Should I Finish My Basement?

There are several questions that need to be answered, prior to making a decision whether to finish your basement or not.

  • Is the basement currently dry?

The moisture in a basement is one of the most important obstacles to finishing a basement. In many cases the inherent construction of the basement space, below the level of the exterior ground surface, the lack of indoor conditioning as well as the tendency to be influenced by the surrounding ground, that the basement is embedded in, causes the basement space to be retain moisture and / or condensate during the summer months. In addition, being below grade ( exterior ground level ) any water on the outside of the foundation walls could find its way into the space, causing issues. High water table and well as poor exterior drainage are two other situations that could cause moisture in the basement space.


  • What type of access does the basement have?

How do you physically get into your basement? Is there a stairway from the first floor of the home that leads down into the basement? Is there what is called a bilco door leading from the basement to the exterior? A bilco door is a metal hatchway with stairs that is cut into the exterior foundation wall, and allows movement from the exterior surface grade to the basement elevation. Or are you one of the very lucky homeowners that have, what is called, a walk out basement. A walk out basement is achieved when the exterior grade drops down on one of the elevations of the house, allowing the basement floor to exit to the exterior at the same elevation.  This is a wonderful situation and almost always becomes the reason to finish the basement elevation.


  • What head room height is available within the basement?

This is the distance from the top of the basement floor to the underside of the majority of the ceiling joists, or the floor joists of the first floor. I reference majority, due to the fact that in most cases the lowest structural members are dropped supporting beams that span columns in the basement. These dropped beams are normally lower by the width of the beams, than the majority of the joists. The most instances, the floor joist of the first floor, which are the same as the ceiling joists of the basement will rest on the supporting beams. These dropped beams can be boxed in, as architectural beams, and will only interfere with the headroom in portions of the basement.


  • Does the basement have any type of mechanical environmental conditioning equipment?

Is there any means of heating, cooling or venting the basement, or is the basement environment simply effected by the surrounding exterior wall temperatures, and any heat or cooling that may influence the space is from the first conditioned space, the first floor.


  • What is the condition of the basement?

What are the walls constructed of, are they poured in place concrete foundation walls or masonry units mortared up, or even field stones, piled on top of one another. In NYC the construction could be solid brick foundation walls. What is the floor made of, is it concrete, wood, dirt? Each of these conditions are issues that will need attention and will influence you regarding the finishing of the basement.


  • What are the square foot requirements of the family, and how many square feet of usable space is possible, by finishing the basement?

This analysis must be done by the occupants of the structure and their determination of the use of the primary structure. What will the finished basement space be used for, is it necessary space, or is it simply an added space for convenience. The increased sale value of the home must be strongly considered, when determining whether the interior finishing of the basement is economically practical.


  • Insulation Concerns

What insulation concerns, opportunities, requirements are presented by the basement? Will the basement be easy or difficult to insulate and how much insulation is thought to be required?

The seven conditions previously noted should be considered prior to making a decision regarding the finishing of a structures basement.

The most important element of the initial decision is the need for the space, especially if there are negative influences that would need to be overcome.

What are the issues to be considered regarding each of the seven conditions noted and how would they be overcome if the decision was positive regarding the finishing of the basement?

  • Is the basement currently dry?

If the basement is dry and there is no indication of excessive moisture or standing water, then the basement will not present any difficulties regarding moisture when finishing. However in most cases, the majority of basements will at least require dehumidification. This dehumidification can be in the form of a free standing mechanical unit purchased for as low as $300.00, to full basement dehumidification systems, costing thousands of dollars.

Does the basement present a more difficult water issue such as flowing or standing water?


Does the foundation walls actually leak, or does the water percolate upwards from the ground through the slab and into the space? These are conditions that represent more of a challenge than the simple process of dehumidification.

There are several professional systems that can be purchased from sub-contractors who will install systems consisting of pumps, piping, manifolds, drains, etc. that will eliminate a flowing or standing water problem. These systems will cost thousands of dollars to install and will be dependent upon the severity of the water issue, each individual situation must be evaluated.


  • What type of access does the basement have?

If your basement offers a convenient door and stair leading down from the first level, the accommodation is perfect for a finished basement. It is my recommendation that if there is only one means of basement access, another access be constructed. This secondary egress is both for convenience and safety. The finishing of a basement will be influenced by the local building code and access will need to be addressed.

