One decision almost every member of the military eventually must make is whether to live in on-base military housing or find their own housing off-base.
The decision is easy for single active-duty military in the early years of their service: they live on the base until they get promoted or married. But, eventually, every servicemember and military family must decide whether military housing or off-base housing is the right fit.
The pros and cons of on-base military housing, off-base housing and which to choose depend on your financial situation, family size, short-term and long-term priorities, the region you’re stationed in, and more.
About two-thirds of military families live off-base. Those who live in on-base housing do it for a variety of reasons, but in a survey by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network a majority said their top reason was to be close to base services.
The decision to live on-base in military housing or off-base is something that can have a big impact on your family, your finances and your military career.
Things to Remember While Considering Whether to Live On or Off Base
The military provides servicemembers with a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). The BAH amount depends on military rank (pay grade), marital status, number of children and location.
Overseas, servicemembers who live off-base get an Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA). They get both BAH and OHA if they are unaccompanied, with dependents living in the U.S.
In 1996, the U.S. Department of Defense began the Privatized Military Housing Initiative, and decades later, 99% of military family housing in the continental U.S. is built, owned and managed by private companies. If you use the BAH on-base, the payment from the military goes directly to the company. (Overseas, the Defense Department still owns base housing.)
These private companies take care of utilities like electrical and heat (though not cable TV or internet), as well as repairs and upkeep. Military families are assigned housing based on family size, the servicemember’s pay grade and what’s available.
The quality of on-base housing has been an issue in recent years. The U.S. Government Accountability Office made recommendations to the Department of Defense to improve privatized military housing in 2020, but the recommendations are still being implemented. Currently, the terms of military housing leases across the country and among branches of the service vary widely. Whether a lease includes reimbursement for less electricity than the allowance, rental insurance provisions, limits to exterior and interior changes and more depend on the military base.
Military members who live off-base choose where to live, choose their own living space, and decide how much they’ll pay for rent. You may find housing with rent lower than your BAH, but you’re also responsible for utilities, repairs and upkeep – though you are free to negotiate these costs with the landlord. If you buy a home, you can use your BAH toward the mortgage, but you also must pay property taxes, homeowners’ insurance and the other costs of owning a home.
Your BAH, if you live off-base, is paid directly to you. If your housing costs are less than the BAH amount, you pocket the extra money.
Pros and Cons of Living On-Base
Living in military housing on-base helps ease some of the stress of the constant moves that are a part of military life. Your housing is provided without the hassle of house-hunting, someone else is responsible for upkeep, you live in a community of military families who have a shared experience and you are close to services.
The Department of Defense found that the number of service members who live in high-quality housing are 15% more likely to stay in the military than those who live in lower-quality, on-base housing. Not surprisingly, the government is working to fix those quality issues.
On the other hand, living on-base means less choice, control and freedom over housing.
Pros of Living On-Base
- Stable Housing: On-base housing means a place to live that’s right for your family, without the hassle of house-hunting in a market where you may not find what you want. The stress of finding a new place if you’re re-assigned is eased, and there’s no threat of a landlord not renewing a lease.
- Convenience: You are close to the commissary, the gym and other military amenities and don’t have to worry about a commute and going through the gate to get in and leave.
- Families in the Exceptional Family Member Program (for families with members who have special needs) said in a survey they prefer on-base housing because they’re close to important services.
- There’s a ready-made group of spouses and kids who share the experience of military life, help new neighbors get settled and provide support.
- Cost Savings: It may be cheaper in some areas to live on-base than to find civilian housing that meets your needs and stays within your BAH.
Cons of Living On-Base
- Lack of Choice: You are assigned living quarters based on your family size and pay grade and don’t have the option of shopping around.
- BAH Maxed Out: Your entire BAH goes directly to the privatized housing owner.
- Lack of Control: Many bases have rules for how the exterior of the house looks as well as what changes can be made to interiors.
- Lack of Privacy: It’s a close-knit community, where your commanding officer may also be your neighbor, and everyone knows your business.
- Lack of Quality: Quality of on-base housing has been a growing issue in recent years, with 55% of tenants saying in a survey of 16,900 military members that were not satisfied with their housing and only 16% saying they were.
- Waiting Lists: Some bases have waiting lists of a year or more for on-base housing.
