The DIY Expert Guide for Beginners
[with expert contributions]
You're a DIY homeowner at heart. You’re wowed by the makeover photos. You’ve read the comments.
But while everybody else seems to have turned basements into gyms, offices, man caves, entertainment centers, or rumpus rooms, you still have questions.
Here’s a summary of key concepts from today’s DIY homeowner-basement-remodeling experts.
A finished basement can give you up to 75% of your investment. According to landlord and property investing expert Erin Eberlin, “If you spent $10,000 on improvements, it would increase the value of the property by about $7,000.”
While many first-time homeowners have great ideas, they can overlook critical points and realities of DIY basement remodeling.
This post will dig deep into basement modification for DIY beginners, with special input from today’s homeowner basement remodeling experts. Let's get started!
Table of Contents
What to Check For Before Starting Your Renovation
According to Kate Meier of BKMeier.com, you can control costs by thoroughly inspecting your basement before anything else, and by fixing all underlying issues before deciding on carpeting, wallpaper, or furniture.
Many of our clients or first-time homeowners coming from a city apartment into a suburban home think aesthetically but forget or might even be completely unaware of the realities of a basement.
It would be helpful to take care of any water issues right then and there. It could be a simple fix like installing drywall in the area of the house that seems to be leading into the basement (one of our homes had an issue in the backyard that was leaking into the basement from one side).
Otherwise, it could be something more complicated like needing to install a French drain--then not only do you have to rip up a floor, you’d also have to find a way to keep the dust and construction debris from sticking over everything.
Brains before beauty -- before you spend the money on the carpet or wallpaper or paint or maybe speakers for a theatre, make sure to fix any underlying issues first to save yourself the money and the headache!
~ Kate Meier of bkmeier.com
Here are key due diligence points for preparing a basement revamp.
Check for structural issues
My best tip for someone considering a basement remodel is to do your due diligence in making sure there are no structural issues. Is the foundation structurally sound? John Judd Jr. of juddbuilders.net
If going from unfinished to finished, get a thorough inspection of the property (grade changes, drainage) before making a commitment. Do you have degraded sheetrock and old framing that would have to be replaced? Is there asbestos tile or asbestos-wrapped HVAC? Are the boiler, hot water heater, HVAC newer? Will they need to be replaced soon? These factors could impact future layout.
Bryan Crawford of tandemcontracting.com
Check for rotting
Take a long screwdriver or awl to probe for wood rot or insect damage on wood-framed windows, joists on headers, rims, and the flooring.
Check the floor joists
Place a ladder and climb to the eye level of a joist's underside. To check for visible sagging, look across to the other end.
Check for signs of flooding
When an individual is beginning the process of remodeling their basement, the first step they should take is to look for any signs of flooding. Also, are there any arising foundation issues that can lead to flooding? This should be the first step because flooding can destroy all your remodeling efforts and cause mold.
Jaquetta Ragland of youngandfinance.com
Check for humidity
Tape 2 feet by 2 feet plastic sheet to the basement ceiling and the ground. Wait a week or two. Dehumidify the basement if droplets form on the plastic sheet on the ceiling. Seal the foundation if you see water droplets on the plastic sheeting on the ground.
Check for ventilation
To make sure that carbon monoxide can’t accumulate, have a professional check the ventilation system and fuel-burning equipment. Crawford suggests that you must have at least one window for ventilation big enough for fireman access.
How Do You Renovate a Basement? 9 Prep Steps
- Collect pictures of how the space should look like: its finishes, materials, flooring, cabinets, etc.
- Check if these materials are available and have a backup in case they won’t be.
- Create the floor, wiring, and piping, plans.
- Select an appropriate contractor who specializes in basement renovation.
- Examine and sign the necessary contracts.
- Obtain the required permits.
- Take all the measurements and order the materials.
- Begin the demolition.
- Start the renovation.
Layout and Design Tips To Get the Most of Your Space
Judd Jr. asks: “Can the basement space accommodate the ideas you have in mind?”
