What do you wish you knew before you finished your basement?
October 6, 2010 9:41 PM   Subscribe

What do you wish you knew before you finished your basement?

We are about to embark on an adventure to finish our basement. We plan to do a lot of the work ourselves. What do you wish you knew or had thought of before you finished yours?

We plan to include a large family room to be used for relaxation and entertainment purposes, a 4th (smallish) bedroom that we will likely use as an office, and a multipurpose/game room/play room/whatever area. The total area to be finished is about 500 sq feet.

We don't currently have kids, but hope for them in the near future. We enjoy entertaining and would like some type of bar area. We have considered having a small gardening area where we could begin seeds in the spring.

We are very open to new ideas. What do you wish you knew before you finished your space???
posted by violettie3 to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Sheetrock roof instead of dropped tile Makes a huge difference, feels like a room and not a basement.
posted by pearlybob at 9:47 PM on October 6, 2010

Make sure your drainage arrangements are rock-solid. There's nothing like waking up to 3 feet of rainwater backed up from a drainage sump.

Ask me how I know that. Just ask me.
posted by pjern at 9:49 PM on October 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

A few thoughts:
Find out what kind of building permits you need and how to get them. Will you install electrical or plumbing, do those things need separate inspections, etc. Does a room need a closet to count as a bedroom in your area? What kind of tax hike will it mean for you if it increases the amount of finished living space your property taxes are assessed on?

Be careful not to lose whatever virtues you have in the space right now -- for example:
Do you have other space in your house for storage of bulky items like bikes, snow shovels, ladders, sleds, etc?
Do you have other space in your house for messy projects?
(This might influence your choice of flooring materials, for example maybe part of the basement floor should be easy-clean vinyl tiles or the like.)

How much do you know about the drainage situation? Have you ever had water in the basement? Do you have a French drain?
Have you tested for radon?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:50 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Make sure the windows will be/are large enough for people to crawl out of in an emergency.
If you ever want people to be sleeping down there and want it to be safe and/or up to code, you might have to add a dedicated entrance if you don't have one already.
posted by amethysts at 10:06 PM on October 6, 2010

Yes. Double-check the drainage. Also, repair the foundation, waterproof the slab, do your earthquake bolting, and double check for termites. If all of this hasn't recently been inspected, I would hire someone to inspect it. You might waste four hundred and fifty dollars now, but that's better than wasting ten thousand (?) dollars and a year of your own work. If you decide to hire a contractor, that's a major undertaking that deserves its own question.
posted by slidell at 10:50 PM on October 6, 2010

If you're cramped for storage space, -do- use the space under the stairs.

However, please for the sake of your future children who at one point will likely have to fetch something from that area, _do_ finish off that storage space with drywall. Depending on where you live, there are very large spiders, the children of Shelob I swear, who will take residence there and grow for years and -breed-. When it's finished off with drywall and painted a light color, the possibility of seeing those spiders at least is less (and you'll feel more accomplished, I promise, when your storage space is clean-looking and more easily organized). So often, a basement living space will have carpet but the storage space will have the original cement. Finish it off -somehow-, if it's in your budget.
posted by DisreputableDog at 11:57 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The biggest regret people have with basement conversions usually revolve around not fixing the limitations of basements and instead spending money on superficial stuff. To wit:

1) Basements tend to be damp. This can be "slightly clammy" damp that generally goes away once heating is installed to the feet of water mentioned above. Nothing is more disheartening than finishing a basement only to find a river running through it. Check, check, check that it's dry. Go down there after a week of heavy rain or after a week of snow melt in the spring and find out if it's still dry. If you find any water at all, the way to take care of it is outside of the house, not within. And if it's dry, still take extra precautions outside to keep it that way. If you have a high water table that's above the level of the basement floor, frankly, I'd abandon the idea of finished space down there. You'll be fighting a losing battle.

2) The ceilings are often low and festooned with plumbing and ducts hung below the joists. Nothing screams "basement conversion" more than low ceilings with lots of weird carbuncles. If the ceiling is lower than eight feet consider lowering the floor. Be warned this is not inexpensive and in an older house there may not be footings under the foundation, which probably terminates at the same point the floor does. That means new footings...don't ask me how I know this...

3) Basements are often cold. In the summer, this can be a blessing, a retreat from the heat if you don't have A/C, but in the winter it's not fun. Think about how you're going to heat the space. If you have central heating now, you'll probably put in ceiling registers which is pretty inefficient. If you do a new floor, consider radiant in the new slab or electric radiant on top of it.

4) Basements don't get a lot of light. Do what you can to get as large a window into the living space as possible. To use a basement room as a bedroom you'll need a minimum egress space a set distance from the floor. Window wells are the norm, but if you can grade for a daylight basement it's a much friendlier solution.

5) When the mechanicals were placed in the basement, the builders probably didn't care where they put them, which means you should recognize you might want to move them to a location where they don't need to be worked around. This can be pricey.

6) If your basement is going to be a public space, make getting down there as inviting as possible. No one enjoys descending a narrow stair where anyone over 5' tall has to duck halfway down the flight to avoid smacking their head. Think about what you're going to put down there...will a queen box frame fit down the stairs?

