by Barbara Ballinger
Basements once were the second-class level of a home — a place where some families hung out, but not as a first choice. And homeowners rarely spent a lot of money to fix them up.
But necessity may be the mother of invention as more homeowners have seen the basement as underutilized square footage that can be improved, and for less than adding to an upper level. Given a new, fancier moniker, too, of “the lower level,” these spaces can improve resale.
In many areas of the country, basements aren’t a given. But in regions where houses are rarely built without them, such as the Northeast and Midwest, not having a basement may actually hurt a sale, says Christopher J. Masiello, president and CEO of Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate The Masiello Group in Keene, N.H. “It can mean $10,000 or $20,000 less in value for comparable properties,” he says.
Since the housing market stalled, the basement has garnered more attention. Those in need of more living space looked to this otherwise unused level versus spending double or triple the cost to add space on, depending on their site’s topography, labor costs, and the choice of finishes, says architect Duo Dickinson, author of Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want (The Taunton Press, 2011).
Basement renovations also can offer an excellent return on investment. According to the 2014 Cost vs. Value Report,, midrange basement redos, which average almost $63,000, bring a 77.6 percent payback, among the top 10 returns on projects.
Yet, nothing’s a slam-dunk. Ensure your clients are making a good investment when they’re finishing a basement by helping them steer clear of these nine obstacles:
1. Low ceiling height. Older home basements were often built with low 7-foot ceilings, which could make some people feel uncomfortable. And excavating to gain more height can prove expensive and sometimes structurally challenging, says Chicago-based architect Allan J. Grant. Help your clients understand which basement facelifts are within their budget by bringing in an expert you trust to give an accurate cost estimate.
2. Water damage. Another huge challenge in basements is water, which should be eliminated as a possibility before your clients make any further progress such as planning expensive improvements and shopping for furnishings. Even if a basement doesn’t have standing water, check to see if it’s present in the yard near the home’s foundation walls. Negative slope grades toward the house may bode ill as well, says Randon Gregory, director of franchise acquisition and development for Ram Jack, a foundation repair company.
A waterproofing expert or contractor may suggest many remedies, such as wider gutters pitched away from the house, wider downspouts, soil raised up near the house, exterior or interior French drain tiles, a sump pump with battery back-up and generator if the power goes, and a dehumidifier to eliminate excess moisture. When furnishing the room, homeowners should consider engineered wood or porcelain or carpet tiles, since they stand up better to wetness and are easier to replace than real wood or wall-to-wall carpet. Certain paints and finishes with low or no VOCs also help remove excess moisture.
3. The dark cave. Romantic settings are nice, but not if they’re because a room lacks ample windows and lighting. Most basement transformations call for additional natural or artificial light. If it’s not illuminated well, a basement won’t be used, says Decorating Den designer Valerie Ruddy of Verona, N.J.
Some window wells can be enlarged or larger windows can be installed. The American Lighting Association’s consulting director Joseph A. Rey-Barreau suggests artificial light from multiple sources for the greatest effect. Newer LEDs, LED tape, and CFLs make lighting more energy-efficient and cost-effective over the long term, even if the initial purchase price is higher than incandescent lights.
Homeowners can take a plan of their proposed changes to a lighting showroom or a certified consultant for recommendations before the room is completed to be sure there will be suitable lighting, with sufficient lumens (a measure of brightness) and the right number of strategically located outlets, Rey-Barreau says. He advises using ceiling tiles to access wires rather than permanently close it up with drywall.
4. Awkward floor plan. Because of utilities and floor drains, the basement level often presents obstacles to work around that can lead to oddly shaped rooms or layouts. Tell homeowners not to chop up the lower level excessively, or they’ll start to feel claustrophobic, says Grant.
5. Noisy hub. Since a home’s mechanical systems are usually placed on the lower level, it’s good to choose sound-absorbing materials for floors, ceilings, walls, and doors to deaden noises.
6. Too specific or over-improved. While nobody knows the style preferences or interests of a future buyer, transforming a basement into a home office, family room hangout with a big-screen TV, or a visitor suite generally holds wider appeal than a more limited use such as a photographic darkroom, for instance. Also, buyers of a more modest home are unlikely to spend more to gain a fancy media room or well-equipped gym that never was in their budget, says Ruddy.
7. Design continuity. Furnishings should reflect some continuity in quality and style with the rest of the home, says Scott Lauri, broker-owner at ERA Levinson, REALTORS, in Monroe Township, N.J. But the basement can also be a place to be more adventuresome, as Decorating Den designer Lynne Lawson in Columbia, Md., showed when she transformed a catch-all space into an entertaining hub. “The house was pretty traditional, but we made the lower level cooler and funkier so it resembles a hip lounge,” she says.
8. Unappealing descent. If possible, homeowners should improve the stairwell descent into the basement. Removing a sidewall, offering more headroom, and sometimes introducing a turn or curve will improve the journey down, Lauri says.
9. Taking the rental plunge. While earning rental income may be appealing, homeowners should verify that their municipality permits it; some don’t allow multifamily dwellings in certain zoning areas. If your clients do decide to convert their basement into a rental unit, a typical must-have is large windows or wells for entry and egress. Kathryn and Steven Van Asselt’s 700-square-foot basement in their Portland, Ore., home has become a popular home away from home for travelers. They attribute the success of their rental space to their home’s location, colorful modern Ikea furnishings, good coffee maker, comfortable mattress, stereo system, laundry equipment, and separate stairwell and entryway.
Even if buyers and sellers don’t want to fully finish a basement, doing so partly, perhaps for seasonal storage or upgraded laundry facilities, still adds greater value and makes upstairs life more pleasurable.