Military Base Housing Versus Living Off Base: How We Decide
As I’ve shared a few times, we are (slowly) gearing up for our next relocation (yes, already!). This time, we are moving back to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (a military base we first lived on from 2012-2015); and we have decided to live in military base housing once again. Over the years, I’ve learned that the “on base versus off base debate” is a common and recurring one for most military families with no clear or perfect choice. Sure, some people are “always base” or “never base,” but most make a decision on a move-by-move basis, weighing a wide variety of important and personal factors. Today, I wanted to share both the pros and cons of living on base, and share why we’ve chosen to head back on after three consecutive assignments of off-base living!
What Is Military Base Housing?
Military Base Housing refers to residential areas aboard military installations (or designated Federal property near bases) that are reserved for married active duty servicemembers to live in with their families. Although some bases do allow DOD employees, contractors, and retirees to occupy this housing, it is not typically for single service members (who instead live in the barracks or off-base housing when permitted).
The housing options range from apartments and duplexes to townhouses and single-family homes, all arranged in neighborhood-like communities. Military base housing is run by various private organizations around the country (e.g., Lincoln Military Housing, Atlantic Marine Corps Communities, etc); and as such, are not at all “standardized” when it comes to the application process, quality, square footage etc. Servicemembers are considered tenants of the property and pay rent in accordance with the local area’s BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing.) Where exactly you live and how big of a house you get is usually determined by rank, number of family members, and availability. Not all military installations offer base housing, but most do.
Fun Military Culture Fact! As a Marine Corps family, we use the terms “on base” and “off base” when referring to being, living, and working within Department of Defense property lines. Army families tend to use “on post” and “off post” instead. In this article, I will use the term “base,” which is the same thing as “installation,” “station,” and “post.”
We’ve lived on base for three of Greg’s duty stations (Okinawa, Japan; Quantico, Virginia; and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) and have lived off-base for the others (San Diego, California – both times; and now in Virginia). Although we haven’t seen or experienced everything, we’ve lived both options enough to be able to share the following insights…
Pros of Living in Military Base Housing
Living in family housing aboard a military installation is a unique experience and can be one of the best parts of military life. In very few other life circumstances do you live among people with whom you have so much in common. Because military housing is organized by rank, your neighbors tend to be fellow active-duty members in the same stage of their careers, with the same age kids, and lots of overlapping interests and shared experiences. Living near other families who know what it’s like to move frequently, have deployed family members, and live far away from their own families creates instant connections and life-long relationships.
But there are other, more practical, benefits to living on base as well, including:
Although the housing companies that oversee military base housing are privatized (i.e., contracted out by the Federal Government), on base rent is set in accordance with a servicemember’s BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) for that particular area. This means your monthly rent payments will never exceed your housing allowance. Since finding off-base housing at or below BAH can be quite difficult, living on base can save a lot of money over the course of an assignment.
This may not be true for all on-base communities; but in most military rentals, basic utilities such as electricity, trash, water, and lawn care are included. While bases are starting to incorporate utility payments for families that exceed average usage, this savings in both cost and hassle cannot be overstated.
Maintenance & Repairs
At least in our experience, military base housing takes care of (most) maintenance and service requirements, as long as they directly relate to the health, safety, and usability of the property. No, they will not paint the walls or clean the carpets, but they will replace appliances and perform other wear-and-tear maintenance.
Access to Amenities
One of the biggest advantages of on-base housing is your proximity to important base amenities. The biggest and most obvious one is easy access to tax-free shopping at the Exchanges (goods) and Commissaries (food). However, large bases also have dedicated medical facilities, youth sports programming, churches, and recreational areas (e.g, gyms, pools), making everything you could possibly need close and convenient.
Base housing is usually close to the main “working” facilities of the installation, which results in short and easy commute times. Since servicemembers often work long hours and/or are deployed frequently, this time savings can be significant to family life.
Not only are you living among active duty military members who take rules, safety, and security rather seriously; but most bases have guarded, gate-only access. This in turn creates a community that is incredibly safe. When you have small kids and/or a deployed spouse, this enhanced security (and peace of mind!) is priceless.
