As a professional home inspector, I spend hours examining basements. Many of them are “finished’ to varying degrees. Over thousands of inspections, I have seen certain finishing problems again and again. If you are planning some work in your basement, this info could save you time, money and heartbreak.
A basement is a hole in the ground, and sooner or later every hole in the ground gets water in it. This is as inevitable as gravity. Basements weren’t intended to be finished and used as living area. If you chose to finish and use your basement this way, be aware that you are taking a risk of loss or damage to your possessions. No sealant, no system, no design feature can ever eliminate that risk entirely.
So, how risky is your basement? Only you can answer that question. If you’ve been living there several years, and you haven’t had water intrusion, condensation or sewer-backup problems, then the basement is a good candidate for finishing. That means “low risk”, not “no risk”. If the only problem you have is dampness in the summer, you can take steps to eliminate it: the finishing process itself will help a great deal.
If the signs point to high risk, are you completely out of luck? Do you have to live with that dank dungeon? Well, no. There is an alternative that I call “minimal finishing.” You may want to try this:
- First, do what you can to reduce water intrusion. Extend the downspouts, clean the gutters, correct grading problems, have the sewer snaked. If you don’t have central air, you will need a dehumidifier to control dampness in summer. If you do have central air, make sure at least one supply register is open to the basement in summer.
- Next, clean the masonry walls and floor and vacuum the joists and overhead pipes as thoroughly as you can. (Exception: if you have asbestos pipe or duct insulation, don’t clean it. Leave the dust there to get painted into place.) Then, paint.
- Yes, just paint. The ceiling should be done first. The secret to making an open-joist ceiling less ugly is to use all one color, preferably some shade of white to reflect light. (Of course, you will mask all electrical fixtures and junction boxes. Make sure the pilot flames in the furnace, water heater and dryer are off, so they don’t ignite paint fumes. Open the windows.) Spray equipment can be found at most tool-rental stores. The first coat should be a stain-killing primer like B.I.N. ® or Kilz®, so the wood color won’t bleed through. Then add a second coat of ordinary latex paint for better color and coverage. The advantage of this method is that the pipes, wires, etc. are still accessible, but don’t present the same visual clutter as before. Also, you haven’t spent a ton of money on a ceiling. Walls can be painted next. Again, the lighter the better, unless you have a lot of very large windows. Concrete floors can be painted to eliminate dusting of the concrete, but use a paint formulated for masonry floors. Floor paint in high-traffic areas will need some protection from abrasion. Try non-skid throw rugs. The whole idea is to maximize brightness, minimize the closed-in feeling, and keep as little investment as possible in the path of intruding water. Decor should include fabric wall hangings to minimize that concrete echo, and furniture that doesn’t have fabric surfaces in contact with the floor. With good lighting, this “minimal finishing” can produce a very welcoming environment.
Ok, so you think your basement is pretty dry, and you want more elaborate finishing. Here are a few areas to watch out for:
- Fire safety: Thinking about a basement bedroom? Think again! All bedrooms require two ways out. A door and a window suffice for the upstairs bedrooms but the typical basement window just doesn’t meet the requirements. If you have a walk-out basement, two stairways, or windows that are half as high as the wall, you may be able to put a bedroom down there, but check with your local code officials first.
- Another common fire hazard is expanded polystyrene foam insulation, also known as styrofoam. This is a great product to insulate basement walls, but it should be covered by a non-combustible facing, such as drywall. Don’t use it as suspended ceiling tiles, or anywhere else where it will be left exposed. It’s flammable, and produces a toxic gas when burned.
- Incandescent bulbs are fine for open ceilings, but they should never hang above plastic lenses on suspended ceilings. Florescent lights are cooler, and more economical to run.
- Read all the fine print in your homeowners’ insurance policy. Find out about exclusions for sump pump failure, sewer backup, flooding or leaks.
- Ceilings. Some folks feel that suspended ceilings are “institutional” looking, and they want to drywall the basement ceiling. In my mind, that’s a bad idea. Between the joists are all the mechanical systems of your house: water supply and sewage pipes, power, phone, data, and security wiring, and whatever else the builder or subsequent owners threw in. All mechanicals systems are subject to wear, failure and obscelescence, and will need to be worked on sooner or later. Having to tear down a permanent ceiling to add a network cable, fix a doorbell or find a leak is a major pain. Suspended is removable. No, it won’t look as nice as your living room. Remember, it’s a basement!
- Clearances. Lots of finishers like to enclose the furnace and water heater. Be sure the floor plan includes ample space for a (normal sized) technician to work on these appliances and a path by which they can be removed for replacement. The vent connectors (flue pipes) from gas burning appliances need at least 6 inches clearance to any combustible surface, like the wood studs of the furnace room wall. This is vital! If it’s a double-wall vent, stamped as “Type B”, it only needs one inch of clearance.
- The electrical service panel sometimes gets covered up or restricted. You need to be able to get to the panel quickly in an emergency, so don’t block access to it with stored stuff or walls. It also needs a flow of cooling air, so don’t hang a picture or tapestry in front of it. Any future changes in the system will require removal of the panel cover. That’s removal, not just opening! Don’t let the drywall guys block access to this vital equipment. And please, don’t build a bathroom around the electrical panel!
- Combustion air supply: Furnaces and water heaters need lots of air to support combustion. The door to the furnace room should be a louvered door, or other arrangements need to be made for free air flow into the room. If you choke off its air supply, the furnace will get revenge. It’s called carbon monoxide poisoning!
- Check the return duct to the furnace, the one that brings air from the house back down to be heated. There should be no open return grilles in the furnace room. They can depressurize the room, causing burners to back draft. Your heating contractor may need to seal up one or more return openings, but new ones should be created in the “living space” of the basement to replace them.
- Sump pumps: This is one of those mechanical devices that are bound to fail. When you need it most is during a big storm, and that’s when the power is most likely disappear. There are two kinds of back-up systems available that will keep pumping the water out of the sump when the power is out. Expect to spend about $500 to have a plumber install one, and think of it as insurance for everything that touches the basement floor.
- Valve access: Your water and gas meters should also be accessible. Yes, I know the meter readers use that little plastic box on the outside wall, but the real water meter is still inside, as are many gas meters. Suppliers want to read these indoor meters every now and then. More important, the main shut-off valves are at the meters, and they may be the only way to turn off the water or gas supply when something breaks. Don’t box them in so tightly that nobody can find them. And don’t cover up the individual gas valves, like those to the dryer or fireplace.
- Contractors. Last time I checked, any work on residential property over $600 in Michigan required a licensed contractor. Also, any electrical work beyond plugging in an appliance cord requires a licensed electrician. Even if the guy nailing up studs and hanging drywall has a license from the State and a permit from the City to do finishing work, he still has to sub out the electrical work to a real wireman. I find a lot of dangerous wiring mistakes hidden above the ceilings in “professionally” finished basements. Don’t let the contractor talk you into skipping these little formalities. Yes, permits and inspections cost money, but it’s money well spent. Ask that insurance agent how they handle a claim for a fire caused by bad wiring that was installed without permits or inspections!
There’s a lot to consider when finishing a basement. I hope these tips will help you avoid some of the headaches. Good Luck!
This article contributed by:
1820 Briarwood Drive
Madison Heights, MI 48071
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