Serving in the military is a tough job that demands sacrifices. In turn, the government offers unique benefits to those who volunteer. One of the biggest perks is that the military helps pay some or all the costs of housing, though it’s not as straightforward as it may sound.
Though some civilians who are unfamiliar with military life assume everyone lives on base, this is rarely the case. With the exception of some areas, service members also have the option to rent—or even buy—off the installation in the local economy. Each option has upsides and downsides, and the decision largely comes down to personal preferences and budget.
- If you choose to live on base and the housing is government owned, the Department of Defense owns and manages the property and the service member doesn’t pay rent.
- If the base housing is privatized, the company that manages the property serves as your landlord, and you will receive the Basic Allowance for Housing in your paycheck so you can pay your rent and utilities.
- If you live off base, the government pays for your housing up to a certain amount, which gives you the freedom and flexibility to find the type of home and location you prefer, although it doesn’t account for costs of homeownership such as property taxes or insurance.
- Though service members living overseas still receive a monthly utility allowance, rent money doesn’t come in by default at a set amount.
Types of Military Housing
Military housing benefits vary depending on the type of housing where you reside. Depending on whether you live on base or off base, you may either get free housing but no additional money in your paycheck, or you may get a housing allowance and secure a residence yourself.
If you choose to live on base, housing will either be government owned or privatized. When it’s government owned, the Department of Defense owns and manages the property. Rather than receiving the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), the service member simply doesn’t pay rent. Single or unaccompanied service members can choose to live in barracks, which are rent-free but may require shared rooms or bathrooms. Some branches require single service members below certain ranks to live in barracks.
If the base housing is privatized, which it now commonly is, the government has contracted out the housing to a private company. That company serves as your landlord and manages the property, and you will receive the BAH in your paycheck and use that to pay your rent and utilities.
In most areas, there’s also the option to live off base. The government pays for your housing up to a certain amount, which gives you the freedom and flexibility to find the type of home and location you prefer—but it can come with some additional headaches.
Some base housing has long wait lists, leaving families with no choice but to live off base. If you get on the wait list and start living off base, but then you’re notified something on the installation is available, the military will cover the cost of your moving on base if you take it. But they won’t cover expenses if you choose to move from the installation into the local economy, or if you move from one off-base residence to another. It’s important to keep these guidelines in mind as you plan because security deposits and moving fees can add up.
Differences Between Stateside and Overseas
Before diving further into housing options, it’s critical to know how housing varies whether you’re stationed in the Continental United States (CONUS) or outside it—for example, overseas (OCONUS).
When you’re stationed CONUS, unless you live in government-owned base housing, you’ll receive a monthly BAH payment as part of your paycheck. The amount you receive is determined by your rank/pay grade, geographic location, and if you have dependents. It’s up to you to use that money to pay your rent and any utilities if you have money left over.
If you find a place that costs less than your BAH, you can pocket the difference, so this can be a smart option in affordable areas. For example, if your BAH is $1,200 but your rent is $1,000, you still get the extra $200 and can spend it however you want. Conversely, in more expensive areas, you may end up paying some out of pocket. Though the BAH is calculated to cover rent but not mortgage payments, some service members choose to buy homes (often with VA loans) in order to build equity. Just be aware that the BAH doesn’t account for costs of homeownership such as property taxes or insurance.
Things work differently for those who are stationed outside the U.S. Instead of the BAH, service members receive the Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA). The amount of this allowance is still determined by pay grade, location, and dependent status. Though service members do receive a monthly utility/recurring maintenance allowance, rent money doesn’t come in by default at a set amount like the BAH does.
Instead, service members are given a monthly rent maximum. The military base must inspect the property to ensure it meets their American housing standards and review the lease. When approved, the military reimburses the service member for the exact rent amount up to the OHA maximum. In this overseas system, service members don’t get to keep the difference if their rent is less than their OHA, so it’s important to review your finances if you had been counting on pocketing some extra cash each month when stateside.
Living on Base
Some military families will rave about living on their installation, while others absolutely hate it. Living options and on-base amenities also vary greatly from base to base. Sometimes, wait lists for on-base housing are so long—they can take as long as a year—that it’s not even an option, at least for a while.
