The Inside Outside Guys: Finishing a basement: part one

Ken Calverley and Chuck Breidenstein
Special to The Detroit News

The holidays always serve up a lot of reminders to us — everything from what not to buy Aunt Mary to what not to serve to Uncle Bob. Those big family gatherings also point out shortfalls in the home.

We are usually put on notice of the very real need for another bathroom and a separate space for the sports fanatics to enjoy all the games.

Finished basements add value for many house hunters, especially when restaurants were not an option and this additional square footage offers a spot to gather with family members at home.

In the Midwest, basements have become the go-to space to pick up additional living areas, and well they should. The most affordable place in the home to gain additional finished space is the basement, from the old builders adage “first go down, then go up, then go out” as the priority for where to pick up affordable square footage.

More than 200,000 new homes are built in this country every year with full or partial basements. Most new home builders do not finish that space, so it is left to the owner to develop.

That “space below grade” already has a foundation, exterior sidewalls, a “roof” and mechanicals, so we are effectively finishing within a completed shell. Because of this, typical “cost-to-value” surveys put the return on investment, ROI, of finishing a below- grade space at 70%.

So, where do you start? Too many people begin a build-out without consideration for the reality this is a below-grade space. It's important to know that 98% of homes with basements will experience some type of water damage during the course of the home’s life.

Due to this, step one is to assure the space is secure against water and vapor intrusion. For active water, we check the perimeter drain system both above and below grade. Keep in mind most basement water issues will originate from misdirected surface water.

Cracks and rod-holes in the basement walls should be professionally filled no matter their status. The Outside Guy tells of paying a professional to fill such cracks on one wall of his basement, but deferring on the ones opposite since they had never demonstrated leaks. Sure enough, one year after filling the wet cracks and holes, the “dry” ones started to let water in.

Assume any gap or crack may eventually let water in, and take steps to seal it. Moisture can also be an issue since walls and floors will “wick” it through the concrete. You can apply clear sealers to all such surfaces to minimize this movement.

Now you are ready to create a preliminary layout of walls. Blue painter’s tape can be a great tool for this. “Place” walls using tape on the floor and be sure to indicate door locations, door swings, closets, that extra bathroom, etc. You want your hallway width to be at least 36 inches, finish wall to finish wall.

It is also suggested to use larger doors at least 2-10” wide for ease of furniture movement.

You can also use the tape for furniture placement in your new “rooms.” Where will the big-screen TV be placed? The couch?

Based on this layout, you now need to step back and look at the mechanicals, including lighting, electrical, plumbing and HVAC. You want this space to be safe, well lit and comfortable, so you might begin to locate and mark switch, plug and light locations as well as where additional heating supply registers may be needed.

What will need to be done to accommodate the new bathroom in terms of drains and vents? Are you going to add or expand a basement laundry?

You can also now determine your egress requirements. Every habitable space below grade requires at least two means of egress and one of those is the stairway from above. The other must be an approved door or window and located in the main living space you are creating.

Additionally, any dedicated “sleeping” areas, or bedrooms, must have their own means of a secondary egress, so if you are adding bedrooms downstairs, you may need to provide for multiple egress doors or windows. Each such window install will cost in the range of $3,000 or more, so you are now in the position of being able to assemble a budget.

The average cost of basement remodels runs a broad range from $11,000 to $27,000, and can easily go higher.

Larger cost items will include those egress units, plumbing issues and fixtures, flooring, furniture and ceiling treatments. For instance, a drywall ceiling is a lot less expensive than the suggested suspended ceiling, which will allow future access in the event of any issues.

A suspended ceiling may also provide some sound reduction — another consideration to keep in mind when designing the space.

Planning a great new basement remodel should be fun and it will certainly pay dividends for years in the enjoyment you take from living in your home.

In the next article, we will discuss specific materials and techniques to keep in mind as the buildout progresses.

Meanwhile, remember you can get the same kind of great advice from the professionals at

For housing advice and more, listen to the Inside Outside Guys every Saturday and Sunday on News/Talk 760, WJR-AM, from 10 a.m. to noon or contact us at