Finishing the Finishing of a Basement
August 25, 2011 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Previous owners of our house began the process of finishing the basement. I'm thinking about completing the job. What should I know?

One of the previous owners of our (1920s) house framed out most of our basement and seems to have done most of the necessary electrical work. I'm entertaining the idea of teaching myself the skills needed to finish the job.

The basement is bone dry (and seems to have always been, except for some leaks from the furnace, which we have since replaced) and there aren't visible wall cracks or any issues with mold.

The ceiling is pretty low, and there will be some pipes and wiring that hang a bit below it to deal with when I get to that step.

I've just begun to skim the multitude of online how-to guides on the subject, and will be doing more in-depth reading before I start. I haven't done this kind of work before and will have a lot of learning to do.

I'd like your opinion on what I should know before I tackle this project, especially tips on drywall and installing basement flooring and ceilings and on heating and maintaining the space. Also, if you have any thoughts on what guides to read, websites to visit or Home Depot workshops to attend, I'd appreciate it.
posted by Vectorcon Systems to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You might want to get a permit and talk to a building inspector.
I realize that building inspectors can be a pain in the butt, however often they do perform an important task.

If you get a permit, the inspector will make sure that you do it all correctly - and that pre-existing work is correct.

You can get a pre-inspection, and the inspector will come over and go through the job with you.

In most places, if the house is your primary residence, you can act as the general contractor, and pull your own permits. Also, in most places, you are required by law to get a permit before finishing a basement.

In this situation, the permit may be very useful to you - because most inspectors are friendly and helpful, and the permit process will help ensure that it is all done safely and to code.
posted by Flood at 7:31 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

+1 to what Flood says. I have a co-worker who went and put a bathroom in his basement - THEN called the inspector. He was in for a shock when the inspector told him to rip out the drywall and plumbing so he could inspect the framing.

The best resource for you will be Fine Homebuilding if you want to do it right. They have a magazine and also as a perk you get access to their on-line archives with just tons and tons of useful information. You can spend ages searching The Google for information of circumspect quality, but I'd strongly recommend going the FH route.
posted by tgrundke at 8:00 AM on August 25, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, Flood. The pre-inspection thing is great to know.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 8:04 AM on August 25, 2011

Best answer: Its really depends what's down there and what you want down there and the gap between the two. I had a partially framed out basement with a washer and a dryer hook up. I learned how to do sheetrock and plaster work, figured out my options and laid down a nice floating floor, made a new doorway, turned it into a decent little laundry room.

If most of the electrical and plumbing are done, if the walls are framed out, if there is absolutely no DIGGING needed. I think you are in completely safe, fun, territory for learning how to do some awesome home improvement needs. This is especially true if you are not trying to increase your home's value "on the books" but just for yourself. Unpermitted work can be a hassle if you want to say get your house appraised as 5/3 rather than a 4/2 but otherwise, I'd just build away.
posted by stormygrey at 8:08 AM on August 25, 2011

Best answer: Because of your climate even though your basement is dry you'll need to protect the insulation in your wall from the moisture coming through the concrete. You can see some examples of insulating methods here but note that the first three aren't recommended (and aren't even legal in Canada). If the person who framed out your basement didn't provide for the moisture barrier then that'll have to be remedied. Your building inspector will be able to give you guidance on this as well.

Drywalling is pretty easy. Mudding and sanding can be tedious; I prefer to contract it out. Rent a drywall lift when you go to install the ceiling. Code minimums for electrical sockets are completely inadequate IMO. So add a few outlets if the current work is the minimum. Also think about any place where you might want to put a TV and run either conduit from your mechanical room or cable and network to those locations and a pair of receptacles.

If your basement floor is truely dry (check by taping down a 2' square of vapour barrier and see if any moisture accumulates behind the plastic) then you can lay down any kind of flooring. Laminate flooring is fairly easy. Carpet needs to be kicked in and is something that you should hire people to do.
posted by Mitheral at 8:35 AM on August 25, 2011

ummm... there's really no such thing as a dry basement in New England, especially in a house built in the 1920s. The time to see maximum humidity is early spring i.e. after the snow has thawed: there needs to be an air gap between everything and the floor/walls of the basement. they make manufactured subflooring panels with a built in air gap, or else do somthing yourself, but there needs to be a space between the subfloor and the concrete of the basement floor and between the wall insulation and the wall of the basement... building code will tell you how much think >= 1 inch.

also, don't be surprised if the work currently there isn't up to code, once the building inspector takes a look at it.

it depends on your budget, and what you goals are wrt permitting. it can be a royal hassle and significantly increase the cost of your project... but will keep you from making some mistakes and make it easier to sell your house if you think you are going to in the near future.
posted by at 8:47 AM on August 25, 2011

Another very good reason to get it permitted and inspected is that the insurance companies will use unpermitted work as a valid excuse to not fill a claim and cancel your policy. As well as all the reason flood states. Building departments are usually thrilled to work with an earnest but ignorant homeowner as opposed to the usual arrogant, ignorant and lazy contractors that seem to take joy in trying to put one over the homeowner and inspector or even worse the slumlord landlord type taking advantage of poor people in flipping a house or renting out an unsafe/uninhabitable dwelling. And yeah, fine homebuilding is the greatest home improvement magazine and taunton publishers have lots of great books that are mostly old articles from the magazine.

Good luck.
posted by bartonlong at 10:44 AM on August 25, 2011

Depending on your location, code may require a second means of egress from a finished basement—either a door or an egress window.
posted by Knappster at 2:08 PM on August 25, 2011

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