How do I purge the basement of doom?
September 5, 2011 10:36 AM   Subscribe

My house has an unfinished basement. It's a terrible mess and causing enough problems for my husband's allergies (we think) that it's not even usable right now. What can we do to get it straightened out?

The basement was dug out, and then part of the hill to the side of the house was also dug out to allow for a walk-out (which was ridiculous, but what's done is done). When it rains heavily, dirt gets washed down the hill on the side of the house onto the small concrete slab where the basement doors are, then water and a little bit of mud proceed to wash under the (very not-sealed!) door onto the basement floor. So the basement is damp, almost all of the time, even though we try to clean up the water after it rains.

Up until last fall, this basement was full of every kind of junk imaginable. Car parts, commercial kitchen steel pieces, years old damp cardboard boxes, an ancient kitchen cabinet set, etc. My father-in-law was a serious pack rat. Anyway, we cleared all that out, cleaned up all the nasty dirt and mold off the floor, and left it alone. We had the intention of getting a dehumidifier to try and combat the mold, but didn't actually do that until a couple weeks ago.

Additionally, the basement doesn't have a ceiling, just bare insulation strips in between the "struts?" that form the base of the 1st floor. Part of the insulation is hanging down under the spare bathroom, where there was a toilet leak last summer. The walls are concrete cinder blocks, I think. And, just to top off an already disgusting pie, there are spiderwebs with weird little sacs that I'm afraid are full of millions of baby spiders, and snakes (we think in the crawlspaces off the basement). We actually found a baby snake caught in one of the spider webs last week. This place is freakin' scary.

So anyway, that's the scenario. My husband has been down in the basement twice in the past two weeks, and each time, he got sick for a couple days afterwards. The second time he even wore a face mask! He had a nasty cough, lots of runny nose and congestion, and all the good stuff that seems like an allergy attack to me. I think it's probably to the white powdery mold that's kind of all over the place down there. That means that whatever needs to be done probably can't involve him and that we need to deal with it soon if we can.

  • a) what's the best way to deal with the spiders and/or snakes?
  • b) do we need to replace the insulation and how difficult/expensive will that be to do?
  • b pt 2) how difficult/expensive would it be to also add in a drop ceiling at the same time, and would this even be a good idea?
  • c) what's the best way to combat the mold besides cleaning all the surfaces with bleach and keeping the dehumidifier going?
Honestly, I would be perfectly happy to just pay someone to deal with it, but I don't think our housekeeping service would be willing to clean down there right now, and I don't know what sort of service the rest of it falls under anyway. It doesn't help that I'm a little terrified of all the spiders and snakes. The whole damn thing just has me at my wit's end; even knowing a good place to start would be helpful. Any and all suggestions are welcome, even if they don't specifically address the three questions above.
posted by ashirys to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
a) Use a shop-vac to get rid of the spiders, then wipe down the baseboards. As you clean up the basement, you'll have to do this less often. I have no experience with snakes but just be sure there aren't any entrances/exits in the basement, and kill the food supply down there, and they should die. I personally would hire someone to go into the snake area.

b) The insulation will be removed/pulled back to check for mold, and may as well be replaced when put back regardless of whether mold is found. Insulation is cheap.

b2) Drop ceilings are easy to add. They are just there for aesthetics so it's your call - the bad stuff still goes on behind them. Am unsure of price as I've never bought materials, only messed around with them.

c) Paint surfaces with an anti-mold primer and keep things clean so it's easy to see when mold is coming back again.

In your town there handymen (they are usually males of retirement age) who would be happy to help you with a lot of this work (but may refer you to a specialist for the ceiling, the intensive mold cleanup, etc..) They change something like $20 per hour. Call a few of them.
posted by michaelh at 10:51 AM on September 5, 2011

Ok, 4 questions here, with four answers:

1) Your exterminator should be able to handle the spiders, and should be able to recommend someone (a "critter wrangler" for the snakes.