To make sure, here’s a quick guide:
Focus your purpose
Too often, people see unlimited possibilities in the basement, planning it as a rumpus room, a recreation room, a theater room, a kid’s room, an exercise room. The end result is often very choppy with not enough space for anything to actually happen there. Think hard about how you will actually use the space, then remodel with that specifically in mind. You’ll save more money this way, and the end results will actually benefit you, rather than sitting there unused.
Cristina Miguelez of fixr.com
Don’t rush it
Don’t rush it! Having a detailed design and layout of your floorplan will be monumental for your process. Many people may just want to get the project started, but in doing so skip some important areas that can impact timeframe and budget. Hiring a team of designers will help homeowners know what to expect and the contractor has a solid plan and can be held accountable for the scope of work.
James Ohashi of seattlestyleremodel.com
Do not skimp
Do not skimp on the design/planning portion. Most basement remodels will require a city permit and floor plan anyway. I always tell people that the design phase is an investment not a cost. Hire an architect and that will make a huge impact on the finished product. You don’t have to spend a lot of money here, just feedback about the floor layout and typically managing the permit process.
Mark Sexauer of stsconstructionservices.com
Get Help From Professional Contractors Since They Know What’s Best
An experienced contractor will be able to tell you if the foundation and construction are structurally sound and can accommodate the ideas you have in mind for the space. The contractor should be able to help you configure a layout that will meet your goals and serve you best in the future. If your contractor wants to bring a designer on board to help configure the space, be sure that the designer has experience with basement remodeling.
John Judd Jr. of juddbuilders.net
Hire an architect and that will make a huge impact on the finished product. You don’t have to spend a lot of money here, just feedback about the floor layout and typically managing the permit process.
Mark Sexauer of stsconstructionservices.com
Your contract with the contractor should have a section about the Scope of Work that the contractor agrees to perform on the house. The scope of work usually includes working with the city to obtain permits, ordering materials and equipment, and confirming the house plans. This section will save you a lot of time and money on the back end of the new home build.
Shawn Breyer of Atlanta House Buyers
Controlling Pests and Moisture Is an Important Consideration
Basement clutter and high humidity can attract insects and pests. According to Gregg Cantor, President & CEO of Murray Lampert Design, Build, Remodel:
Important conditions to consider in basements are moisture and humidity. It is a good practice to install fans with humidistats so there are enough air exchanges to prevent mold or mildew from growing.
~ Gregg Cantor
Wood-boring insects and wildlife seeking shelter are second only to moisture as major home-destroyers.
The most common entry points include the following:
- Utility penetrations
- Concrete cracks and crevices in foundation walls, slabs, and in basement walls
- Through and behind foundation insulation
- Behind finishing material
- Cracks and crevices in sidings, trims, window frames and windowsills, shingles, and in brick ledges
- Foundation walls across wooden materials
- Dry joints between the footing and foundation walls
In the article How to Keep Bugs out of a Finished Basement, Stephen Robinson advocates a 3-point strategy of (a) thorough inspection of entry points, (b) sealing and cleaning, and (c) using a residual pesticide.
Do I Need to Get a Permit to Renovate my Basement?
Skipping permits can cost you. Be familiar with your local building codes even when you’re hiring professionals. When getting help, choose experienced professionals who are familiar with the local permits and zoning regulations.
For DIY homeowners, experts strongly recommend consulting construction permits and zoning regulations professionals or your local building authorities. Ensure that your project is completely legal and follow zoning laws; otherwise, you risk getting a massive fine and having all the work you've taken down.
In addition, Cantor suggests that the basement modification cost estimate should consider the requisites of fire code permits.
For single-family homes, fire code permits typical construction for basements. When adding a companion unit, 1-hour fire walls and sound attenuation is typically required, so those costs need to be factored in.