Pros and Cons of Living Off-Base
Living off-base has its benefits for many military families, including being more a part of a wider community and having more control over how money is spent, but those can also be drawbacks. Living off-base in many parts of the country also doesn’t provide as much choice as it would seem. Housing is expensive enough to be out of reach in some regions, while in others local housing inventory doesn’t have options families are looking for.
Pros of Living Off-Base
- Freedom to Pick Your Property: Servicemembers can choose the location, type, quality and size of home.
- Control Over Maintenance and Repairs: Doing your own maintenance and repairs, rather than relying on the privatized military housing company.
- Potential Cost Savings: A property may cost less than the BAH, putting money in your pocket (just be sure to calculate utilities, internet and cable into the monthly cost if they’re not included with the rent).
- Non-military Community: More privacy than living on-base, and the opportunity to meet more people in the outside world.
- Homeownership: The opportunity to invest and build equity by buying a home, using the BAH to pay the mortgage. If the market is right, you can sell it for a profit when you’re reassigned or rent it out to another military family.
Cons of Living Off-Base
Living off-base can have its drawbacks, particularly if you are stationed in an expensive area of the country or one that doesn’t have a strong housing inventory.
- Lack of Housing: Some regions don’t have enough housing, or good-quality housing, to accommodate military families who want to live off-base.
- Expensive Housing: If the area is expensive, even the higher BAH rate for the region may not be enough to cover rent, so you have to cover the difference out of pocket.
- More Bills: You’re responsible for paying utilities and dealing with the utility companies to get service or end it, as well as taking care of repairs and maintenance.
- Frequent Moves: Finding off-base housing adds to the stress of constant reassignments. (Be sure that your lease includes the military clause that allows you to break it if you are reassigned.)
- Less Security: The landlord can decline to renew your lease, meaning you have to scramble to find another place to live, as well as pay moving costs and expenses.
- Distance From Base and Services: Living off-base means a commute and being away from base services, the on-base commissary, free-of-charge base fitness center and other services and amenities.
- Out of Pocket Expenses: BAH may not be enough to cover living off-base.
If you’re trying to decide whether to live in military housing or off-base, the answer depends on you – your family size, financial situation, pay grade, need for on-base military services and more.
Be sure when weighing the pros and cons of living on-base or off-base to consider your family’s long-term plans. If you want to build a nest egg and eventually settle somewhere and buy a house, cost savings may be your biggest priority. On the other hand, space and a community for your spouse or children – be it military or the off-base community – may be a priority. You may want to live in a certain school district, for example.
Talking to other military servicemembers and families who have had the experience will give you a perspective that you won’t be able to get from anyone else.
can help you review your finances and budget to determine what you should be spending on housing or other expenses. Counselors at nonprofit credit counseling agencies don’t charge for their services and can discuss military debt consolidation programs that may be a good fit for your situation. The counselor may suggest a debt management plan, which allows you to consolidate debt without taking out a loan. The counselor works with your creditors to lower interest rates, and you make one fixed monthly payment to the nonprofit agency. The counselor will give you an estimate as to how much you will save with the program, which takes 3-5 years to complete.
About The Author
Maureen Milliken has been writing about finance, banking, investment, entrepreneurship, real estate and other related topics for more than 30 years. She started as the “Business Beat” columnist for the now-defunct Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette and currently is one of the hosts of the Mainebiz business-focused podcast, “The Day that Changed Everything” in addition to her daily writing. She also is is the author of three mystery novels and two nonfiction books.
- N.A. (ND) Military Compensation: Different types of BAH. Retrieved from https://militarypay.defense.gov/pay/allowances/bah_types.aspx/
- N.A. (2019, February 13) Preliminary Research Report: Living Conditions of Families in Privatized Military Housing. Retrieved from http://militaryfamilyadvisorynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/Privatized-Military-Housing-Survey-Report_030119.pdf
- N.A. (2021, February 16) Military Housing: DOD Has Taken Key Steps to Strengthen Oversight, But More Action is Needed in Some Areas. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-21-389t
- Pell, M.B.; Schneyer, J. (2019, May 19) Survey Shows U.S. Military Families Far More Negative About Housing Than Landlords Claim. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-housing-map/