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. Base housing residents are almost always ready and willing to help in any emergency situation and are some of the best, most-trustworthy, and fun neighbors you’ll ever have!
Pros of Living Off Base
Separation of Work and Play
While living among fellow servicemembers can create instant community, it also severely blurs the line 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 run into co-workers at the grocery store, barber shop, church….everywhere. Dress codes need to be abided by even during off hours, and the office is usually just minutes away. In truth: working, playing, socializing, and relaxing among very like-minded people can become stifling, consuming, and messy. Conversely, living off base maintains a clearer line between work and play, which helps military work feel more like a job and less like an all-inclusive lifestyle.
When living on base, the type of house you get, the number of rooms you rate, and what neighborhood you live in is usually determined by rank, number of dependents (spouse + children), and availability. Need an extra bedroom for a home office but don’t rate one? Too bad. 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. You’d rather a single-family home for your noisy kids but you get offered a duplex instead? You’ll have to take it. Living off base, on the other hand, 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.
Difficulty Getting Into Base Housing
For whatever reason, actually getting into military base housing is hard, stressful, and honestly: a complete nuisance. For as much as we move and deal with as a military population, getting into base housing shouldn’t be so hard. In fact, in the 17 years we’ve been doing this, it’s seemingly harder than ever to get into government housing. True, there isn’t enough base housing to go around (and the affordable housing crisis nationwide is impacting this problem); but complicated applications, long wait times, and non-transparent waitlist rules make the whole process simply exasperating. This is absolutely dependent on the base, but we have yet to experience a seamless transition into military base housing. When renting off base though, you have a lot more flexibility on when, where, and how you actually get into a house.
Better Quality Homes
Since becoming privatized by the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in 1996, the quality of military housing has gotten a lot better (or so I am told). But in comparison to the size and quality of homes typically available off-base, military housing is usually sub-par. Beyond just the lack of comfortable square footage and updated finishes (most on-base homes are small and the definition of “builder basic”), it is well documented that various military housing areas across the country have been plagued by things such as mold, lead, and land quality. For someone who really values how her home looks, functions, feels (not to mention it’s safety!), I am usually better able to find higher quality homes off base.
Why We’re Moving Back On Base
When we drove off Camp Lejeune almost 7 years ago, “I’m never living here again” is what I said with the base gate in the rear view mirror. At the time, we had been living in a little on-base home for 3 straight years, and the “all military, all the time” was getting really old. Greg was at a particularly busy unit (2 back-to-back deployments in 3 years) that had a lot of controversy and drama. We were also in the thick of a heavy experience with secondary infertility, and living among so many young families and pregnant bellies was more than I could bare. I was soooooo thirsty for space…physical space in our home, emotional space to process the second child we couldn’t seem to have, mental space from intense military life…all of it.
Flash forward 7 years, and we haven’t lived on base since. All three times (Kansas, San Diego, and here in Virginia), we opted for an off-base house mostly because I still needed that separation of work and play. But when the time came to decide about North Carolina, both Greg and I didn’t even need to discuss it: we both know it is time to move back on base.
Why? We deeply miss our community.
Although it’s been compounded by COVID, the neighborhood we currently live in doesn’t have an abundance of families with young children (and hardly any military). Our kids are lonely, we are lonely, and we haven’t lived around Marines in a really, really long time. Although I needed a break all those years ago, the Marine Corps is our family and we miss being around our people. We are now thirsty not for space, but for closeness. For neighbors who know us, get us, are living our life, and sharing our struggles.
That said, I’d like to think I’m moving back on base with my eyes a little more wide open. I know I’m heading back into a cramped, dated old house. I know I’m heading back to a very military lifestyle (especially with Greg taking Command). And I know I am (potentially) heading back to the drama that just naturally comes with living so close to people just like yourself. But we also know in our bones, it’s where we are meant to be this time and it’s what our children need…and I honestly can’t wait!
Both on- and off-base living have great rewards as well as big drawbacks; and I don’t think there is ever a “one size fits all” approach. One thing I do know is that we will never be “on base only” or “off base only” family. For us, it’s a choice with lots of different factors that need to be individually considered each and every time we move. We make the best decision we can based on our family’s needs at the time, and then try to “bloom” wherever we end up planting ourselves…always taking some comfort in knowing a new and different “pot” is just a few years away!
