A finished basement can add utility and enjoyment to your home, not to mention some much-needed square footage. If you find yourself continually wishing for more storage space, an extra bedroom, a dedicated playroom for the kids, or even just a more organized laundry area, the solution may literally be right under your feet.
Finishing a basement is complicated project, especially if you are working on a budget. However, you’ll be happy to learn that this project will cost significantly less than adding on an addition of the same square footage. If possible, it is always best to work within the existing footprint of your home, and to make the most of the space and foundation that you already have.
Of course, as most homeowners realize, basements come with their own particular set of challenges. With that in mind, we have assembled a list of 9 tips for a successful finished basement project. After years of helping families turn an unused space into something truly enjoyable, we have become familiar with some universal truths.
Here they are…
Address Any and All Problems Before Beginning Work
Before you do a single thing – and this includes even sketching out a preliminary layout – have your basement professionally inspected so that you can address any problems before they have a chance to halt construction.
Minor issues can easily be handled by a homeowner with a good set of tools, but there are four specific problems which are best handled by a professional.
- Structural damage – Cracks in the walls or ceilings of your basement may be the result of surface damage, but there’s also the possibility that they are the beginning signs of damage to the foundation of your home. Hopefully, you do not find this type of damage at all, but if you do, do not attempt to remedy it yourself. Get a trusted professional to assess the situation, and come up with a plan.
- Radon – Radon is a radioactive gas which can seep up through the soil on which your home is built, and make its way inside. This is a dangerous situation, as radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking. Radon will need to be detected, and if it is found, a removal system will need to be placed in your basement.
- Mold – Basements are more likely to be wet than any other room in your home. If your basement has already been infiltrated by dangerous mold, you may need a professional to safely remove it before you can begin building.
- Termites – If termite damage is found in the foundation of your home, you’ll need to call in a professional to exterminate the bugs, and to make sure the damage is not severe enough to warrant any further action.
Hopefully, none of these issues come up. However, if they do, it is best to call in a professional right away rather than try to tackle this yourself.
Make Sure Everything is Up to Code
As part of your inspection, find out if everything in your basement is up to current code. Older homes may sometimes have some quirky issues such as low ceilings or uneven stairs, and those will have to be addressed during construction.
You will need to obtain permits for this large remodeling project, but in order to do that, you will need to have a plan in place for resolving any code issues you find. If you never make any updates or changes to your basement, the code violations will remain grandfathered in, but the moment you begin turning it into extra living space, they need to be addressed.
Some code violations will be easier to fix than others, so knowing what you are looking ahead of time can also help you better estimate the entire cost of the project.
Planning the Layout
The best place to begin when planning a layout is not with a drawing, but with a list. Write down all of the things you hope your basement will provide for you. A space to gather, a space to watch TV, a space for gaming, a bedroom, a second entryway, a bar, a kitchen set up, etc. Prioritize your list in order from most to least important, and understand that while basements can easily become multipurpose rooms, they cannot easily become every-purpose rooms.
As you begin your layout, keep the following tips in mind:
- A basement wall here or there is a great way to create partitions or to mark boundaries, but beware of overdoing it. You are not trying to create a labyrinth beneath your house.
- The naturally brighter spots in your basement are better suited for gathering, cooking, etc., while the naturally darker areas can lend themselves well to a movie theater type atmosphere. In other words, try to use the available light to your advantage is much as possible.
- If you plan to use any part of your basement is a bedroom, it needs to have immediate access to a window, for an emergency exit, so be sure to save a spot somewhere around the perimeter.
If you are having trouble fitting everything you want into your basement, or if you are unsure of what should go where, it’s always a good idea to bring in a designer or general contractor and get their opinion.
Plan to leave Mechanicals Accessible
Chances are pretty good that your hot water heater, your oil furnace, your fuse box, and any other utility mechanicals in your home are already located in your basement. It can be tempting to take your remodeling project as the opportunity to squeeze them all together in a hidden corner somewhere, and maximize your square footage for the more fun aspects of your new basement.
Be careful not to overdo it here. Ideally, an adult carrying a toolbox ought to be able to walk all the way around each of these mechanicals, so use that as your guide. It is okay to want these things out of the way, but you also don’t want to make an emergency repairman’s job any harder by making them squeeze into an impossible spot to work.
