Difference Between Basement and Cellar


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A basement is the floor below the main floor of the house, while a cellar is a smaller single room below the main floor. Cellars are usually sunk deeper and cannot be finished into habitable spaces like basements.

Difference Between Basement and Cellar: Overview

The words basement and cellar are often used interchangeably in some regions. This is understandable because of their location in the house. Basement and cellars are both located below or partially below the ground level of a building. 

Basements and cellars that have stairs leading to the outside often both have basement bulkheads or cellar doors.

The major distinguishing features between them are their size and precise location. While a basement comprises the floor halfway below the curb line, a cellar is usually smaller than a basement, sometimes a single room, and can be fully submerged below grade level.

What is a Basement?

A basement is a space underneath a building’s main structure and which spans the same floor area as the main floor. They were originally designed to serve as a storage space to make the most of the space created when the house’s foundations needed to be sunk deep into the earth.

Now, basements are used not only as a storage space, but also as garages, living areas, bedrooms, home gyms, and workshops. Some people even live in basement apartments.

Basements are largely categorized into three groups:

  • Finished basements: A finished basement is one that has undergone remodeling or construction work to make it habitable. The basement has been refurbished and converted from a dingy space to a living area in accordance with the necessary building codes.
  • Partially finished basements: These are unmodified and cannot serve as a permanent living area. However, there is a certain level of finishing that allow them to be used as storage rooms, gyms, utility rooms, recreational rooms, or work areas.
  • Unfinished basement: An unfinished basement isn’t suitable for habitation. The ceilings and floors might not be waterproofed or insulated. It would most likely have exposed pipes and concrete flooring and would feature an overall rough appearance. It is used as a storage area in most homes.
Three (3) Categories or Group Classification of Basements

Types of Basements

As I mentioned, basements are grouped into either finished, partially finished, or unfinished. These can be further categorized as one of the following.

Traditional Basement

A traditional basement is also referred to as a full basement and it is the most common basement style. This type of basement features the same square footage as the main floor. They usually have tiny windows close to the ceiling.  

Walkout Basement

Walkout basements have a door and sometimes windows on the ground level of the house. The door serves as an independent means of exit and entrance into the basement. Walkout basements are only practical in sloped buildings. That’s why they are mostly built in areas with hillside or sloped land. 

Exterior of a Walkout Basement

Daylight basement

Daylight basements are often called semi-basements because half of the basement’s space is above ground, while the other half is below ground. The basement has at least one above-ground window that allows natural air and light into the space. 

Exterior of a Daylight Basement

Sub-Basement

Sub-basements are completely below ground and are found beneath another basement. They usually have a stairway that connects them to the main house. Sub-basements don’t have windows or doors and are mostly used as storage areas. 

Abstract sub-basement interior background with dark gray concrete walls and white ceiling lights

Crawl Space

A crawl space is smaller than the other basement types I’ve mentioned and is not regarded as a basement in many regions. It provides access to plumbing, HVAC, electrical wiring, and water distribution systems. Converting a crawlspace into a full basement involves a lot of work and would require professional expertise.

Interior of a crawl space

What is a Cellar?

A cellar is an enclosed room beneath part of a building and which is designed for storing specific items. Because of their utilization, most cellars are unfinished or partially finished. Cellars are designed with storage in mind, so, based on the temperature inside the space, cellars can be categorized into active or passive.

Active cellars: these employ specialized cooling and heating systems to control the temperature and humidity in the space. Active cellars are highly insulated, therefore, they should be free of gaps and holes. They function with electricity so it wouldn’t be ideal for people living off-the-grid.

Though active cellars are energy-intensive, they are still a popular choice for storing items because they allow you control the temperature in the space.  

Passive cellars: these do not use external cooling systems. They are typically situated in naturally cool areas with minor seasonal variations. This type of cellar is usually built below ground for improved temperature control. Because the temperature in a passive cellar is controlled by climate and other external forces, they offer an energy-efficient means of preserving items. 

Types of Cellars

Beyond being classified as active or passive, cellars are also differentiated according to their purpose.

Three (3) Categories or Group Classification of Cellars (According to Purpose)

Root Cellar

A root cellar is also known as a food cellar. They were originally used to store root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, and turnips, hence the name “root” cellar.

The advent of refrigerators and other sophisticated food preservation methods has reduced the popularity of root cellars. However, they are still utilized by enthusiasts of local food and traditional culture, gardeners, subsistence farmers, organic farmers, and anyone who likes buying organic food in large quantities. 

Root cellars can be used to store homemade alcoholic beverages and wine. 

