Ask Brian: How Do I Start Finishing My Basement This Fall?



Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to askbrian@realtybiznews.com.

Question from Stan in MN: Hello Brian. This is the fourth year our family has lived in northern Minnesota. Our two children are ages six and eight. As I looked at September on the calendar, it made me think about what these rambunctious kids are going to be doing while spending most of their time inside this winter. It also brought my mind back to the unfinished basement that I’ve been telling myself that I’ll tackle one of these days. I guess that day has arrived. I want to do most of the work myself. We have a full basement that is only being used as a laundry room and for storage. I can’t afford to do everything at once, but I do want to get started. What steps do you suggest I take first?

Answer: Hello Stan. Finishing a full basement is a big project. The first step is deciding what you want your unfinished basement to become. A full basement has the potential to add a lot of living space even if you don’t finish it all in one year. So, think about your long-term needs. Will you need another bedroom? Do you want to use the space for a playroom, home theater, and/or hobby room? One room that I think almost every basement needs is at least a 1/2 bath so that you won’t running up and down stairs constantly. With stairs in mind, you might also think about a simple food preparation area. The point is, decide what the basic rooms and sizes will be in your completed basement.

Next, clear everything out and use a chalk line to mark out where the walls will go. By including the doorways in the chalk outline, you’ll be able to walk from one imaginary room to another to decide how well your plan works. Try a few different concepts before pulling out your tools.

Here are several tips to consider for almost every basement project:

  • Consider your sources for natural light into your basement and where you might want to add windows or even a door with steps going up to ground level. You may need help from a structural engineer to do these right.
  • Consider an escape route in case the stairs are blocked by a fire or some other disaster. Local code may require egress windows.
  • Plan for a safe stairway. You’ll probably want a more decorative stairway leading to your finished basement, but you may need to also widen the stairway and strengthen the handrails.
  • What will be required to frame around obstructions like posts, heating ducts, and pipes?
  • Figure out how to eliminate any moisture concerns that basements are notorious for. This might include some exterior work such as routing water from the roof to drain further away from the foundation. The concrete walls and floor are going to need moisture barriers.
  • Radon gas needs to be checked before sealing everything up. Solving radon issues can involve sealing cracks and applying surface treatments or installing ventilators. Your local utility company may offer radon testing, or you can also hire a licensed radon contractor, or test for it yourself.
  • Likely you already have some heating (and maybe A/C) in the basement that is supplied by the upstairs HVAC. Chances are that the upstairs system is not adequate to also service a full living area downstairs comfortably. You may need a larger system for the entire house or an alternative for downstairs. Baseboard heating isn’t usually a preferred heating source but in a basement, it can make good sense. Warm air rises, so having it at floor level in the basement means it will perform double duty as the heat rises through the entire house. Or the HVAC source for the upper level might already be in the basement and you can make alterations to fully accommodate the basement.
  • Gain a thorough understanding of your building codes and permits. This will probably include moisture barriers and will certainly include plumbing and electrical work. Most of this will have to be inspected before the wallboard goes up.
  • Finally, it’s time to begin thinking about finished surfaces. The finished ceiling needs your early attention. Typically, a drop or suspended ceiling makes good sense because it both conceals and provides access to already installed electrical and plumbing lines for the upper floor through removable tiles. However, you also need to be sure a dropped ceiling will still be high enough for your needs and possibly to meet building code. One solution to this can be recessed lighting in the drop ceiling.
  • Start planning for what your DIY skills can accomplish. You may want to leave this level of plumbing and wiring to professional contractors. However, a moderately skilled DIYer can tackle the installation of moisture barriers, insulation, framing walls, and hanging drywall.

Stan, with some forethought and good techniques, you can make the basement warm, comfortable, and inviting for whatever special or general purposes that will best fit your family. Along with enjoying it for years to come, it will also add significant value to your home. But, make no mistake about it, finishing a basement is a big job. A well-thought-out plan will make the job much easier.

What are your thoughts about finishing a full basement? Please add your comments.

Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to askbrian@realtybiznews.com.

Author bio: Brian Kline has been investing in real estate for more than 35 years and writing about real estate investing for 12 years. He also draws upon 30 plus years of business experience including 12 years as a manager at Boeing Aircraft Company. Brian currently lives at Lake Cushman, Washington. A vacation destination, near a national and the Pacific Ocean.

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