Ask the Architect
Paul D. Rugarber, AIA
Question: We would like to finish our basement to add some extra living space. What do I need to know about this and what will it cost?
Answer: Basements are a great way to expand your living space and they cost much less than an addition. The items you will need to consider are existing conditions, design, and your budget.
First of all, existing conditions need to be taken into account. If your house is in an area that has radon gas issues, have the air tested to see if you need a system installed to improve the air quality. Structural problems will need to be addressed as well – for example, any cracks on the basement walls. Even if it has been there a long time, it will most likely become an issue when you sell the house and can be very costly to correct after the finishing work is done. Have a structural engineer look at any issues and develop a plan to correct them. Water entering the house from the walls or slab should also be remedied. You may need to seal holes, install a sump pump and drain system, or re-pitch the grade around the house to prevent water entry in the future. All of these items add up to money saved.
The design of your basement will depend upon what space requirements you are looking to satisfy. Do you need a family room for the kids to relax, play games, and watch TV? How about a beautiful guestroom with a private bath? Or do you want a gym… a craft room… an additional bedroom… or a pool table area with a bar? All of these rooms are common in finished basements and each commands different approaches to design!
Plan the larger rooms first and work your way down by size to determine what your best layout will be. Consider ductwork and existing beams and columns that may limit your plans. A ceiling design should be worked out so that any soffits needed for ductwork or pipes are uniform and not noticeable when the room is completed. A little creativity with the ceiling will give the impression that it was laid out for design reasons and not merely to box around ductwork! If a bedroom is planned below grade, there are certain egress requirements that need to be met regarding windows; make sure you are aware of these when working on your design. Home theaters and bars also work tremendously well in basements by providing a gorgeous space to entertain friends and family.
Understanding the cost per square foot of finished space will help you in planning how much of the basement you will be able to finish. Calculate your square footage and determine roughly how much you are willing to spend on this project. Keep in mind that although there are companies that advertise low-cost basements, they are typically only for small areas, and often do not include everything needed for a completely finished space. A good rule of thumb for budgeting is figuring approximately $25-$35 per square foot. This number can vary depending on bathrooms, bars, flooring, and heating/cooling needs. I recommend using gypsum board that is resistant to mold for the walls, and installing a dehumidifier in any unfinished portion as an added precaution.
When selling your house, a finished basement will give about a 70% return on investment. It will also give you priceless memories and much needed extra space. Always hire licensed professionals and make sure you get all permits needed for the project. Know how long the design and build-out will take and what is required of you, the homeowner, during the construction process. Ask lots of questions, understand the process, and enjoy your new space!