On Base or Off? That Is The Question.

There are a variety of housing options the service member may consider if s/he is single, but for you, your spouse and your family, you’ll have to decide between two: on base or off.  The decision on whether to live on base or off is a completely personal, one that may change based on your duty station, if your service member might deploy, the size of your family, or even pets that you might own.  We’ll break down the pros and cons of both to hopefully make your decision a bit easier.  Note: it’s possible that you may not have a choice in the matter.  If you are stationed overseas, for example, you may be required to live on base.

On Base Housing

Pros: On base housing offers a variety of benefits.  Many choose to live on base for the convenience factor: you will likely be close to shopping, base amenities such as pools, parks and other recreational activities, and childcare and schools.  For others, it’s a heightened level of security as most military housing is either located within the base or in a secure, gated community.  This is a popular reason for spouses whose service member is deploying and there will be long stretches where you and your family may be alone. 

Others love on base housing for the built in community it offers; where else can you live where all your neighbors might, at least on some level, understand the sacrifices that you make as a military family?  Being surrounded by the families of others in your spouses unit may potentially build cohesion and foster a ‘team’ environment.

Military housing offers competitive, and may even exceed, the standards of living in the surrounding area.  This is especially true if you are stationed in an area surrounded by a large city or where the cost of living is high.  Marine Corps Base Quantico, for example, offers military housing that is very spacious, tidy and quite attractive.  Because the cost of living in the surrounding Washington DC area is so high, it’s likely that BAH won’t cover the same spacious living quarters in close proximity to those you will find on base.  And maintence is free; it is in the best interest of the military to provide a safe, comfortable home, both for the family and the service member.

Cons: Depending on your duty station, you may encounter a fairly long wait list-anything from a week to months.  If you plan on moving on base after a PCS, there’s a chance you’ll have to find alternative housing until a spot becomes available.  Generally, you also don’t get much of a choice on where you live or what house or apartment you are assigned.  All military housing is separated by rank and family size, you won’t be hand pick the house or apartment where you desire to live.  If, for example, you are assigned the first house off a relatively busy street, there may not be much wiggle room to change. 

Some individuals love the community, while others feel like they never get a chance to ‘get away’ from the military, or that it makes the world seem a bit ‘small.’  Though most on base housing is kept clean and tidy, you may encounter a housing that is in dire need of renovations. 

Your rent is technically free, you will not receive BAH, so there’s no chance of saving a bit of money at the end of the month.    Others elect not to live on base because they feel restricted by the regulations, especially concerning any type of interior design or outdoor landscaping.  Some don’t want to bother with the relatively strict move in/move out inspection processes.

The DoD also has a list of restricted dog breeds, so if you happen to own one, you’re out of luck-you either have to re-home your pet or find other living arrangements. 

Off Base Housing

Pros: Many military families choose off base housing because of the freedom it offers, and the opportunity to save some BAH at the end of the month.  When you chose off base housing, you make all decisions.  You can shop around, decide on a specific home or apartment complex, be in control of you move in/move out date, and get a feel for the neighbors and/or neighborhood.  Many installations have civilian real estate companies that lease military owned housing to military members- sometimes at a discounted rate.  When my husband and I were stationed at Quantico, we were able to rent a house in the nearby bed and breakfast town of Fredericksburg.  Because the owner was military and familiar with BAH, we were able to save money at the end of the month.  Since my husband’s job was very demanding, it was especially nice to be able to escape the confines and feel like we were really having an adventure.  Sometimes I compare living on base to visiting an airport.  Most airports, no matter where you go, might have a few differences but ultimately the end game is the same-to get you from one destination to the next.  Living off base allows you not just to live in a new state, but also to live among locals and assimilate into the culture first hand.

And, you may not experience the same levels of restrictions; design, pets, inspection processes that you will face while living on base. 

Cons: Traffic around military installations is notoriously horrible; your spouse may end up sitting in his or her car on the way to base, or having to leave much earlier than one might if they lived in on base housing.  Similarly, if your children are enrolled in on base DoD schools, it’s possible that your children might not live near his or her friends or his or her ride to school is much longer.  You will likely still have access to many of the same amenities, but it’s likely they won’t be walking distance.  Unless you find off base housing in a gated community or secure building, you won’t have the same level of security that those who live on base enjoy.  And some find that it’s more difficult, or requires greater effort, to meet friends- especially when you’re new to a community.  If you decide to live off base, make sure that the landlord or management company is aware of military moves and offers a ‘get out clause’ if the proper paperwork is provided.  You don’t want to be given PCS orders when you still have six months of rent and a landlord that won’t budge.

The choice is truly up to you.  Many military spouses have lived both on and off base, and enjoyed both for different reasons.  Army wife Rebecca Alwine notes, ‘When looking at housing, I consider the house we can get on post for our BAH versus what we could afford off post with the BAH. We have lived on post at 3 of the 4 duty stations because it has been cheaper and we’ve had a great house. The first time, we were able to live for about $200 under our BAH and made money!’



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