pour. The law of physics (cold air sinks, hot air rises); put a door between floors. Avoid large expanses of glass facing the prevailing winds. You have a pond, the option of geothermal is available for basement in-floor hydronic heating. Good luck.

  • PRO
    Charles Ross Homes

    Your post indicates the presence of rock which will increase excavation costs for a basement. $70K for a basement is a big percentage of your overall budget and investigating alternatives makes sense. Depending on the specifics, you might be able to tie the footings and foundations into the rock and avoid the need for deep excavation for the footing. I recommend you speak with your builder and a geotechnical engineer to evaluate the feasibility and cost.

  • PRO

    No input on the question, but do suggest you rethink the plan.

    With such a nice building site, I'd move the master bed and bath elsewhere opening up that side of the house with windows.

    This reads like an old layout -- like something that would have been modern on the farm in 1968.

  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect

    I agree with PPF., you can do better. Back up and have a house designed for your needs and fits your site. For an example, it would make a lot of sense to me to have the second kitchen on the same level as the first kitchen and not have to go up or down.

  • PRO
    Charles Ross Homes

    I agree with Mark Bischak. With "open" floor plans, some homeowners prefer both a kitchen and a separate "messy kitchen" which facilitates entertaining. A messy kitchen is a great place to stage separate courses or for a caterer to work out of or to stage dirty dishes. Keeping them both on the same level doesn't require you to replicate the adjacent living areas.

  • functionthenlook

    Why only put the basement only in the ranch . 2 stories with basements are cheaper to build and heat of the same sq ft.

  • tiggerlgh

    I would always vote for ranch with basement over a two story. Especially if all bedrooms are planned to be upstairs.

  • BT

    Res3D: I'm from the Midwest and I would never want to live on a concrete slab or sleep on the ground floor especially if there was a great view.

    We are in NE Indy, the footer depth 5ft. so going 8' or even 9' is not that much different. Building ranch houses are expensive. Large foundation and large roofs.

    I disagree with Res... There are plenty cases where raised slab foundation was employed [you are not sleeping on a "ground floor" it could be nicely elevated with the raised porch and many builder today dampproof install OSB over the slab... so you do not feel like walking on the slab.

    You do not need to go all the way to frost depth either. 14" are sufficient.... Frost Protected Shallow Foundations (FPSF) are now common here.

    See here:

  • PRO

    If you go with a basement, consider not having the first floor at grade but up a few stairs. You'll get better light in the basement. It will likely require a few steps from the garage floor but the house will not seem so dark downstairs.

  • ILoveRed

    Ditto what Bev said. I am in the Midwest. Definitely a basement. In our town it’s difficult to sell a house without a basement.

  • David Cary

    Just a quick comment. A slab is only cold if it isn't insulated correctly. A basement floor is a slab after all.

    It would seem to me that raising the first floor so that the frost depth is roughly the floor of the basement optimizes light for the lowest cost. But I live in an area where the frost depth is probably 24 inches. I would try to maximize the walkout area within reason from a cost standpoint.

  • Robert Capozzoli

    I would avoid a basement. Have a well insulated slab...from what I can see, everything you want to emphasize involves the view. Save the money and put it into features that maximize your location.



  • Lyndee Lee

    I don't know how your site is situated so hard to know exactly what changes can be made. Have you considered putting the garage underneath the house and having basement in the remainder of the space? Or, building out over the garage instead of having a house with separate garage attached to the side.

    I once visited a large house where the main house was along one side of the driveway with main garage attached at an angle to the house. On the other side of the garage was additional living space built over a secondary garage workshop for the owner's fun cars and projects. The site had a significant slope and the design used the natural slope to minimize grading required. Another multigeneration home was on a corner where one side had a double garage and another single car garage was located at the other end of the building, accessed from the cross street. Those ideas might not be appropriate for your situation but expand your thinking while you are still in the design phase and you may hit on a great layout to suit your needs

    If the house is built on a slab, I would have an interior room built as a storm shelter. While it would add to the cost and be livable regardless, I would want the safety of having a secure space for severe weather.