Basements can be great places. They're perfect as a place for a teen's room away from the rest of the household (a place to listen to their music and, er, discover things of out everyone's way), hobby rooms, workshops, recreation and playrooms. But they can also be depressing, damp, soul-sucking horror shows. Be realistic as to whether your space lends itself to the former or the latter.
posted by maxwelton at 2:15 AM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

1) People have mentioned various ways to prevent leaks and flooding. Consider adding gutters and downspouts to the list. These, combined with long leaders at the end, have taken care of my rain-leak problems.
2) No matter how dampness-free, you'll probably need a dehumidifier--or two or three--for the summer months. Yes, your 'lectric bill will rise. But at 40 or 50 percent controlled humidity, your basement will be the most pleasant room of the house.
3) Think hard about the placement of your well windows. A well window that's directly opposite a TV can produce glare. You might want to reduce or eliminate windows in a room with a TV.
4) If you're thinking of an entertainment setup, think about acoustics. My speakers were loud and echo-y until I installed a wall-to-wall carpet. Some people rely on acoustic tiles or other methods.
5) Plants in the basement? Er, I wouldn't do it. Basements and watering make for poor bedfellows. (Owners of basement grow-rooms in Humbolt county, needless to say, might disagree.)
posted by Gordion Knott at 2:31 AM on October 7, 2010

Thirding checking the pipes and drainage situation. Take it from someone who recently was up until 2 am in ankle deep water, stripping out carpet/padding/subflooring, cursing the name of the previous homeowner who had done a DIY over an existing drain. Better to do it right before hand than to finance Roto Rooter after the fact.
posted by librarianamy at 4:57 AM on October 7, 2010

Having an up-to-date dewatering system installed was worth the $3000 and enormous hassle. (We, too, had water problems.) On the cheaper end, we extended our downspouts and sump outlet farther away from the house, which made an enormous difference ... our sump would cycle constantly because the outlet was like four feet from the house and it would go right back down to the sump. It was nuts. In the back yard, where our drainage situation was less-good than the front and we had the sump outlet, we actually built a little stream with an impermeable liner covered by pretty rocks that went 25 feet away from the house and ended in a basin full of rain garden plants for our area. (In our area, swamp milkweeds that thrive on being alternately soaked and parched.) Not only do the birds think this is nirvana, but we've had no sump cycling since, and guests always love our stream. (It's about 18 inches from the edge of the yard ... we planted that in with herbs.)

But honestly, if we were refinishing the basement again? I would have hired it done. Doing it ourselves (other than the electrical and plumbing, which we hired out) was the WORST IDEA EVER.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:25 AM on October 7, 2010

Are you putting a bathroom down there? It makes the space more livable, and makes the extra bedroom viable as an apartment for an adult child or elderly parent at some point in the future. It also is very good for resale value.
posted by COD at 5:55 AM on October 7, 2010

Seconding the bathroom. Even a half-bath would make the space much more optimized.

Oh, and everything already written about the dampness.
posted by smelvis at 6:24 AM on October 7, 2010

If there isn't a lot of natural light down there, put in really good lighting. Make sure you create lots of storage space. Get a dehumidifier — you'll want it, at least in the summertime. My parents put a gas fireplace in their basement rec room when they finished their basement a few years ago, and it's not only wonderfully cosy and atmospheric but helps with the dampness, so that's a nice extra if you are willing to go to the expense and the trouble. Don't put in wall-to-wall carpeting — go with good quality laminate, and maybe some area rugs. Definitely put in a bathroom if you can.
posted by orange swan at 7:43 AM on October 7, 2010

If you have a water heater in the basement.

Check the anode rod for signs of corrosion and replace as necessary. If you don't, the bottom of the water heater will give out unexpectately and you will have 40-100 gallons of water in the basement.

We use an item called a watchdog wherever water is present (water tank, toilet, sink).
posted by MrMulan at 7:52 AM on October 7, 2010

Insulation and moisture are VERY important considerations. The Building Science folks know a ton about it.
posted by orme at 9:43 AM on October 7, 2010

I can't speak to basement-furnishing experience, but I just wanted to say that my dad's started his seeds in the basement for as long as I can remember. It's in a separate little seed room he set up that is unfurnished and full of fancy grow lights, and a floor drain for any spilled water to run off (I have no idea where that drain actually leads, though...). So, if you want to go the basement grow room route, you may want to consider having a separate little room designed expressly for that purpose (to help keep the dank out of the rest of your lovely basement).
posted by pemberkins at 10:34 AM on October 7, 2010

Check for radon gas before finishing the basement. That way you can have radon remediation (holes, PVC pipes, fan, etc.) installed in an unobtrusive way.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:57 AM on October 7, 2010

Record the location of all wires, pipes and ducts. Photographs with visible tape measures in them help. You *will* need to get at them some day, and it's nice not to have to cut too many holes in the drywall to find them.
posted by pjaust at 1:58 PM on October 7, 2010

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