Thriving & Surviving Military Life: The On-Base vs Off-Base Housing Debate

Happy Wednesday, friends! I’m taking a quick break from my usual craft and home decor posts to deliver you the next installment in my monthly “Thriving & Surviving Military Life” series. I started this series back in the beginning of the year as a platform to chat a bit more about the unique opportunities and challenges we face as a military family and give a glimpse into our unique lifestyle. As most of you long-time readers know, we are getting ready to make our next move…and along with everything that must be done and decided during the moving process, one of the biggest is deciding where to live. For most people when they move, this decision is driven by school districts, commute times, neighborhoods, and crime rates…all of which military families take into account as well. But there is also another big component to our decision: do we live on base or off base?

Military Thriving and Surviving On Base vs Off Base

Not all military installations offer base housing, but many of them do. We have lived on base for three of our four duty stations so far (Japan, Virginia, and here in North Carolina) and lived off base for one (California). I tend to forget what a big decision this one is when we are between moves…but every few years when our orders come through…the debates and discussions start. We research the area, reach out to friends and family who have lived there before us, and look at the various on- and off-base housing options. Over the years, I’ve learned that this topic is VERY personal and can even be charged with a lot of emotions – everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter (us included!) While we certainly don’t know everything on the subject…having just gone through the debate and made our latest on-base/off-base decision once again (which turned out to be quite a roller coaster ride!), I wanted to share the pros and cons of each and what we decided this time around!

Living On Base

(Again, I want to preface everything by saying these are all my own opinions based on our 10 years of experience so far. We certainly have not seen or tried everything when it comes to housing, but here are a few of my observations)

Living on a military installation is such a unique and fantastic experience. In very few other life circumstances can you live among people who you have so much in common with. Because housing is often organized by rank, you are most often living among your peers who are in the same place in their careers with the same age families (and not to mention similar interests and shared experiences!) For this reason, living on base affords you instant community and close, real, special, and long-lasting friendships. Being among other families who know what it’s like to move frequently, have deployed family members, and live far away from family brings instant comfort and companionship.

Other benefits to living on base include:

  • Safety – Not only are you living among service members, but most bases have guarded gate-only access. This is a pretty big deal when you have a deployed husband!
  • Support – Military neighborhoods offer a unique level of emotional and physical support. Our shared experiences make us more sensitive to the challenges of long deployments, living away from family, having babies alone, being in new/strange surroundings and more. Military families are almost always ready and willing to help in any emergent situation and are some of the best, most-trustworthy, and fun neighbors you’ll ever have!
  • Access to benefits. One of the many advantages of being part of the military community is that you get to access subsidized and tax-free shopping at the on-base stores (Exchanges) and grocery stores (Commissaries). Living on base means you can (usually) access these stores (and ultimately save time and money) a lot easier! Large bases also have dedicated medical facilities, youth sports programming and recreational facilities (gyms, pools), making everything you could possibly need close and convenient.
  • Commute. Base housing is often somewhat near the main working facilities of the installation, making for short and easy commute times for the service member. My husband’s current commute is about 6 minutes with little-to-no traffic.
  • Utilities included. This may not be true for all on-base communities, but in many scenarios, basic utilities like electricity, trash, and water are included. Some bases are starting to incorporate utility payments; but on the whole, living in base housing can often be cheaper than renting or buying off base.

Living Off Base

I’ve sure done a good job of hyping up base housing, but there are also some downsides to on-base living that also need to be considered. We’ve found that there are times and circumstances when off-base living can be a better fit.
  • Separation of work and play. While living among fellow service members can create instant community and lasting friendships, it also severely blurs the lines between work and the rest of your life. On military bases, it can often feel like all military, all the time. Bosses can live down the street and you can run into co-workers at the grocery store or in church. Dress codes need to be abided by even during off hours, and the office is often just minutes away. Working, playing, socializing and relaxing among very like-minded people can become stifling, consuming, and messy. Living off base can help the job feel more like just work and less like an all-inclusive lifestyle.
  • Housing policies. On base, the type of house you get, the number of rooms you rate, and what neighborhoods you actually get to live in is most often determined by rank and number of children in the family. Need an extra bedroom for a home office? Too bad if you only rate a three bedroom house. Want to live closer to the elementary school? You might not be able to if that neighborhood is assigned to a different rank or population. Living off base allows you to choose whatever size and type of house you want or need, in whatever school district you want, for whatever rent you are willing to pay.
  • Getting into base housing. For whatever reason, getting into on-base housing is often hard, stressful and honestly, a complete nuisance. You wouldn’t think it would be, and I don’t quite understand why it is…but everywhere we have lived, getting an on-base house requires jumping through unnecessary hoops and a lot of seemingly preventable stress. True, there most often isn’t enough base housing to go around, but having to check into housing in person (instead of signing leases long distance), long wait times, and silly wait list rules make the whole process exasperating. This is absolutely dependent on the base, but we have yet to have a seamless transition into on-base housing. When renting off base, you have a lot more flexibility on when, where, and how you get into a house.

So What Are We Doing This Time?

There is so much more I could go into, but this post is getting long enough (are you still with me?), and I bet you’re wondering what we’re doing at our next (still-to-be-named) duty station! The story is a long one (as it always tends to be!), but I will condense it for you. After researching our next base and the surrounding area and reaching out to folks we know who live there, we first decided to live on base for many of the reasons listed above: security, community and overall ease of living. But even with our decision mostly made, I was unsure. We’ve been living in on-base housing for 4 years now, and I’ve been starting to feel stifled and frustrated by the all-military, all-the-time lifestyle. I already shared that I wasn’t too crazy about this latest move of ours’, and the on-base housing options were leaving me less than thrilled. Still…we proceeded with our on-base plan.