Gregg Cantor of Murray Lampert
According to Chris Vale of basement waterproofing specialist RealSeal, licensed contractors can help get the right permits and ensure code compliance. Furthermore, a contractor can tell you if “…your basement ceiling needs to be at least seven feet high (and what you’ll need to do to obtain this height), whether your egress window provides enough square footage, and whether your design complies with other regulations.”
Learn About The Core Essentials
Before the actual basement work begins, check that you have the tools for carpentry, electrical/lighting, installation/HVAC, flooring, plumbing/bathroom, waterproofing, storage, walls, ceiling, furniture, and décor.
According to the Family Handyman website, basic carpentry skills are enough for framing, along with one special tool — a hammer drill for concrete fasteners. You can save a lot of money if you know your way around interior carpentry needs, such as soffits, trim and railings, and if you can:
- frame partition walls
- frame around obstructions
- ensure access to valves and cleanouts
- finish cool masonry walls to prevent moisture issues
- frame around obstructions such as posts, heating ducts, and pipes
- frame and finish walls of masonry and wood frame
Finally, since doing work in the basement means dust and debris, CEO Tonya Bruin of To Do-Done suggests removing all valuables and personal belongings.
Basement Electrical / Lighting
According to the same website, you can save a lot of money by using good professional techniques to rough in electrical wiring and light up your basement. For a wiring job, you must:
- Choose the right size of receptacle boxes
- Run cable throughout the room
- Make electrical connections
Experienced contractors suggest using code-grade wiring, placing more electrical outlets than you need and away from potential wet spots, and placing switches in very accessible positions. Maximize natural light and every opportunity to brighten up each room. “A reeded-glass light on the bathroom door fosters an airy feeling inside but still permits privacy,” Jeanne Huber points out in the article: Read This Before You Finish Your Basement.
Lighting can make the basement feel roomy, even expansive. Among the better choices is recessed lighting. For low budgets or low ceilings, strategically place standing lamps, table lamps, mirrors, wall sconces, and reflective accessories.
Basement Installation / HVAC
According to HVAC experts bartonboys.com, a basement used only for storage or house heating and cooling systems can become “a comfortable and cozy living space” after considering three (3) points: a) codes and permits; b) indoor air quality; and c) heating and air conditioning equipment, space and access.
Codes & Permits:
While heating and cooling regulations vary by location, rigorously adhere to fire and building codes and requirements.
First, determine if you must add capacity to current heating and cooling systems. According to sheldonsservice.com, installing a new heat pump or an air conditioner or extensions to the existing HVAC duct system usually requires official inspection and building permits.
For required permits, drawings must show natural and mechanical ventilation, current equipment, power supply, and placement of return ducts. Renovation plans should show the placement of new ducts, registers, and other duct system components.
Indoor Air Quality:
According to Ohashi, good airflow is a must. Since they are underground, basements typically do not get good airflow. Ventilation methods to consider include natural ones (such as windows which are usually required for Egress purposes) and mechanical methods using ducts, fans, and vents.
Breathable building materials should also be used, including a good subflooring product that promotes positive airflow and keeps the finished flooring raised off the concrete.
To prevent health problems in underground basements, fix leaks and signs of moisture problems and utilize effective waterproofing and drainage. A dehumidifier is not enough.
If a gas furnace will be used, include a mechanical ventilation system for health safety. As well, the enclosure concealing a gas furnace should be well-ventilated and follow gas code requirements.
According to the National Gas Fuel Code, the BTU output of the gas furnace and/or gas hot water heater should determine the cubic feet of air necessary to provide adequate combustion.
Accessible & Clear Components:
House furnaces, air handlers, and other HVAC components must be concealed but not entirely closed off.
According to the Barton website, manufacturer requirements and building codes specify the space required around” heating and air conditioning system components” so that these are always accessible for “inspections, repairs, or replacements.”
According to sheldonsservice.com, the floor plan should include a utility room with openings that allow removal and installation of replacement systems.
And here’s a tip from Cantor: Unlike conventional forced-air heating systems, ductless mini-splits save space and cut costs by eliminating most of the ducting.