Insulate Pipes While They’re Exposed
At a certain point in your remodeling project, your existing pipes will become exposed, along with any new pipes that are being added in. Before you cover them up in sheetrock, take the opportunity to insulate each one. This helps protect against freezing (and therefore bursting) in cold winter temperatures, and also helps to keep your energy bills a bit lower.
No one we have worked with has ever regretted taking this extra step, but many have regretted missing the opportunity to insulate their pipes when they were easily accessible.
When it comes to keeping water out of your basement, redundancies are the way to go. You don’t just want a sump pump in your basement, you want two. The second pump will be there to take over in case the first one fails for any reason, and ideally, at least one should have a battery backup so that it can continue working in case of a power outage. Once water starts getting into your basement, the damage begins compounding almost immediately. Set yourself up for a win in this situation, and double up on sump pumps.
Use vapor barriers, and mold-resistant building materials. Nothing that is standard grade belongs below ground. There is too much potential for water to seep into regular drywall, so always go with sheetrock.
Don’t forget to check around pipes for any small leaks. Most homeowners can fix small leaks on their own, and the sooner you address them, the less chance they have of beginning a mold infestation somewhere in your basement.
Lastly, dehumidifiers are a great idea in any basement, no matter how dry it seems to be. You can find models that switch on automatically only when the humidity reaches a certain level in the room. This saves on energy, as they are not running constantly, but it also helps protect your basement and keep it totally dry.
You may have a few windows or even a door along your basement walls, but for the most part, basements are significantly darker than the rest of your home. For this reason, it is best to invest in some really good lighting. Overhead lighting is good for general brightness, wall sconces can help add some atmosphere, and even hidden lighting below cabinets can help brighten things up.
Be sure to not rely entirely on one light source in a basement. You may find the room decently bright on a sunny day, but at night, a single light source may not cut it. Plus, should that light source ever burnout, you have set up quite a challenge for yourself. Ever tried changing a lightbulb in a dark basement? We don’t recommend it. Try to give yourself some failsafes, be they floor lamps, wall fixtures, or ceiling lights.
If You’re Adding a Bedroom
Basements can be a great opportunity to add extra sleeping space. If a teenager outgrows their too-small bedroom, or if a parent or relative comes to stay with you, the basement may offer you an inexpensive solution.
Of course, there are a few challenges with putting a bedroom in a basement. Here are some tips to remember:
- Basements can be short on space – Your best bet may be a twin or full size mattress. Queen and king size will take up way too much floor space, and leave you without room for storage furniture or personal belongings. Get creative here. You can build a bed frame into a wall, and install drawers underneath for a combination bed and dresser that takes up half the space.
- Basements can be chilly – If all or part of your basement is going to become a bedroom, wall-to-wall carpeting will help keep a bit of extra warmth in there. Area rugs placed alongside the bed (over the wall to wall carpet) are another great way to add some extra insulation. Obviously, look for any leaky or drafty windows and have them fixed before tucking anyone in to their new below ground bedroom.
- Basements can be noisy – A bit of soundproofing may be necessary. Between the general noise coming from the living space upstairs, and the noise from hot water heaters or heating systems switching on and off at all hours, it might be miserable trying to catch some Z’s in a basement. Soundproofing the walls and the ceiling can help insulate against disruptive noises, and make a more comfortable environment for sleeping.
- Basements need fire exits – Don’t forget that basement windows need to be accessible in case of a fire or other emergency. Make sure that Windows can easily be reached, and opened, and that any grate above the window well can be pushed out of the way for quick and safe egress.
If You’re Adding a Bathroom
The main issue with adding a bathroom to a basement is that you are introducing water into a room that could become heavily damaged by just that… water. Here are our best tips for a below ground bathroom:
- Plan for overflows – you will want to make sure you install a valve that prevents backflow from your main drain into your below ground sinks or tubs. An overflow or backup, if not detected immediately, can very quickly get out of hand and cause lots of damage.
- Remember that water has to be pumped up and out – Any wastewater coming from your below ground bathroom needs to be managed properly. You will need a sewage ejector system which collects wastewater in a tank, and pumps it up and out of the basement into the sewage lines.
- Install a water vapor removal system – get a good exhaust system in your bathroom to vent out extra humidity that comes from a shower or bath.
Talk to Friends and Neighbors
Have friends, family members, or neighbors had their basements finished? Find out what their experiences were, and gather as much useful information as you can. In fact, if you know other people who are looking to finish their own basements, be sure to share this list on social media.