However, as I mentioned, getting into base housing was proving messy and stressful yet again. Then this crazy, too-good-to-be true string of events occurred, and a perfect off-base house landed seemingly in our laps. Even though we love on-base living, the off-base option felt like the right fit for us where we are at right now on this crazy journey. The prospect of a nicer and bigger house sure had my spirits lifting, and a small break from this intense lifestyle was just the thing I needed to get excited about our next transition. After some twisting of my husband’s arm, we went for the off-base house, and I honestly could not be more thrilled. You know I am chomping at the bit to spill all the details; and as you might expect, I’ve already started decorating this home in my head! Alas, you all will have to wait a bit longer…but know that it’s going to be a good year 😉

I think the “moral of the story” here is that there isn’t ever a perfect fit. Both on- and off-base living have great rewards as well as big drawbacks. The best you can do is research, weigh the options, and figure out what is the right solution for your family at the time. I don’t think we will ever be “on base only people” or “off base only people.” Just as we like to explore new parts of the world/country with each move, we also like to experience different housing options and scenarios. After four years of on-base living, I am beyond thrilled to make the leap off base for the next year. Will we regret it? Who knows. Would on-base have been more fun, easier, cheaper etc? Who knows. All I know is off-base feels like the right decision this time around…and because it feels right…it will be right! We will bloom where we’re planted…and if we got it wrong…we get to try again the next time around!

As usual, thanks for indulging me in these more personal, anecdotal posts! I know I have a bunch of military spouse readers out there! How do you approach the on-base/off-base conundrum? Do you agree with my various assessments? I’d love to hear your experiences. Even if you aren’t part of the military community, I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about one of these very unique aspects to our lives!!!

(And be sure to catch other installments of this series here!)

See you back here Friday with my monthly roundup!


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10 Responses to Thriving & Surviving Military Life: The On-Base vs Off-Base Housing Debate

  1. To be clear, the arm twisting was more about changing plans mid-stream vice on or off-base. Another key point to ease your transition is to make key decisions early; it is hard to adjust certain aspects of a move (e.g. movers) if you adjust major aspects of your plan close to your departure/arrival date. Living and learning!

  2. preface: read the blog all the time; however have not commented (sorry!)

    I am not military: so; first: THANK YOU for you husband's service and your (and Henry's) sacrifices. Second: this is a great series to help us non-military folk understand and appreciate more the sacrifices you all in the military make. Third: your husband''s comments crack me up!

    Many prayers for a smooth move and transition to your new home.

  3. Great post on the pro's and con's! Even though it was only a short 1.5 years, living on base was one of the most powerful and formative experiences I've had, and I'm so thankful to have had you and the rest of our neighborhood as a part of it. Good luck on your next move, I'm sure you will make a beautiful home and find great community no matter what!

  4. This comment comes from a grown up Army brat. My Dad served 21 years in the Army and we lived both on base and off base. Living on base was the best! Your neighbors instantly became family because all of you understood what each was going through. Everything you need is around the corner. I rode my bike everywhere, school, swim practice, soccer practice, Church, PX and my friends house. I knew if I did something I shouldn't Mom would find out before I arrived home. She would be waiting at the door! We always had the best block parties too. There was always something to celebrate! Thank you for your husband's service and your and Henry's sacrifices. Wishing you safe travels on your next move!

  5. Dear Megan;
    I came to your blog from I Heart Organizing and have enjoyed going back and reading lots of your old posts. My Dad was in the Navy for 30 years, and also my Uncle and Grandfather. We did stints both on base and off base, and you sure hit the nail on the head regarding pros and cons. The last move was a tough one for my sister and I, because although we stayed in San Diego, we moved across the bay to base housing – the house was great, and so was the base, but changing high schools six weeks into a new school year was no fun. But having a movie theatre, exchange, bowling alley and library all close by helped. Until my 16th birthday, when Dad said, you're spending too much time at the bowling alley – time for you to go to work! Oh, well – good memories!

    Anyway, just wanted to say Thanks to you both for serving and sharing, and I'm looking forward to seeing how you transition to the new house and location! Aloha!

  6. This comment comes from the mom of a high schooler who is considering enlisting in the Marine Corp…I love reading what you have to say and it makes me breathe a bit easier with the decisions that my daughter is making. Kudos to you and your family. Thank you for the service and thank you for easing my mind a bit!

  7. We've lived both on and off-base stateside and overseas and I think you hit most of the pros and cons well. I do find that with an older child (13) we prefer more and more the on-base lifestyle as we feel safer letting her go farther and do more than we would off-base. Two more reasons to live off-base that occurred to me – you can often live off-base for less money and (depending on rank and time in service) you may have a waiting list up to a year long.

    In one location we were not given a choice, but we're required to live on base. Although this ended up being best for our family we definitely resented this policy when we arrived and were even more perturbed when it changed just a couple months after we moved in!

  8. Thank you for writing this Megan! I have been pestering my poor hubs about his desire to try off-base housing this time, having only known, and loved, on-base housing. Now that I’ve read this and come to see that there might be another side of things, I feel a lot better about giving an off-base place a go! I miss you and your presence in the ‘hood back here and I have been recommending your blog’s incredible moving resources to all my milspouse pals :).

  9. Thanks for the info and perspective and mostly for your husbands service and your sacrifice. ♡

    It’s been a year and I’ll assume you have successfully moved off base. How is it going?

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