Basements in older homes were, for the most part, designed as utility areas rather than for use as finished space when the homes were built. Because of this, there are a lot of obstacles when creating a desirable living space in a basement. That said, people are often surprised by the results that can be achieved. Following is a list of common considerations when approaching a basement remodel:
Being that most basements were not intended for use as finished space, the stairs are often less than adequate. In the past if you left the stairs as-is, they were grandfathered in even if they didn’t meet current codes. Now basement stairs have to meet a reduced set of codes if you finish any portion of the basement. In the majority of basements that I’ve remodeled, the stairs had to be reconfigured.
The city of Portland has a very useful pamphlet that outlines the requirements for finishing a basement, which can be downloaded here.
Click on the link that says “Converting Attics, Basements and Garages to Living Space.”
Don’t skimp on egress windows. I’ve run across people who’s intention was to create a basement bedroom but they’ll call it an office to avoid installing an egress window, which is required for it to be a legal bedroom. I find that being able to install larger windows in a basement is where you get the most bang for your buck. In resale terms it’s always good to have a bedroom over the ubiquitous “bonus room.” Also being able to bring natural light into the basement makes it far more likely that the space will be utilized and enjoyed. The link listed above also has the requirements for egress windows.
One mistake I see people make is that they try too hard to use every square inch of the basement. This often leads to unappealing layouts or too many places where ducts, beams and plumbing have been boxed in and protrude into the space. I find that it’s far better to create an unencumbered and appealing space, even if it means reduced square footage. I’ve seen many basements that have been finished, but eventually just get used as storage because nobody wants to spend time in them. I often recommend dividing basements into fewer but more spacious rooms.
Ductwork and plumbing
Most older basements require a fair amount of work to relocate ducts and plumbing. As far as plumbing is concerned, most of it should be able to be recessed into the ceiling. There is usually ductwork that will have to hang below the floor joists, but in most cases the ductwork can be rerouted and consolidated, so that it’s impact is less than what was originally there. Since basements in old homes were not designed as finished space, utilities were arranged to be easy for the installer and little or no thought was given to making the space usable. If the ductwork can be consolidated to a relatively small area, that area might be the perfect place to install some built-in cabinetry or a closet that conceals the ductwork.
A lot of people don’t realize how porous concrete is. If there is enough water around the exterior of the house, it will end up seeping through the foundation walls. If you’ve ever had moisture problems in your basement, you would be well advised to get this resolved before you finish your basement. Most basement moisture problems are caused by inadequate drainage around the exterior of the home. If this is the case, meet with a drainage expert to identify a solution. There are sealers that can be applied to the concrete from the inside that can work surprisingly well, however I tend to view these as a second line of defense, more than a way to resolve a moisture problem.
Finishing a basement uses fewer materials than an addition of the same square footage. If the basement is converted to an apartment, this helps to increase urban density, which leads to fewer new structures being built. Also by insulating and sealing up the basement as a part of the remodel the efficiency of the whole house is improved.
Even though there’s a lot of work involved in finishing a basement, if done correctly it can really improve the functionality and comfort of a home.