Upon entering a remodeled basement, the flooring is often the first thing that catches attention. Choose durable flooring materials that look good, last long, and are easy to clean.
One important aspect to consider is whether the floor can be a slab or raised wood floor joists. In some cases, excessive grading can expose existing foundations, but it is easy to design around this with planning and engineering.
Basement floors should be waterproof. Joseph Lstiburek of the Building Science Corporation suggests installing a vapor barrier on the walls and the floor at the very start of the basement modification process.
According to Laura Firsz at networx.com, the best moisture seal-off method is to first apply a layer of dimpled polyethylene on top of the concrete basement floor, followed by installing water-resistant ceramic tile.
In addition, Ohashi suggests using breathable building materials such as subflooring that “promotes positive airflow and keeps the finished floor raised off the concrete.”
It is best to choose ready-to-use engineered wood subfloor product that has a tongue and groove design for quick and easy installation. A product with a high R-value is key: The higher the R-value, the better the material will insulate the space. Uninsulated or poorly insulated basements can be responsible for as much as a third of total home heat loss! The placement of pipes and wires can be easier with the right flooring decisions. For instance, Cantor points out that “raised floor construction provides more flexibility on plumbing and also provides space for running mechanical ducting.”
Basement Plumbing / Bathroom
For buyers, the increased functionality of a two-bathroom home tops that of a one-bathroom house. And, as Eberlin points out, an extra bathroom can get a house sold faster. In practical terms, an added bathroom in the basement can solve the rush of the morning or the evening bath time, whether it’s an en-suite or a half-bathroom. With a Saniflo toilet, “all you need is a water supply, a discharge pipe, and an electrical outlet.”
For a functional and eye-catching bathroom,
- Add a full vanity.
- Install lighting on each side of the mirror.
- Consider an upflush toilet.
- Go for light colors.
Read more: Basement Bathroom Ideas
According to Cantor, adding a bathroom and or sink requires getting a straight flow to the sewer line. When adding a bathroom and/or kitchen, getting a proper fall on the sewer line is required; otherwise, a sewage ejector pump is necessary.
On the other hand, with Saniflo you can install a toilet even when the main drainage isn’t close by. For easier plumbing and more savings, buy affordable and simple to install bathroom fixtures. At the same time, do your bit for the environment by using eco-friendly, water-saving fixtures. There are several sustainable bathroom systems online.
Want prices lower than Amazon? Talk to our Saniflo experts. Use discount code DIY50 for $50 off any full system.
Finally, never assume the quality of bathroom work. According to Breyer:
When it comes to the quality of the work for your bathroom, don't assume that you and the contractor are on the same page about the end results. You may be expecting a move-in ready, professionally cleaned bathroom while the contractor usually leaves the bathroom in broom swept condition with dirt and dust everywhere.
Sometimes you can even encounter a contractor that gets 90% of the work done and proceeds to pull his crew off to work on the next home while sending back people as they free up. This would leave you with an incomplete build. Make sure that your contract with the contractor has a section stating that they will complete the work in accordance with the local laws and settle on the condition of the bathroom when it is completed.
Read more: How much does it cost to add a bathroom?
At the onset, fix all foundation cracks and farming around existing ductwork to ensure that your basement remains warm and dry during frigid winters or rainstorms.
To do that, it's vital to note all the possible sources of moisture in the basement. Water can come from inside the house or outside of it. When it rains, water absorbed by the soil can seep into your basement walls and elevate groundwater levels, flooding the inside. The quality of your basement finishing hinges on how tight the waterproofing measures are.
According to Sexauer, the best ways to waterproof a basement are perimeter drain systems that can control moisture below the soil surface and “dimple matting around all subgrade walls.”