  • everdebz

    Our Midwest house had a basement, but the plan for the stairs did give us a small space which we used in the worst storms. It was against the back wall and away from several windows.

  • tiggerlgh

    I think you have to take into account where in the Midwest you are. But in Iowa I honestly can only remember being in one home without a basement here. I think many saying build on slab are from parts of the country where slabs are common. Here it very well could be a deal breaker for future sales to not have a basement.

    I would also avoid as many stairs as possible, but that is just me. Only OP can answer this question as to what is best for their family now and in future years.

  • suezbell

    Beautiful property.

    With that view, I'd probably not want a basement (most of which is to be finished) instead of an upstairs unless most of the basement also had a view -- not just an end exit. Before beginning construction, do consider all your options.

    Multiple levels can be more difficult to heat/cool and require multiple heating/cooling systems, increasing both initial cost and operating and maintenance cost.

    How you want to use your home, now and in the future, should be a strong factor in your decision. A basement with its own great room and master bedroom suite can effectively make your home a multi-generational home (now or later) or just create two distinctly separate living/entertaining centers -- something families with diverse entertainment interests might really want: Think ...

    ... all sports all the time vs. movies; and/or

    ... current teen loud music vs. easy listening; and/or

    ... video games vs. movies and quiet time;

    ... and/or friends over to play pool vs. friends over for book club or just

    ... neat freak vs. clutter bug.

    Choosing a different roof line could make it possible for you to put a pair of children's bedrooms with jack&jill bath between them in the attic -- privacy for both teens and parents during those years when it can matter a lot. Doing that could decrease the footprint of the main level of your home and either give you more yard or it could enable you to have more covered living area on that main level such as an outdoor great room with its own kitchen overlooking the water.

    If the basement has no extraordinary view or has only that one wall with windows/access -- especially if it is facing the driveway/road rather than the water, you might consider putting your garage in that one accessible end of the basement rather than putting most your additional living area in a windowless space. That way you'd have the rest of the basement for utility and storage and could keep your living area together with windows on all sides.

    Something else to consider might be to build your large garage adjacent to your home connected by a breezeway or screened porch, especially if doing that would enable you to turn your home at a different angle so you could have a full daylight basement -- more usable living space -- space either facing the water and/or with a good view and/or with a well lit exposure -- southern or east or west exposure (not dark north, unless that is your objective).

    Depending upon the elevation/slope where you're building, a split level might actually yield more practical living area than one level or having the entire home a two story home, whether or not your garage is in the "basement" (downstairs) of that split level.

    For what it is worth, some years ago I had a conversation with the contractor then constructing our (prior) home and he mentioned that space IN and attic -- under a roof rather than with exterior vertical walls (extra bedrooms) and/or living space IN a basement (family room) usually taxes less than adding a second story. If that matters to your future budget, you might check into that as it relates to your area.

  • suezbell

    One additional note: If a craft room has anything that has chemicals or scents of any kind, it needs windows/ventilation.

  • everdebz

    If on corner lot, driveway/ garage to lower level basement works... on a very large lot idk...

  • tedbixby

    As a Midwestern and one who has had slab, crawl space, basement and walk-out houses I would go with the walk-out every time if it is available. Some of the reasons why you should do it have already been mentioned so what I will add , as I don't think they've been mentioned, is that a walk-out is going to give you more flexibility for space as your life changes, accessibility to plumbing if necessary, and storage (which is a huge factor that you should consider).

  • B Carey

    I'm in Nebraska. You won't save any money going 2 story. The reason being is you still have do go down 4.5 to 5 feet to get below the frost line. Plus, you still have the slab regardless. If you were to do a 2 story with no basement on a walkout spot, you would have dirt work also to get a level space.

    You also will have an extremely hard time selling any house in the Midwest with no basement. Tax assessors also assess basement finished square footage less per foot than 2nd floor square footage, so your taxes would be more on a 2 story, even though you would have a harder time selling. Heating and cooling the basement costs very little in comparison to heating an cooling the 2nd floor.

