Although the terms "basement" and "cellar" are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Even if they seem similar, one may be unsafe to occupy, explains the New York City Housing Preservation and Development department.

Height Differences

Basements are constructed halfway or more above grade or curb level, while cellars are at least half below the curb. NYC Housing Preservation and Development warns that cellars may not be safe for occupancy because of a few issues that arise from not just being too far below grade but also not being finished as appropriate living space:

  • Small windows that don't allow easy egress
  • Poor ventilation that is detectable by a musty smell, or undetectable, such as with odorless, poisonous carbon monoxide, which can build from the home's lowest points
  • Insufficient lighting
  • Low ceiling height -- less than 7 feet may not be legally sufficient by building codes

To ensure that an old or questionable cellar -- or basement -- is safe for sleeping, TV watching or any other lengthy activity or habitation, have it inspected by your local building department or an authorized contractor.

A Rental Opportunity -- or Not

Depending on laws and codes in your area, you may be able to rent a basement that meets minimum safety requirements. You likely can't rent a cellar, however, under any circumstances.

Different Uses

Tap into an occupiable basement's living-space potential, also recognizing the market value you can gain with paint and flooring, for starters. Think of your basement as flex space for whatever fits the layout and your lifestyle -- a game room, bedrooms, satellite kitchen, or sewing or craft areas, for example.

An uninhabitable, dry cellar still has potential, such as housing shelves for wine, canned goods or produce storage. In case of a severe storm warning, a cellar with can provide temporary refuge.