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HOMESTYLE / BASEMENTS : Deep Down, the Nostalgia Still Lingers

November 22, 1990|BRIAN ALEXANDER

There just isn't a decent place to put a Ping-Pong table in homes around here. In this land of plenty, you've got your skylights, your golf courses and your red tile roofs, but alas, no basements.

"I heard about some guy from the East Coast who put a basement in," said Will Foss, the man who issues all of Solana Beach's building permits. Foss knew this mystery man didn't live in his city because Foss has issued every building permit since Solana Beach incorporated three years ago, and there hasn't been one basement built here in those three years. Unfortunately, Foss didn't know where this East Coast-style basement might be hiding.

"Basements?!" exclaimed Mandayam Rajan, an engineer in the San Marcos office of the county's planning department. "I know of no basements," he said sadly. "I will ask the older inspectors. Perhaps they know of basements." Days passed with no word from Rajan.

Foss had an idea for finding one. Try title companies, he advised.

Title companies told me they have no way of tracing properties with basements. "Why do you want to know about basements?" asked one incredulous title officer.

Good question.

Realtors were contacted. This line of inquiry led to Del Mar, where basements have become a political issue. (In Del Mar, everything is a political issue.) Strict building codes prevented people from using more than 25% of their 10,000 square-foot lots for habitable construction. Unless, that is, they added an extra 400-square-feet in garage space. Some people built garages, then backfilled around it on three sides to create a basement with a garage door. A few used this "garage" as a basement living area. Last year, the law was changed to eliminate this practice.

"This is a very big issue," said Julie Pinney, a former Del Mar planning commissioner and an associate with Chiquita Abbott Real Estate. "It's become a political football." Still, could these ersatz basements be counted? No. basements do not have garage doors.

Solana Beach's Foss had another possible tip, but it too went nowhere.

"It's just so unusual," said Foss. "I've heard stories of people out in Poway that had a couple of basements built but they were really bomb shelters. They had a 1-inch-thick concrete slab on top of it and used it for a bomb shelter. I think the guy was military."

All of this is not to say that there are no basements in North County. In fact, there are undoubtedly some basements hiding out there, perhaps owned by former East Coast and Midwest types, the kind that root for the Cubs and Ohio State after 30 years of living in Southern California.

Still, it is painfully obvious that basements in North County are more rare than trail bologna at the county fair, scrapple and red eye gravy.

The reasons for the dearth of basements are somewhat prosaic. The earth has the nasty habit of moving in this region, and four walls of concrete block sunk below ground level aren't about to stop it. Basements here are sometimes short lived, even though codes require much reenforcing with steel rods.

There's the second reason. Basements are expensive. All that reenforcement, excavation, concrete and labor can add a great deal to the price of a house. Building on a slab or on concrete pilings with wooden posts is much cheaper, faster and, in some zones, safer.

Finally, basements are not really needed in North County. This is a place, after all, where earthquakes severely outnumber tornadoes, eliminating the Midwestern habit of huddling in basements like Londoners during the blitz. Here, the ground won't freeze your pipes, and it's been a long time since anybody needed a coal chute and used an old cast-iron basement furnace for central heating.

And yet basements are missed, especially by those who once lived in homes with the subterranean caverns.

Any Midwesterner can tell you that Ping-Pong tables belong in basements and nowhere else. The tables arrive at Christmas, are pounded on with great ferocity until Christmas vacation ends and are then transformed by piles of clothing into a kind of laundry bullpen where towels and shirts wait their turn for the washing machine, which, of course, is also located in the basement.

What other part of the house could be so easily transformed into a discotheque where adolescents can switch off the lights for a "slow dance" and be sure that mom and dad wouldn't discover the lights are out until Boy had kissed Girl?

With a basement, a teen-ager can virtually move out, yet still live at home.

Where else can dad put his favorite chair that mom thinks is revolting and too horrible for the living room? The basement is the only place. Perhaps sitting nicely on a big scrap of orange shag carpeting.

How is it possible to test glow-in-the-dark toys without basements? You can see the toy, but not the kid throwing it at you.

And, perhaps most important of all, where else could one put Uncle Al and Aunt Irene when they come for a visit with an eye toward validating Benjamin Franklin's aphorism about guests and fish?

Garages and bomb shelters just won't do.

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