Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.
We had decided to sell the house. There was an extensive list of unfinished projects around the house and yard that required completion before we could contact the real estate agent.
Instead, I started finishing the basement.
My wife could not believe it. I had been painting the dining room. In fact, I had to move the scaffolding into the hallway so we could reach the dining room table for Easter dinner.
Finishing the basement was not the brightest of ideas. It was a cold, dark and musty place that leaked in a few places during heavy rainstorms. The mortar in the basement’s exterior stone walls had started to crumble many years before, and they needed to be pargeted, framed and insulated before I could even think of drywalling.
Worse still was the absence of headroom, thanks to a long-ago decision to hang all the pipes from the joists instead of seated between them.
My decision to finish the basement was, I recall, motivated by my dislike of the rest of the house and desire to carve a space in which I would want to spend time, a place where I could write that wasn’t the kitchen table, where I was constantly under siege by two children and a needy dog, and required to stop work when other people wanted to eat.
I tried to see past the problems with my dark and damp dungeon to something dry, warm and cozy, a place in which I could work and take naps, watch videos on a big screen, and entertain my friends.
What I was envisioning, however, was a basement like the ones I had seen in suburban construction, with French doors that opened outside to the swimming pool. It was the finished basement I had seen at a Toll Bros. community, one with a wet bar, fitness room, a jukebox, and a home theater with a giant screen, comfortable seats, Surround Sound, and soda and popcorn machines.
Of course, the reality of those other pre-sale projects dragged me from my fantasy world and back into the dining room armed with a roller. Another decade would pass before I got anything close to my dream basement, where I sit at a desk I designed and look longingly at the sofa on which I will be napping later.
Real estate agents will agree that having a dry, and, therefore, finish-able basement can sometimes be critical to a sale. So, in this blog post, we will focus on how moisture issues can affect basement renovation.
When people buy older houses, they often ask if the basement is dry. Buyers, especially those who only can afford a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath starter home or townhouse, look at a basement as an area – a bonus room, if you will — in which to expand as the family grows.
If the basement has moisture problems, the buyer will then try to determine if there is a way to control or even eliminate the dampness. The answer is, as usual, yes and no.
Eliminating moisture in a basement can be as easy as buying, and then remembering to empty, a dehumidifier that is properly sized for the space. It can be as difficult and expensive as cutting channels along the perimeters of the basement and directing water from those drains under the floor to a sump pit, where it can be pumped away from the house.
The previous owners of my current house took the perimeter/French drain/sump pump approach, and I added the dehumidifier, which runs from May to November and drains into the sump pit. The dehumidifier, which can remove about 18 pints of water every 24 hours during the summer, preventing the air-conditioning ducts from sweating on very humid days.
Basements are at the lowest point of the house, so it should surprise no one that they are the most vulnerable to water intrusion. I often hear from homeowners with basements that were flooded for the first time ever during a heavy rainstorm.
Settling can crack a foundation, and water can begin seeping in. That crack can be opened even wider if the water flowing from heavy rains eats away at the foundation, resulting in a permanent water problem.
Clogged gutters also can direct water into a basement, so you will need to clean them regularly. New homes typically come with a basement waterproofing package designed to prevent moisture intrusion, but homeowners insist on planting close to the foundations. The roots of these plants dig into the foundations, and moisture follows.
Even if your basement looks dry, you should talk with your remodeling contractor, who will come up with ways to ensure that moisture is under control before he or she begins turning it into living space.
The contractor also will make sure that local ordinances permit basement renovations, including height and access requirements. For example, one township in the Pennsylvania suburbs requires ceiling height to be 7 ½ feet, while the adjacent municipality mandates eight feet.
Accessibility requirements may determine if bedrooms are allowed in basements.
Many contractors recommend electric floor heating in basements because the drying effect of floor heat will reduce the humidity from the slab, which is the biggest source of moisture.
It is not a good idea to put flooring directly on the concrete, especially if the water table is already high and can get higher in wetter seasons. One way to handle this is by installing interlocking pieces of subfloor with a oriented strand-board surface and a polyethylene base, and putting the flooring on top of that.
There are other issues that can affect basement renovation, including asbestos, radon gas, and termites. Moisture remains the biggest. Once it is under control, your contractor can begin turning wasted space into a dream place.
I’ll take that nap now, but if you have questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.