2) I would. If you think you have a mold problem, that would be a good place to start. It's not tough to do yourself, but you need more than just one of those little paper masks to protect yourself from all the crap you'll stir up while doing it. You need an N-95 respirator - they're not ridiculously expensive. I would invest in one of the canister types - they're actually more comfortable than the disposable masks.

3) Drop ceilings aren't the easiest DIY project in the world, but they are doable. A friend of mine was able to do his basement (about 400sqft of ceiling) for about a grand in parts, and two full weeekends of DIY labor.

4) Adding a dehumidifier is the #1 thing you can do to prevent recurrence of mold, but you have to get rid of it first. I would shopvac the whole room to get any "loose" mold (buy the most expensive filter Home Depot sells) and then prime and paint the room. If you feel like you're in over your head with this, then you may want to contact a mold remediation company for this part of it.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:55 AM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: I have a not totally dissimilar basement at the bottom of my 90yo house -- it was charitably described in the listing when I bought as "not living space"... My answer is to, well, keep the sump pump in working order, and keep the basement door closed. It's its own little ecosystem down there, and the basement spiders do not interact with the occupants of the house.

I would not install a ceiling, or do anything else towards finishing the basement, without attacking the sources and causes of the damp. I paid a company $50 to come and assess my moisture issues and give me an estimate for what it would cost to fix it for good. This can involve digging up everything around the side of your house if the foundation has problems; I am in a town of old homes and one sees this done here and there, but I know many of my neighbours just don't consider their old basements anything other than nuisances. Unless you can get rid of the moisture, it's not going to be a habitable space, and getting rid of the moisture can be expensive.

I would read this page from the CMHC, which mentions bleach is NOT recommended. I would certainly not suggest to a maid service that they clean up around mould; you will need to take safety precautions for yourself if you don't hire professionals to muck it out for you, which might be a good idea.

Extensive cleaning will abrogate your spider problem, but total spiderlessness in a damp basement will be a challenge. The snake is a bit more disturbing, though. Sealing the door should be a priority.

[I may be misreading how unfinished (?) your basement is]
posted by kmennie at 10:58 AM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would hire a reputable home inspector and ask them to make recommendations for both changes to be made and individuals/companies to make those changes.

(I would not remove the spiders with the snakes present, fear be damned. They're natural pest control, and snakes=pests in this case.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:00 AM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: Yeah, ditto kmennie that you need to address the moisture problem before any finishing takes place. It sounds as though the topography of your backyard is at least partly the problem-- if the basement is positioned so that it repeatedly floods, then you may want to get a contractor to plan and dig proper drainage channels to reroute runoff water away from the house. No point in cleaning everything out and prettying up the place if it's just going to reflood and mold over with the next heavy rain or snowstorm that comes along.
posted by Bardolph at 11:23 AM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: Yes, solve the drainage problem -- or nothing will really dry out.
posted by lathrop at 11:43 AM on September 5, 2011

You need to figure out a way to keep the water from coming in. One solution is to dig a french drain around the house. This is a trench that contains rocks and special pipe that diverts water away from the house. Many links for it if you google.

Do you have gutters on the roof? These can also be connected directly to a french drain system. Forget about the drop ceiling, no point in it unless you plan to use the basement as living space. The insulation is probably saturated with mold, don't replace it until you've solved the moisture issue.

Your husband's allergy symptoms are worrisome. A friend of mine got legionnaire's disease from pools of stagnant water that had built up in his house's leaky roof. If your husband's symptoms last more than a couple of days and over-the-counter allergy drugs don't help him he should see a doctor.
posted by mareli at 11:47 AM on September 5, 2011

Response by poster: The drainage issue is definitely on the list to be fixed. The whole situation there is just bizarre. The landscape *really* does not lend itself to having a walkout basement, but my father-in-law just had to have one, so they made do (the house was self-built, so there are all sorts of fun non-standard problems with it). It's kind of hard to explain, but the land on the side of the house where the basement door comes out is like a V, with the door at the bottom and the ground sloping up from there on either side to the front and back yards. (We call it the Pit, which should tell you how much we like it~)

Anyway, what I'm taking away is that we need to deal with the structural problems before we really try to handle the symptoms, so that's good to know. I was hoping there was something we could do temporarily, but that doesn't really seem to be possible.