Normally there will be, either a bilco door leading out of the basement to the exterior grade, along with the access from the first floor, or there will be windows, or a walk out door, allowing a second means of access and egress to the basement.

If the basement offers a walk out situation, then it is my opinion that this opportunity, unless there is a significant negative condition, be taken advantage of. The livability of a basement space is enhanced by the ability to simply walk out to the exterior on the same elevation as the basement slab.


If there is not a second means of access from your basement, there are several ways of solving this issue. An access window with what is called an exterior area way, is excavated and stabilized on the exterior of the foundation as one possible means. Cutting in a single door or even a sliding door into the foundation wall and re-grading the exterior, could be considered, or the simple installation of a bilco door.

The final decision on how to provide a second means of egress out of the basement is largely based upon use and budget.


  • What head room height is available within the basement?

Dependent upon the use of the space, the importance of the headroom within the finished basement space must be decided. If the basement is going to be used for exercise, and the need for over the head exercises with bar bells is required, headroom is an issue. If the exercising is based on a stationary bike, rowing machine, etc., then the headroom may not be as significant. If the space is to be used as an office or recreational television and sound space, the limited headroom may not be an issue.


The higher the ceiling the better, however, the use of the space is very important to this decision.

There are three methods of achieving additional headroom within the basement area. The first and simplest is to reframe the lowest structural members within the ceiling assembly and create more headroom in selected portions of the basement.


The next simplest solution, is the further excavation of the basement floor. Obviously if the floor is still a dirt floor this is accomplished without the need to remove a concrete slab, however, if the slab is in place, its removal is required.


The third, most difficult and expensive method, is to raise the structure to accommodate the need for headroom. This is automatically achieved if the structure is being lifted to accommodate the newest FEMA regulations for first floor sill elevations; however, if this is not necessary, then the actual raising of the structure to obtain height is involved and expensive.


  • Does the basement have any type of mechanical environmental conditioning equipment?

If the space is going to be finished, there will need to be at least a dehumidification system installed. Again, this can simply be a stand-alone unit.


If the space is going to be used as a bedroom, then normally heat is required. If the space is for partying and socializing then normally both heat and cooling is required. This decision becomes totally a factor of use and personal taste. However, if the space is to be legally identified as bedrooms, or bathrooms, then the space needs to be heated, per local code.


Obviously the solution to environmental conditioning is the installation of heating and cooling equipment.


  • What is the condition of the basement?

The condition of the basement is a common sense issue. If the walls poured in place concrete, the finishing of the basement is more easily achieved, than if the walls are inconsistent masonry, or field stone.


If the floor is dirt, it must be treated with a system of concrete, wood sleepers and flooring, etc. In addition, when considering the conditions of the space as it exists, the details for insulation, floor, wall and ceiling must be considered.


  • What are the square foot requirements of the family, and how many square feet of usable space is possible by finishing the basement?

This factor must be decided by the inhabitants. How the space will be used, how much space is required to accommodate the activities and how much space the existing basement offers as a possibility to finish, are all considerations. The selection of only a portion of the total basement to finish or the entire square footage, is a decision based upon need and family conditions.


  • Insulation concerns?

What are the insulation concerns and opportunities with this unfinished basement?   Does the existing basement offer easy insulation issues or does it represent difficult ones? How will the insulation systems be installed and what type of insulation will be used?

The insulating of the walls, floor and ceilings of a basement space are based upon budget, necessity and individual convenience. There is no hard and fast rule whatsoever to base this decision on. Like everywhere else in the structure, the better insulated the more comfortable and economical it will be to condition the space.

This is meant to be a general discussion on whether it makes sense to finish your basement.

I purposely did not offer any type of financial considerations or comments, due to the fact that there is another discussion included within this website that addresses the costs of finishing a basement.

As a summary, in my judgement, it is normally a good decision to finish a dry basement if at all possible. The resale value of a home with a finished basement is always higher than the same home without the finished basement. The existence of both a dry basement and a walkout scenario is almost a slam dunk in the construction industry, due to the ability to use the finished basement as an extension of your backyard, or an extension of your basement space, dependent upon the specific usage at the moment.

Once issues such as water, additional access, or limited headroom are added to the discussion, then the decision becomes more decisive, and must be more intelligently and analytically pursued.

With all the new basement systems and sub-contractors performing the work, there needs to be some very extenuating circumstances to cause the decision to be negative.

Remember, the walls, floor and ceiling are already constructed, all you have to do is finish it!!








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