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Even if it's currently cold concrete and crammed with boxes of off-season duds, the lowest floor of your home probably has loads of potential. Treat it just as you would any of the rooms aboveground, and it might just become the most popular spot in the house—for a lot less cash than adding on. Here's our bottom-line advice for turning this underutilized space into a place you'll be eager to spend time in. Find even more ideas on ThisOldHouse.com.
Five Smart Ideas to Steal From This Basement (pictured at top)
It's so cheery and welcoming, you hardly know you're on the bottom floor.
1. Dress up the walls. Tall wainscot gives the space a homey vibe while saving the drywall from dings and dents.
2. Be smart about storage. Built-ins near a walk-out entry have room for coats and boots. Positioned to hug the stairway, they save space.
[Thinking about finishing your basement? Click to find the right contractor now.]
3. Layer on lighting. Traditional wall sconces add charm in a basement, where can lights usually prevail. Here, a warm bronze finish and white shade complement the surrounding woodwork.
4. Build a better stair. The first-floor door was removed to let sunlight spill downstairs. A handsome handrail and newel post were finished to match the built-ins.
5. Channel natural light. Take every opportunity to brighten up closed-off rooms. A reeded-glass light on the bathroom door fosters an airy feeling inside but still permits privacy.
The Layout Puzzle: Where to Begin
Put the main socializing area in a spot that gets the best natural light, to draw people in.
Bedrooms need a window for egress, so they'll need to be located at the perimeter.
The TV-viewing zone can be in a darker spot, to reduce glare and create a home-theater feel.
Store snacks and beverages in an area you can access without crossing in front of the TV.
What to Inspect (and Fix) Before You Start
Test for moisture by taping 2-foot squares of plastic sheeting to the floor and walls. Wait a couple of weeks. If condensation forms underneath, your foundation's not sealed. If droplets form on top, your basement needs dehumidifying.
Use an awl to probe for rot and insect damage in floor joists, rim and header joists, the sill plate, and wood-framed windows.
Check floor joists for sagging by climbing a ladder until you're nearly eye level with the underside of the joists. Look across them (perpendicular to their direction) to see if any are out of line.
Have a pro check fuel-burning equipment and your house's ventilation system to ensure that you won't have carbon monoxide buildup below grade.
Will You Need More Headroom?
Many codes call for 7 to 7½ feet of clearance. If you don't have that height, you may be able to dig out and lower the concrete floor, but it's a complex, pricey job. Ask your contractor if moving ducts and pipes might solve the problem.
Sump Pumps and Waterproofing
It's best to have both a battery backup for your main pump, in case of a power outage, and a second pump, in case the first one gives out. If your house is hooked up to a municipal water supply, invest in a water-powered backup pump that's juiced by pressure in the supply line.
Minor leaks may not need the attention of a pro. "Often a few simple fixes will solve a moisture problem," says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva. His tips:
• Install diverters to send gutter water at least 10 feet from the foundation.
• Slope soil away from the foundation.
• Seal small cracks or gaps around pipes with concrete-patching compound.
• Fill larger cracks inside and out with hydraulic cement, which expands as it cures. A structural engineer should inspect any cracks that are wider than a pencil.
Secrets to Success for Building Basement Walls
First: 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 ceiling. After you've fixed moisture problems, follow our pro tips on methods and materials:
• Banish mold—ban standard drywall. It just doesn't belong below grade; mold can grow on the paper coating, and the gypsum core can crumble. Try USG's Sheetrock Brand Mold Tough Gypsum Panels or Georgia-Pacific's nonpaper-faced DensArmor Plus High-Performance Interior Panels. Both got the highest scores on a standard lab test for mold resistance.
• Insulated stud walls are best for avid DIYers on tight budgets. It's the tried-and-true traditional method: A vapor barrier and rigid-foam insulation are laid over foundation walls, followed by a stud frame and drywall. Watch a video of Tom Silva using this method to finish foundation walls.
• Interlocking panel systems are best for DIYers who want to save labor and floor space. Notched insulation panels are fitted together and glued, clipped, or screwed to foundation walls. Then drywall is attached to integrated strips, resulting in a thinner wall. InSoFast panels have labor-saving chases for wiring and back-side channels for drainage.
• Professional basement refinishers are best for non-DIYers. Licensed pros install a proprietary modular system that combines insulation, finished wall panels, and sometimes ceilings, floors, and finishes. Some types are attached to a level track, so they go up quickly. Owens Corning makes the best-known of these systems.
• If you want to add partition walls: Put them in sparingly; too many below-grade rooms will feel like a rabbit warren. Place them between columns to turn support posts into design elements. Build half-wall dividers or walls with window cutouts so that light can penetrate the interior. And make them mobile. Sliding doors and movable screens can be closed for privacy as needed.
Keep the Racket Down Below
To soundproof the ceiling, add fiberglass batts without a vapor barrier between the joists. Then fasten one or two layers of drywall to them, using resilient clips and metal furring channels (called hat channels, for their shape). This isolates the drywall from the joists, eliminating vibration and thus minimizing sound travel.
Place mechanical equipment on top of sound-dampening antivibration mats or pads.
Minimize connections between ducts in the basement and upper floors to reduce noise transmission.
Save Space for Play
Game tables eat up a lot of square footage. For a small pool table (3½ feet by 7 feet), you need a clear space at least 11½ feet wide by 14½ feet long to play comfortably—if you buy the shortest cues, that is. A tournament-size pool table (4½ feet by 9 feet) or a 5-by-9 Ping-Pong table needs even more room. Unless you're positive you'll use it a lot, consider skipping a single-activity table.
An all-purpose worktable can seat several people for crafts, puzzles, board games, and much more—and designers say it's often a better draw for crowds than a game table.
Today's video games involve actual physical activity, not just fiddling with a joystick. Check your gaming platform for recommended clearances around and above the console. (No one should break a bone playing a virtual version of any sport.)
Wall-to-wall carpet is a good choice to deaden sound in a play area. Opt for synthetic fibers that resist mold and mildew.