If fixing the drainage is the priority, how feasible is it to have someone brick over the door and then fill the pit with fill dirt so that we don't have a walkout anymore? Is this the kind of thing that we should have an inspector out to determine if it's a good option?

I feel like I'm all over the place on this question; thank you guys so much for your patience with the mental flailing. I have moments where I want to firebomb the whole damn place, which obviously isn't a solution.
posted by ashirys at 12:16 PM on September 5, 2011

Is your furnace down there? If it's been sitting in an area with a lot of mold and other moisture, I wouldn't feel comfortable turning it on this winter until it had been inspected too.

Good luck. This sounds like an expensive series of home repairs to me...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:48 PM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: Getting rid of the walkout would be the first thing I'd do. It's totally feasible and you'll have the equipment on hand to do any additional regrading you need. I fixed a damp basement last year. Most of my issues were related to a) an exterior porch which was creating a channel for water to run down next to the basement walls and seep in and b) a huge temperature differential between the up and downstairs but no air-sealing. This caused warm humid air from upstairs to flow down and the moisture condensed out, making things like paper slightly damp over time. I fixed the porch, regraded the yard, dried out and Dry-locked the interior basement concrete block walls (two coats), insulated it, drywalled it and ran additional heat to the basement. Essentially I incorporated it into the house's thermal envelope. Bonus: additional living space! Anyone can close up the opening but make sure you get someone who knows about drainage to do the dirtwork. a regular contractor may or may not have these skills.

If your furnace and/or hot water heater are downstairs you really should drywall the ceiling in. It's a fire hazard otherwise. (I have not done this in my utility room but I really should). Any inspector will point this out to you.

If you're going to heat the basement then you can just remove the insulation altogether. If you're not then work to reduce the airflow between the up and downstairs to prevent condensation.
posted by fshgrl at 1:03 PM on September 5, 2011

You could probably fix the walkout by re-pouring the concrete pad at the bottom with a large drain in the middle. Be SURE it slopes away from the house to the grate. The drainpipe should then go to a sump pump (or tied into the interior weeping tile that should have been installed as part of the "dig down". If the new floor was poured without weeping tile or the proper amount of gravel below it, it might be wicking up moisture from the soil. That would be a drag.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:42 PM on September 5, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, this has all been super helpful. You guys rock.
posted by ashirys at 2:58 PM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: No reason you can't seal the door up. I wouldn't use gravel up against it unless you create a proper drainage path away from it - you want water to keep going, not stand up against the walls.

You might do well for the whole basement by addressing drainage outside all around the house. It's hard work physically but not impossible to do yourself. Investigate french drains and help guide the water away from your house. In the shorter term since you're not really going in and out of the basement why not use sandbags?

As far as the clear view of the rafters that's no big deal. My basement is like that, minus the insulation (since we don't have a dirt floor like you do). There's no real reason to do more than that if you have the dampness under control.

If there's serious mold or other irritants down there a simple paper face mask isn't going to do it (and apparently isn't). You can get a more serious full-face mask with changeable filter cartridges at your local Home Depot/Lowes.
posted by phearlez at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: I think a drop ceiling is not a great idea. Nice thing about being able to see the joists is that you can also see if they're getting noticed by termites. Also, you can vacuum up the spiderwebs more easily, rather than giving the spiders and snakes a hidden place to proliferate and do battle with each other ugh.

Replacing insulation is no big deal, but it is messy and requires protective gear. It's the sort of thing that is very easy for someone who's done it before, and a big headache for someone who hasn't. Ask around among your friends, including handyman recommendations.
posted by desuetude at 8:44 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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