19 Comments on “Military Base Housing Versus Living Off Base: How We Decide”
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
This was my old response from 2015 when the subject first came up, but it brought back more memories! At one point, we lived next door to the Beardsley’s (of Your, Mine & Ours fame). He was married to his first wife, and they had 8 children at the time. They would go on to have 10, then she passed away, and he married a Navy widow with another 8 kids, and they had 2 more! He was a Warrant Officer at the time, but was living in a higher-ranking section because of such a large family.
Hawaii formerly had a Senator with a ton of influence on the Armed Services Committee, Dan Inouye. He got a lot of housing built here, and now I am surprised to see some of it is available to civilian DOD workers, even retirees! Some is in areas where the base is closed, like Barber’s Point. And, compared to “standard” Hawaii houses, quarters and housing is usually spacious with a lot of storage.
One last memory – we had moved into quarters across from Pearl Harbor, but my sister and I had been staying with family nearby so we could start school. When we got to the house, a whole porch full of kids showed up, inviting us to play, as Dad and Mom had already reconnected with friends and classmates. What a welcome!
Good luck to your whole family – it will be an adventure!
Thanks for chiming in again, Tenney! (Btw – Can you believe you’ve been following along in our adventures for so long?!?!)
Yes – the housing situation can be really uneven nationwide. Some places (e.g., Camp Pendleton), you can’t get onto base because demand is so high. Other places, (e.g., Camp Lejeune) they open it up to additional populations because there just isn’t demand. I am sure privatizing all those years ago was an improvement to the overall system, but the lack of standardization is a little frustrating! Case in point – we have to majorly downsize to move into this next house.
But yes – the community makes it aaaalll worth it!
Great post! I'm a little twitsen on how i prefer to live on or off base, the both has their advantages.
End of tenancy cleaners London
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!
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!
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 :).
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?
So many things I never thought of! We lived “on base” for most of my school-age years growing up and the year my Dad left the Army and we went to a non-base school was by far the hardest. It was difficult to make friends and I remember being the only new kid in my class that year. I hadn’t had any issues before that but making friends and fitting in were such a struggle. It could also have been the community, as well, but as you said, living with others just like you is something you can’t overrate and as a kid, I felt this strongly. I never thought about it from my parents perspective though! I wish you all the best in your next home and I’m sure you will make any on-base housing really shine :o)
Thanks so much for chiming in here!
You know – I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t write much about the benefits of on-base life for kids. Truth be told, we haven’t lived on base since our youngest was 4, so I didn’t even think about the social and academic support found in on-base schools….but you are exactly right! There is a certain comfort among military kids, and being in an on-base school, where the teachers/staff/programs are sensitive to military life, can be a real value for kids just as much as parents!
I’ll have to update my post 😉
Best wishes on your next move. With all the challenges, you have a defined time limit and you have a lot more experience in making a house – any house – a home.
And thanks to all of you for your service. I live in the great white north so I do benefit 🙂
Thanks so much, Linda!
I am really familiar with the on-base homes this time around, so I think I’ll be able to “hit the ground running” and make it work for us right away! Always a fun adventure!
I’m pretty sure I started following when you were in NC fixing up that bland base house 😁 so I’m very excited to see how you tackle a similar situation (with all the new things you’ve tried and perfected over the years)! I hope your on-base experience is awesome this time around. ♥️
Hi again, Ashley!! And thanks so much! (Sidenot: Thanks for following along with my ramblings for so long I love hearing when readers can remember each house!)
I’m actually fairly excited for this challenge – we will have to downsize in order to fit into this next house. But I’ve never known a layout of a new home as thoroughly as I do this one (we went to many parties in these homes when we were there last)…so at least I’ll be able to mentally prepare well before we get there!
Happy Veterans Day and thank you to your husbands service for keeping the USA safe. Also thank you to you and your children for supporting your husband and making each house a home. I so enjoy your blogs. Ann Beller. Seminole, Florida.🇺🇸