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!