We recently published an article explaining the pros and cons of living on base. But of course, that isn’t the whole story. There are plenty of reasons for a military family to choose to live off base. This can be a good option, especially if there is a long waiting list at your base, or you can’t find a good neighborhood near your spouse’s work. However, living off base has its own challenges too. Be sure to weigh all these pros and cons when making the decision that will work best for your family.
Pros of Living Off Base
You may save money: When living off base, you can choose a place that fits your budget. If your rent or mortgage payments are lower than BAH, you keep the extra.
Much more variety: Off base, there is a wider range of houses and neighborhoods to choose from, and they don’t all have the same boring white walls. You can find apartments, condos, single family homes, or houses on a lot of land. You can search for the style or particular amenities you desire, or choose the neighborhood closest to the base gate.
More amenities: Your dream house may be within your BAH. You can have extra bedrooms, walk-in closets, a larger garage, private swimming pool, central heat and air conditioning, a fireplace, etc. Most of those features are not available in base housing.
Personalize it: When you live off base, you have more options to personalize your property with paint, decorations, yard work, etc. This is especially true if you buy your own place. Do-it-yourselfers will enjoy the freedom of unlimited projects when living off base.
Escape the fishbowl: Some service members enjoy the chance to get away from the military work environment and not have co-workers as their neighbors. You can get a lot more privacy off base.
Put down roots: If you live in the local civilian community, you may be more likely to make local connections at stores, the gym, school, church, etc. Some people prefer to have non-military friends and feel part of the local town.
Shorter commute for the spouse?: If you, the military spouse, work off base, then off-base housing might be located closer to your work. Ideally, you could choose a location in between both of your jobs.
Rental income: If you buy a house, you can use your BAH to cover the mortgage, then keep it as a rental property when you move. If the rent is priced properly, it will cover your mortgage. Remember that you will be responsible for paying for repairs. You should also have a cash savings account if the house is vacant for a month in between renters. Be sure to research real estate values in the area around base before assuming you can make money on an investment.
Fewer moves: When you live on base, the housing is determined by rank and family size. That means you may be required to move every time the service member picks up a new rank or you have a new baby. That can add up to a lot of extra moves paid out of pocket! If you live off base, there is no need to move until you get PCS orders.
Pet friendly: Base housing only allows two pets per household, and they restrict some ‘dangerous breeds’ of dogs. Off base, you can have as many interesting pets as you can feed.
Cons of Living Off Base
Poor quality neighborhoods and schools: This really depends on your base location, but around some bases the neighborhoods are not very safe and don’t have great schools. The cost of living can limit the areas you can afford to live with your BAH. Be sure to research the area thoroughly and ask other military families about a neighborhood’s reputation.
Longer commute for service member: Typically, living off base means the service member drives farther to work. Even if the mileage isn’t far, they will still have to deal with the inevitable traffic jams at the base gate every day. At larger bases, those traffic back-ups can delay you for a half hour or more! So ask about traffic patterns and speed limits on base. Don’t just make a decision based on Google maps.
Can feel more isolated: Some people like the quiet neighborhoods off base. Other people feel they are less social, and they feel left out of on-base events. Think about your own personality. Do you pan to have friends over often? Will you be driving to a lot of base activities? If you are going to spend all your social time on base, you may not enjoy having a home off base.
Need two cars: Off base means more driving, so most families living off base will require two cars. On base, you can typically walk to the Commissary, gym, and playgrounds, so it is easier to get by with one vehicle.
Spend more money?: Less involvement in free base opportunities can mean spending more money. When we lived off base, I shopped at the local grocery store, paid for a gym, and paid for local preschools. I knew these were all cheaper on base. But, the half hour drive made them less appealing. Be realistic about how your location will affect your household budget.
There you have it! Every decision has its pros and cons. We have lived off based and loved it. But as our children grew, we moved on base and we have really enjoyed that too. So just because one option was good at your current duty station, stay open minded about what might be best for your family at the next station.
What do you enjoy most about living off base?