There are only two ways to waterproof a basement. From the outside which is typically very expensive/cost-prohibitive. Or from the inside where you are accepting that water will come in and mitigate it. The best systems I see are the perimeter drain systems and dimple matting around all subgrade walls. According to This Old House general contractor Tom Silva, you should ask a structural engineer to inspect significant cracks but you could employ simple fixes to prevent moisture. For instance:
- Slope soil away from the foundation.
- Install diverters to send gutter water at least 10 feet from the foundation.
- Seal small cracks or gaps around pipes with a concrete-patching compound.
- Fill larger cracks inside and out with hydraulic cement, which expands as it cures.
To prevent moisture damage and mold growth, Lstiburek has four suggestions:
(a) keep out groundwater and contaminants,
(b) insulate basements by controlling soil gas,
(c) use vapor barriers and surface drainage, and d) use spray-applied foams or rigid foam systems.
Remember that condensing boilers, HVAC system, water heater systems create condensate, which is water condensed into humid air. Condensate water can affect indoor air quality, cause property damage, as well as create health hazards.
In the article Read This Before You Finish Your Basement, Jeanne Huber suggests insulating pipes before completing the wall cover: “While they're exposed, slip foam insulation sleeves over hot-water pipes to prevent heat loss and over cold-water ones to prevent condensation from dripping on the inside of the drywall or [basement] ceiling.”
- To pump condensate from heating and cooling pipes and systems, check out the small SaniCondens pump.
- To neutralize and pump condensate from condensing boilers, HVAC systems, and water heater systems, try the Sanicondens Best.
- The Sanineutral works without a pump to neutralize acidic condensate from condensing boilers, HVAC systems, water heater systems.
If you are concerned about condensation in the basement during summer, John Carmody; Brent Anderson; and Richard Stone say in their article Moisture in basements: causes and solutions: "…do not ventilate the basement directly with warm, humid air. Ventilation through an air conditioning system or with a desiccant-type heat exchanger is recommended."
In many cases, a basement can end up as a general storage area. For maximum use, plan that at the onset.
For instance, a basement’s storage capacity can be maximized with space-saving organizers, like floor-to-ceiling cabinets, shelves, furniture with drawers, and DIY benches with under-compartments.
However, for basements modified for other purposes, clever storage systems for your basement are viable options.
The framing, insulating, and finishing of basement walls can address moisture and humidity issues. For instance, foundation walls can be waterproofed below with positive drainage that daylights out.
According to the staff article Basement Remodeling - Dealing With Moisture, a fine modification job can be reduced to nothing when “spots appear on the drywall shortly thereafter. Not only is it expensive to replace the drywall, but mold growth is also inevitable.” Some products on the market that address this concern are:
- RMR-86 Instant Mold Stain and Mildew Stain Remover Plus Mold Stain Blocker 32 ounces w Sprayer $16.99 on Amazon
- EcoClean Solutions Mold, Mildew & Algae Remover | No-Scrub Stain Remover | Instant Results for All Surfaces (1 Gallon) $32.99 on Amazon
- Mold: The Ultimate Homeowner's Removal. Paperback $29.00 on Amazon
Finally, for a warm and dry basement, the exterior wall framing should be offset by furring strips of metal or wood, as well as insulation with vapor protection.
Low basement ceilings can be topped off with drywall, dark paint, or plaster. If the basement ceiling is high enough, drop ceilings (acoustical panels) allow ease of access.
Remember that drop ceilings need at least 3" of space from the bottom of any obstruction to the finished face of the panel frame.
According to Robert Robillard of A Concord Carpenter, at least 1-1/4" of basement ceiling space can be used if you first strap the ceiling with 3/4 x 2-1/2" strapping, followed by 1/2 board.
If wires or pipes need to be moved, ask a plumber or electrician to relocate them to where they can be hidden in a sofit, which can also hide pipes and wires. A soffit can be made from 2×4 and plywood so that it can be nailed to the wallboard.
Basement Furniture and Décor
According to Jessica Zernike in the article Basement Ideas: A Comprehensive Guide To Transforming Your Basement, a basement can be a great space with appropriate planning. For instance, if you’re planning a guest room in the basement, add a bathroom. If the basement is too big for an adult game room, use dividers to create spaces for other uses.