You likely won't have to pay rent
Safety and security
Close to work
Close to amenities
Sense of community
Simpler than finding off-base housing
Less control over your type of housing
You frequently have to pass through security
Limited to the base
Potentially have to deal with poorly managed housing companies
Could be noisy
May not be able to run a small business out of the home
Pros of living on base
- If the housing is government owned, you don’t have to pay rent, and even if housing is privatized and you pay rent, it’s often more affordable than off-installation housing—especially in costly regions on the West and East coasts.
- There’s built-in security, so many parents report feeling safer letting their kids run around and play.
- The service member is very close to their workplace, making the commute almost nonexistent (and easier to eat lunch at home).
- You’re close to on-base events and amenities like the commissary and base schools.
- It’s family-friendly, with day care, school, events, activities, and countless other families with kids at your doorstep.
- There’s more of a built-in community, so it may be easier to make friends and find connections in a new place.
- If it’s a short assignment, living on base may be easier than finding a residence off base and going through the rental process.
- Some utilities and expenses may be included.
Cons of living on base
- Housing is determined by pay grade and family size, and you’re typically assigned a residence. You could luck out with a single-family home with a backyard or get stuck in a duplex or fourplex with no yard. It could be newly renovated or old and in need of repair.
- You have to go through the security gate anytime you enter or exit base, which can feel like a hassle.
- You’re insulated in a small cultural bubble, so you may not get as much of an authentic experience living in a new place (or as much privacy).
- There have been many reports of privatized housing companies behaving poorly, including instances of failing to repair homes or address safety concerns like faulty wires or black mold. Fortunately, the new Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights offers new rights to military families living in privatized base housing, so familiarize yourself with your rights.
- Depending on the base, you may have to get used to noise from aircraft, gun ranges, or training exercises.
- If the military spouse runs a business out of the home, they may not be permitted to do so from on-base housing.
Living Off Base
Though living on base is the easier and more affordable choice for some, others much prefer using their BAH to rent off the installation.
You can choose the type of housing you want
You can choose the location
Experience the local community
Potentially save more money
Build equity if you buy property
May have to break a lease
Subject to the rules of the lease/landlord
May have to pay out of pocket
Dealing with currency conversion if you're overseas
Subject to housing market whims if you buy/sell property
Pros of living off base
- You have the freedom to find a property with the size and features you want.
- You choose the location, so if you like to get out and about, you may enjoy renting in a nearby city rather than living on base.
- You can get more immersed in the local community, which may be especially helpful for single service members; those who are LGBTQ+ especially may find a larger community off base.
- There’s more separation between work and personal life for the service member.
- If you’re stateside and find a rental that costs less than your BAH, you can use that money to jump-start your savings.
- You can buy a property using your BAH toward your mortgage and build equity. When you leave, you can either sell the property or keep it and rent it out.
Cons of living off base
- You have to make sure the military clause is in the lease so you can legally break it if you get orders elsewhere.
- If the landlord doesn’t renew your lease or requires you to vacate before your tour ends, you have to find a new rental property. If you move to another off-base property, you’re on your own with moving resources and expenses.
- Though BAH and OHA rates often cover the majority of the costs of off-base rent, it doesn’t always fully cover the cost, so you may pay some out of pocket (this is especially common in expensive places like California).
- If renting while OCONUS, you have to deal with currency conversion. Though the military does give an overseas cost of living allowance (COLA) to members living abroad to account for the extra expenses, depending on where you live and what the currency version is like, it’s not always enough. For example, being stationed in England is notoriously expensive for American service members due to the punishing currency conversion rate. (The military also offers CONUS COLA to some stateside service members living in above-average cost-of-living areas.)
- You may be forced to buy or sell a property during a disadvantageous housing market due to the time frame of your assignment.
Housing Allowance for Guard and Reserves
Housing compensation is different for those who serve in the National Guard or Reserve because they usually serve in a part-time capacity while living and working in the civilian world.
If a service member in the National Guard or Reserve is activated under Title 10 or Title 32 for 30 days or less, they receive a separate type of BAH during that time, called the BAH RC/T. This is a housing allowance that doesn’t vary by location; it’s based on the average cost of national housing. Those who are active beyond 30 days are eligible for the same BAH as other full-time service members during the duration.
The Bottom Line
Whether you choose to live on base or off base is a highly personal decision. Both options come with plenty of benefits and headaches, but the right choice comes down to your finances, your personality, and your preferences. Though, as with anything in military life, sometimes the decision is out of your hands.