Wine Cellar

This is currently the most popular type of cellar. Wine cellars are used to store and preserve wine in bottles or barrels. 

It’s a popular belief that wine tastes better with age. So, if the temperature and humidity in the cellar is right, fine wine can be stored in cellars for decades. 

The insulation in wine cellars can either be active or passive. 

Storm Cellar 

Storm cellars aren’t designed to serve as storage rooms. Instead, they are a variation of underground bunkers that protect people against storms and violent weather like tornadoes.

Table of Differences Between Basements and Cellars

CellarBasement
Cellars are typically not ideal for habitationBasements can easily be converted into a living area
In most regions cellars are designed for storing food items and alcoholic beverages. They also serve as storage spaces for tools and gardening equipment during winter. The exceptions are storm cellars, which are constructed to protect people living in areas prone to harsh weatherA basement can be a storage area. However, its functions aren’t limited to this. It can be used as a utility room, garage, recreational room, office, home gym, and if finished can be converted to a bedroom or apartment suite. 
Cellars have low ceilingsThe ceiling in basements are usually higher than those in cellars
Cellars are smaller than basements Basements cover a larger floor area. Most have the same square footage as the main floor 
Cellars can only be accessed from outside the houseMost basements have entrances inside the house
Cellars don’t usually have windowsAll finished basements have egress windows
Cellars can be attached to basements or to an outside building A basement is essentially the space below a house and cannot be attached to an outside building

California basements are not really true basements and share similarities with cellars in that they are only under part of the house, they are intended for storage, and they are not intended for living space (there is not even the potential of converting it into living space).

Is One Better Than The Other?

Basements and cellars have unique features and are sometimes outfitted for specific purposes. Therefore, the purpose determines which would be most suitable. 

Since a cellar can go well below grade level, it is suitable for storing items without the help of sophisticated cooling systems. So, a cellar is the better option for storing items in an affordable energy-efficient way. 

The location and make-up of most basements wouldn’t provide adequate protection from tornadoes. Therefore, a cellar is best for protection from harsh climates. 

A major advantage of basements is the ease of converting them into a living area. This not only provides room for expansion whenever the need arises, it also increases the value of the house. 

Basements are not only larger, but they are also more suitable for a variety of purposes. Therefore, if you need a space that would serve multiple purposes, a basement is a better option.

Temperature regulation is very important for storing wine and the temperature in basements isn’t always ideal for storing and aging wine. It’s best to use a cellar, particularly a wine cellar for this purpose.

Can a Basement Be Converted Into a Cellar?

A basement can be easily converted into storage space. Your budget and the purpose the cellar is supposed to serve would determine its design. The cellar might just cover a section of the basement or it might cover the entire area. 

First, you’d decide if you want the cellar to be active or passive. If you desire a passive cellar, you might have to excavate the area a little. For an active cellar, you’d have to install the necessary cooling systems. 

To convert the basement into a root cellar or wine cellar, make sure the space is properly insulated and then follow adequate measures to improve the temperature and humidity in the room. 

A storm shelter doesn’t have to be so big. It can be a part of an existing basement. You’d need to determine the best spot for the shelter, and then a frame that’s big enough for the intended occupants should be built in accordance with established city regulations if available. 

A permit might be required to convert your basement to a storm cellar, so it’s best to confirm with your city’s codes before you proceed. 

Can a Cellar Be Converted Into a Basement?

Converting a cellar to a basement isn’t an easy venture. A cellar is relatively smaller than a basement and would require significant structural work to convert. 

If the cellar is small and there isn’t room to extend the space, it would be impossible to turn the minuscule space into a full basement.

A reasonably sized cellar can be converted to a media room, utility room, gym, or even a bedroom. However, unless the cellar is unusually large, it would be impossible to convert the space into a basement apartment suite. 

To turn the cellar into a habitable space, you would have to work on the insulation, waterproofing, plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems. 

I explained the different categories of basements earlier. So, before you proceed, you’d have to decide if you want a finished, unfinished, or partially finished basement. Your choice would determine the amount of work needed.

Note that a permit is required to convert a cellar to a bedroom in most cities in the United States. 

Sources

https://www.completebasementsystems.net/resources/are-basements-and-cellars-the-same/

https://www.jeswork.com/resources/basement-waterproofing/whats-the-difference-between-cellars-basements/

https://civilengineersforum.com/basement-cellar-difference/

https://www.nashvillesmls.com/blog/common-basement-types.html

https://harmonybasements.ca/what-is-a-daylight-basement/

https://www.almanac.com/content/root-cellars-types-and-storage-tips

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