The open plan is best for smaller areas. Remove divider walls and use colors, décor, and lighting to delineate zones. For instance, an adult relaxation area can be created with dim lighting, a large rug, and a comfortable sectional sofa while an adult crafting area can be created by using bright lights, storage shelves, and a sturdy work table.
For a basement home theater, use darker color tones for better viewing pleasure. According to Zernike, however, bold and strong colors can make a basement ceiling “lower than it really is,” and the room seems smaller. On the other hand, you can use neutral colors for tables, sofas, and shelves; white, taupe, and gray for a more expansive feel. To add character and drama, bold and strong colors can be reserved for small accessories, vases, rugs, curtains, and throw pillows, Zernike adds.
For limited basement spaces, Huber suggests a mini-fridge, a cabinet to hold snacks, and a microwave “for heating leftovers or making popcorn for movie nights.”
According to Vale, you don’t need to shell out a lot of cash. “Focus the bulk of your budget on multi-use furniture, a comfortable sofa, electronics, and personal touches.” Finally, Buerger recommends “thin-lined, low-profile furniture” to create the illusion of spaciousness. If “adding windows is too costly,” Buerger adds, “layer light throughout the area with lamps, sconces, and track lighting.”
Saving Time & Money
Don’t spend more than 15% to 20% of your home’s value on a basement improvement project unless you’ll be living in your home for more than 5 years
Chris Vale of RealSeal
In the 2017 article More space, better resale value: What to know about finishing your basement, Megan Buerger says that “most home basement renovations take one to two months to complete and cost between $50,000 and $75,000.”
Although CEO Bruin agrees with that timeline, she says it can cost about $20,000.
A typical basement remodeling will start at $20,000 and take between 30 to 60 days to complete. It is essential that you budget beyond this price, and include costs for contingencies, such as additional repairs that arise during a renovation.
CEO Tonya Bruin of To Do-Done
In addition, Crawford reminds us that different areas have different pricing structures.
Be realistic and be ready in case pricing is not as expected. It is always wise to add a contingency percentage to your budget. Judd Jr says: Always add a contingency percentage to your budget to account for unknown costs that could come up during construction.
Don't reference HGTV for realistic budgeting. Every city/state has different pricing structures, so don't be caught off guard if pricing is higher than expected.
Bryan Crawford of tandemcontracting.com
To help you save money, Miguelez suggests that you look at basement remodeling cost guides online for key elements such as flooring and wall options.
Always plan beyond the timeline and budget estimated. Allow time and money for the unforeseen such as delays, outages, labor strikes, holidays, family emergencies, additional repairs, government or neighbor issues.
Even if you have to outsource more complex issues such as electrical work or plumbing, you can still save a significant amount of money if you can lay flooring yourself, frame out walls, put up drywall or even paint.
If you must get help, Crawford suggests that you hire a contractor who is on the high end because “lowest price isn't always best.”
Finally, Judd suggests caution when a contractor's quote is really low compared to other quotes.
Also, if a contractor's quote looks really low compared to other quotes, ask them to explain everything it includes, ask if the estimate includes all permitting costs, and have them explain how they handle unexpected costs during the project.
John Judd Jr. of juddbuilders.net
When all is done
Budget for essential tools and gadgets for when the basement revamp is completed. Some handy tools to have around after finishing the basement are the following:
- Rechargeable portable light
- Cell-phone signal booster
- Wi-Fi range extender
- Hand vacuum
Now that you’ve read this far, move on with confidence, knowing that no contractor, architect, or budget estimate will drain your wallet or shock you with the unexpected.
And here’s the kicker: Your remodeled space is not only rent-free, but it can also even bring in money: think home business and tax rebates, think commute-free, traffic-free, and boss-free income streams. Think increased property resale value. And for DIY homeowners, there’s the pride of accomplishment. Think priceless.