Buying an Existing Earth-Sheltered Home

Learn what to consider when buying an earth-sheltered house, including tips for checking structural soundness and waterproofing, heating and cooling systems, and building code compliance, questions for the current owner, and conditions for purchase.

| September/October 1983

Earth-sheltered housing is no longer an oddity. In fact, even though the concept of underground dwellings has been popularized only over the past decade or so, thousands of subterranean homes exist today. Unfortunately (for the average house-shopper), much of the material written about earth-sheltered structures is directed to the professional, or to folks who are at least acquainted with the technical aspects of such construction. And that's why we decided to excerpt this chapter from A Practical Guide to Earth Sheltered Housing by Mary Rollwagen, Susan Taylor, and T. Lance Holthusen. The authors—whose consulting firm, TLH Associates, handles many of the public education programs of the University of Minnesota's Underground Space Association—have specifically directed their attention toward potential homeowners who don't want to build their own houses, but would prefer to have the task contracted or to buy an existing earth-sheltered structure. Such people, of course, need to be sure they're making a sound investment, as this is a venture in which mistakes can be very costly. 

When most of us want to acquire a conventional home, we find it much quicker to buy an existing home than to build a new one. Most of the defects in a conventional house are reasonably discernible to average consumers.

Buying an existing earth-sheltered home is a different story altogether. Since earth-sheltered houses are so new, few have appeared on the market for resale. It is estimated, however, that somewhere in the neighborhood of five to six thousand homes had been built by 1982. In addition, some speculation homes are always on the market. In the future, then, consumers may increasingly enjoy the option of buying rather than building an earth-sheltered home.

If you should find an earth-sheltered home that is for sale at the right price and quite fits your needs, how do you judge the soundness of its construction? What should you look for in any earth-sheltered home you tour?

Structural Soundness and Waterproofing

There is no way to probe inside the walls to inspect steel placement or even to ascertain whether the waterproofing system is intact on buried surfaces. Evidence of problems can often be observed in other ways, however.


Look inside the house. for these signs of leakage or structural problems:

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