6 Crucial Rules for Renovating Your Basement
A good basement renovation can provide extra living space and increase the value of your home, so for most homeowners, fixing it up is a no-brainer if they have the cash. But a botched remodel can turn this subterranean space into a money pit.
To help you consider this type of revamp from every angle, we spoke with designers, builders, real estate agents, and other experts to uncover the rules everyone taking on a basement renovation must follow—or risk disaster.
1. Check codes and regulations
Sure, it’s your house, but that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want to it. Your home’s structure and local regulations may limit your options.
“Basements present a unique set of code restrictions that need to be considered before spending too much time and money on project development,” says Kurt Hakansson of the Hakansson Design Group, in Boston.
Once high-level goals for a project have been established, Hakansson always brings in an experienced, licensed general contractor to review the project and identify any potential code obstacles.
2. Think highly of the ceiling
Ceiling height is an important consideration when renovating a basement, but many homeowners underestimate how tall it should be.
“I find that most basements have shorter ceiling heights, and when you start adding wiring and potentially raising the floor for plumbing, etcetera, the ceiling height ends up very low, probably less than 8 feet,” says Michael Hershkowitz of REDOnyc, an interior renovation group in New York City.
Make sure your basement ceilings are at least 8 feet tall; that should ensure the room doesn’t feel so confined.
3. Ensure the basement is dry
In some ways, renovating a basement is like going out in public with a baby: First you need to check to see if it’s dry. Before spending money on drywall or flooring, be sure your basement floor and walls are completely dry—and will stay that way.
“Adding a perimeter drainage system is a must since even in a new home, water can find its way inside,” says Thomas B. Wagner, a residential architect in Haddonfield, NJ. Also, before you install the flooring, Wagner recommends that you put down a plastic vapor barrier to keep moisture from coming up through the floor and creating a mold situation.
“Basements can be cool, damp, and stuffy, and all of these contribute to mold and mildew,” says Hakansson. So, you need to circulate air and remove moisture.
“Installing a good heating and air-conditioning system, along with a dehumidifier, will ensure that the room won’t be a hospitable environment for mold,” Hakansson says.
Adding a couple of windows or a door will also help with ventilation.
4. Have at least two escape routes
While we’re on the subject of windows, they do more than just improve air circulation.
“If you do the renovation legally to code and you want a bedroom and full bathroom, you must have two means of egress, meaning exits to escape in case of fire,” says Hershkowitz.
However, there’s more to it than just picking a location for the window and cutting out a square.
“All bedrooms require an egress window, but check your local code for size and placement,” says Erin Davis, lead designer at Mosaik Design and Remodeling, in Portland, OR.
She recommends working with a professional to determine the best location.
“Egress windows can vary in price depending on level of difficulty, condition of foundation, wall size, and adjacent landscaping,” she says.
5. Install ample lighting
Unless you’re trying to create a medieval dungeon vibe, you’ll want to be strategic about the lighting in your basement so it doesn’t appear too dark. Look into adding natural light through windows or French doors, advises Michael Schienke, director and chartered architect at Vorbild Architecture.
And don’t skimp on other light sources. “Consider adding in another layer of general lighting like pendants or chandeliers that hang close to the ceiling,” says Lauren Smyth, interior designer at Alturas Homes, in Eagle, ID. In a wide-open basement, this can help define specific areas.
6. Don’t go too custom
By all means, renovate your basement to your tastes, but choosing decor that’s a little too you could hurt your prospects of selling your home in the future.
“I’ve seen a lot of basements converted to theaters, poker rooms, and gyms,” says Jennifer Okhova, a real estate agent with Compass in Los Angeles.
While those rooms can be major selling points, it’s important to make sure your basement can be easily converted into a nonspecific space. Yes, installing a Tiki bar may seem like a worthwhile endeavor now, but the folks who eventually buy your home may not feel the same way. Even if you don’t plan on ever selling your home, you should consider how your needs will change over the years. Maybe your affinity for rum-based mixed drinks is just a passing phase.