From Bare to Beautiful

If your basement is a blank slate, you've got rooms full of untapped potential. Here's what you need to consider before turning that bare space into a usable space.

Nancy Hofstra had known for a while it was time to finish her basement. When you ask what finally convinced her to make the investment, she laughs, walks to the far rear corner of the basement and flings open a large walk-in closet filled with toys.

“This is why,” she says. “I always joke I have a toy store.”

A mother of a 5-year-old and 13-month-old, Hofstra loves having the extra room in her Westlake home so her children can play without being in the middle of everything — like her living room, which is the first thing visitors see.

“We wanted a space for children and to have a pool table,” she explains. “We had simply outgrown our living space.”

Hofstra met with Bennett/Dover Home Remodelers Inc. of North Olmsted in December 2003 to learn more about what it would take to finish her bare basement. A month later she met with Bennett/Dover project designer Leslie Reddy to discuss plans. By May, the project was under way, and by the end of July, Hofstra had a new, usable space in her home.

Getting started

Finishing your basement is never a small task. Basements can be dark and musty, with little natural lighting and the persistent chance of flooding. But remodeling the basement is usually far easier and cheaper than building an addition.

Of course, the basement is a room that can have serious limitations, so the sooner you figure out what you want, the easier it will be to identify what needs to be done. For example, cities often have laws against putting a bedroom in a basement without an exit or an emergency window. A point of exit is a common job and usually takes less than a day to install. But it’s also major surgery to the foundation when it must be cut open.

A means of egress is not a must in all cities, but Pat Hurst, vice president of Middleburg Heights design-build firm Hurst Construction Inc., says it’s a good investment in case of a fire or emergency.

“With windows [in the emergency exit] you get a lot more natural light and can have the room feel more like the rest of the home,” Hurst says, adding there are a number of ways to put in an emergency exit and they can always be landscaped with flowers and shrubs to improve their exterior appearance.

Prior to cutting, homeowners should consider existing water damage and the condition of their foundation. If the foundation is not structurally sound, then the money spent on remodeling will go down the drain in a matter of years when the foundation needs to be fixed.

Hurst says the No. 1 priority is inspecting the basement for moisture. Look for cracking, moisture or staining to a masonry wall.

“Similar to siding that has to keep the water out, so does the foundation,” Hurst says. “A basement is an investment and you don’t want that to go bad.”

The presence of moisture and the condition of the existing foundation is something every contractor should look for before finishing walls and closing them in, according to Terry Bennett, president of Terry Bennett Builders and Remodelers in Westlake. He says enclosing walls that are letting moisture in could cause other problems such as mold.

Homeowners must also consider electrical wiring. Many older homes don’t have the wattage to allow additional electrical outlets to be added easily, Bennett explains, so lighting is an important consideration when laying out the floor plan. Radon, a gas that emanates from the ground and is unhealthy to humans, should also be tested for in the basement before making a commitment to remodel. Bennett says it is not normally a problem in the Greater Cleveland area, but it is important to make sure.

“You have to be careful about it and should have tests done to test the levels of radon,” Bennett says.

Homeowners should always brace themselves for the reality that some basements are beyond repair and remodeling just won’t work. Very old homes with short ceilings can be “brutally difficult” and need major work to fix them, Bennett says. Sometimes homeowners are surprised to discover the brunt of their remodeling cost is going to be bringing their basement up to proper condition so they can start to remodel. The good news is homes built in the last 20 to 30 years are normally not a problem.

Planning your design

Deciding the design of a new basement is usually the most difficult decision homeowners must make. Hurst often reminds clients that this space doesn’t have to match everything else in the home. He has seen basements converted into everything from theaters to family rooms, secondary kitchens to game rooms. “The basement is not just a cellar or storage anymore,” he says.

The standard approach is to divide the basement into smaller rooms with an open main area, Hurst explains. There is typically a mechanical room that houses the water heater and furnace. Bathrooms have also become popular although some people tend to overlook the value of installing one in the basement (see “The Extra Bathroom” page 145).

While it may be easier to create your masterpiece from a blank canvas, Hurst says don’t worry if your basement is already partially finished or still sporting that 1970s style, wood paneling and all. Most of the time, outside contractors can easily tear out work that’s already been done, though likely at an added cost. If cost is a problem, Hurst says remodelers can integrate what exists in your basement now with the new design.

“The sky’s the limit really,” Hurst says. “There is so much that can be incorporated in designing and a lot of creative ways to keep the cost down. Value wise, the basement is a great deal.”

On average, Hurst says the basement is a five- to six-week construction project.

Hofstra’s project started simply, but expanded once a professional came in and showed her all the things she could do. Reddy came up with three designs for Hofstra’s basement and went over them with her, discussing “plusses and minuses and what’s the best flow.” Before construction, the basement was completely open, Reddy explains. A wall was added to break up the room and separate the water heater and furnace.

Reddy says before she even goes to someone’s house she asks them what they want to include in their finished basement. She makes a list over the phone, they talk about the traffic flow and then she checks out the soon-to-be livable space in person.

“Basements are a little trickier,” Reddy explains, comparing the room to other parts of the house. For example, if somebody wants a bathroom or a wet-bar, the placement of the water and sanitary lines have to be considered. If the lines were located across the room, then the concrete floor would have to be ripped up to install pipe.

“We scope that out and show you what’s going to work best,” Reddy says.

Everything is taken into consideration, including furnishing questions such as sofa or sectional, TV or an entertainment center, lamps or ceiling lights. Once everything is selected, construction begins.

“The more information you can give me, the better,” Reddy says.

She recommends drafting a list of all of your wants and needs before speaking to a contractor. For the best results, be as specific as possible.

“Lavender to one person is eggplant to another,” Reddy says. “Gather as much information as you can — colors, spaces, anything that inspires you.”

Concerns and picking the contractor

Check out any business before placing your trust and your home in their hands. Be sure the company has a bonded license, is insured by the Better Business Bureau and has the proper permits.

As a homeowner (with children), Hofstra says she had three main concerns entering into the project. The first was adding the escape route, which is now required by law, because workers had to cut through the foundation. But that job was done in a day and the escape route’s window now brings natural light into her basement.

Her second concern was having workmen in and out of the house all day.

“At first I was very uneasy,” Hofstra says. “But they were always so polite and considerate and accommodating. I felt very confident that the workers were trustworthy.”

Which leads to her third worry — making the right choice in a remodeling company.

“I did a lot of research as far as finding the right company,” Hofstra says. She made a lot of phone calls and talked to several of her friends about firms they used. She says she never heard a bad word about Bennett/Dover, so she chose them.

“Find a good company and think about how you want to use your space,” she says. “Ask yourself what works now, will it work later?”

Initially, Hofstra was just looking for a living space her family could use. But now it has grown to include a half-bath with a steam shower and a wet-bar with a granite countertop.

“It blew into this huge project,” she says with a laugh. “[But] it was so easy. There’s not one regret I have.”

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