    Regarding your plan...I'm assuming the back of the basement, where the craft room, 2nd kitchen, bathroom and 1 of the bedrooms are on the walkout side? I would do everything you can to move the bedrooms all to the back wall versus having a well window.

  • Lisette Mauch

    Can’t speak to your layout, but as basements are the norm in your area (as in most parts of the Midwest), I’d want to have one.

  • mononhemeter

    What about a two-story house with a mother-in-law suite (including a kitchen) in a walk-out basement?

  • suezbell

    If you're in an area prone to tornadoes you should want at least a half basement as a shelter.

  • Design Girl

    I vote for a basement AND a second floor.

  • tiggerlgh

    OP was asking if building a second story over a basement was cheaper - not doing both. They are looking to save not spend more. I hope OP comes back and lets us know what they decide. My vote was cast above, but I am 100% on board the ranch with walkout option. And I prefer Ranches over 2 stories in most instances anyway.

  • ILoveRed

    We put in a four sided concrete room with concrete roof and steel door in our basement under our screen porch. pretty bad tornado few yrs ago in Washington Il near where my brother lives. He said there were actually a couple of basements with cars in them. Generally I think basements are mostly safe in tornados. That one was an ef-4 If I remember right. Easy choice between basement and slab in Illinois.

  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect

    Skimming through the comments, it sounds like one of those meetings, "Hi my name is Mark and I am a midwesterner . . . "

  • suezbell

    If your budget is your primary concern, seriously consider not creating two great rooms or living rooms or family rooms ... and you might even rethink your three car garage.

    If you were to add one garage and one carport beside it now, attached or beneath or beside your ranch style house, would you have enough room on your lot (and a good place as well) to add a separate garage w/mother-in-law suite later?

  • suezbell

    NOT a huge fan of your floor plan, especially as to heat/ac issues. Please talk with a heat/ac specialist about having open stairs in your living room and family room. Heat rises and with two floors you have two clearly different heating/ac zones but no way to block/control the air flow between them. You seem to be setting yourself up, potentially, for having a cold dark basement and huge heat/ac bills.

  • Lynn Heins

    You are all amazing. Thank you so much for your input!

    I believe you've answered my question about cost savings. I do believe you've convinced us to stick with the basement. So a little more information and reasoning for this layout, which I agree is a little different.... We're in our mid thirties and we have 3 young daughters. We live in a split level with garage below, and I gotta say, it's not my favorite setup. Unloading kids and carrying everything upstairs is hard. He's a farmer with a wide array of hobbies including hunting, skiing and camping, and there's a lot of crap that goes along with those things. I'm a simple woman with few passions other than working full time, raising babies, taking care of chickens and making soap. Our current yard is a steep hill with our home in close proximity to a busy highway. My girls will never be able to ride a bike or play with a ball at this property.

    So we desire the following in a home:

    Accessible main level for aging parents and of course for us in the future. The front entrance of our plan has a concrete sidewalk ramp.

    Attached garage on main level with plenty of space for farm truck, SUV, his old Camaro, ranger, mower, saws, tools and a workbench.

    A decent sized mudroom/ laundry room.

    Four bedrooms, 3 bathrooms. I'm thinking of 3 teen girls getting ready in the future.

    Walk in pantry. I have home canned goods and canning supplies. It'd be nice to have space for that.

    A secondary living room. I want this to be a romper space for my growing kids, their cousins and friends. The less breakable things, the better, in my mind! I see a lot of movie watching happening here, and a windowless den would be fabulous.

    A second kitchen for entertaining, which we do quite often, and for soap making. This is a messy hobby that also comes with a lot of stuff that takes up space.

    The craft room and hunting rooms.. these are on my wish list. That whole end of the basement could just remain unfinished storage. But how nice it would be to have designated space for his hobbies and mine. Really, I'm okay with no windows in those rooms!

    Anyway, we've put a ton of thought into these plans. It is essentially a whole other home in the basement which I know is a lot of expense, but something I'd like to explore at least.

    Thank you again for answering my questions!

    our current home :)

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