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Basement Finishing Tips

Finishing a basement is a perfect DIY project. For a fraction of the cost of an addition, you can convert basement space to valuable living space. Here's how.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Finishing your basement is easier than ever

Advances in waterproofing along with new products mean your basement rooms can be as dry and comfortable as any other room in the house. We talked to basement experts, our Field Editors and manufacturers to find the best tips and products.

First, dry it up

If you have a damp or wet basement, you have to fix it before you start any finishing work. The good news is that most water problems can be remedied by two measures: grading the soil to slope away from the foundation and adding or repairing gutters and downspouts.

If these steps don’t work, you’ll have to take more extreme measures like adding exterior drain tile and waterproofing the walls or adding interior drain tile that empties into a sump basket with a pump. Eliminating water problems is time consuming and expensive, but it’s critical to prevent a moldy and ruined finished basement.

Seal the rim joists

Uninsulated rim joists are huge energy losers. Now’s the time to insulate and seal your rim joists. You’ll never again have access once you install the basement ceiling. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that packed-in fiberglass batts will do the job. Fiberglass batts are simply too porous to create an air seal.

If you have more money than time and want the best job possible, closed-cell spray foam is the way to go. You can buy a DIY kit online or at some home centers that contains enough two-part foam to cover about 100 sq. ft., 2 in. thick, for about $250 in 2013 dollars. Before you go this route, though, get an estimate from a pro. You may find you can have the job done for about the same price.

The second best option is to seal the rim joists with rigid insulation cut to fit. We recommend a minimum of 2-in.-thick extruded polystyrene, but check your local codes to see what’s required. If you have a table saw, use it to cut strips equal to the depth of your joists. Then use a fine-tooth handsaw, utility knife or miter saw to cut the strips to length. Fill small gaps with caulk, and larger ones with expanding spray foam from a can.

Install “dimple mats” for a warmer, drier floor

You’ll need to fix water problems before you install flooring in your basement. Plastic drainage mats, or dimple mats, aren’t a solution for wet floors. But they do allow air to circulate under the flooring and provide a moisture barrier, reducing the potential for moisture damage from condensation or water vapor migrating through the concrete. Dimple mats also provide an insulating layer of air that separates the floor from cold concrete.

The photo shows a type of dimple mat from CertainTeed called Platon. Platon is available in 44-1/2-in. by 49-ft. rolls as well as several other sizes. After rolling it out and taping or caulking the seams, you can install a pad and floating floor directly over the plastic mat. To prepare for other types of flooring, you can cover it with plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) by screwing through the mat into the concrete below.

Image provided by Finished Basement CompanyThink outside the box. Use curves and
warm colors to create a “great room.”

6 design tips from a basement pro

Matt Cook, the Divisional President of Finished Basement Company, has designed and finished thousands of basements. Cook says his company’s design service is what his clients benefit from most. Every basement presents tricky design problems; here are a few of his design tips:

Think outside the box
Big, open, boxy rooms are boring. Plan angles, curves, recesses, arches and other architectural features to add interest. This is where a professional designer can really pay off.

Work soffits into the plan
Most basements require soffits to cover ducts and pipes. Use this to your advantage by incorporating additional soffits into the design, thus creating balance, symmetry and architectural interest.

Create a “great room”
On the main level, the hub of the house is the kitchen island. In a basement, it’s a bar or kitchenette that flows into the media room and provides ample seating areas for both large and small groups. Be sure to define each area so the space isn’t too open and cold.

Use warm colors
Basements tend to be cool and lacking in natural light. You can make them feel cozier and more inviting by using warm colors.

Paint the ceilings
A white ceiling is dull and lifeless. Add a little color to give the space a warm and rich feeling.

Hire a design pro
Look for a designer who specializes in basements. Good design can save you money in the long run and add to the value of your house. For more information on hiring a design pro and to see other beautifully finished basements, go to finishedbasement.com.

Install a variety of lighting

For the most interesting space, include several kinds of lighting in your plan. Start with good general illumination for times when you want a brightly lit room. Plan to add a dimmer switch to control the amount of light. Recessed can lights, ceiling fixtures and fluorescent “pillow” lights are a few types of general lighting. If you’re worried about noise traveling upstairs, don’t use recessed can lights.

In addition to general lighting, you can include indirect sources of light that reflect off the ceiling or walls. Two examples are wall sconces and LED rope lighting built into a cove.

Task lighting is important if you have areas dedicated to hobbies, cooking or reading that can benefit from additional light. Floor and table lamps work well. Or consider adding lights over your sink, countertops or work area.

If you plan to display artwork, sculptures, crystal or pottery, or even a collection of books, special lighting that illuminates these objects can be very dramatic. Small puck lights built into alcoves or bookcases, track lighting and dedicated picture frame lights all work well.

Warm up cold floors with heating cables

Unless you’re lucky enough to have in-floor heat already installed, your basement floor will probably be a little chilly, especially in areas that aren’t carpeted. You can fix this problem with electric heating cables or mats. And even though this type of heat doesn’t warm the room much, it makes floors much more comfortable.

The downside is that heating cables are expensive to install and expensive to run. You can buy a loose cable system or mats with the cable attached. Loose cables are more work to install, but cost less than mats. The more area you cover with cables or mats, the lower the cost per square foot. It costs up to $10 per square foot just for the materials.

Manufacturers have information on their Web sites for planning the installation. If you’re not comfortable with wiring, you can install the cables yourself and hire an electrician to hook them up to the thermostat. Most cables or mats must be covered with a thin layer of thin-set mortar or self-leveling underlayment before you install flooring over them.

Hire a professional heating contractor to
design your ductwork, even if you would like
to do the work yourself.

Hire a pro to design your HVAC system

Don’t make the rookie DIY mistake of trying to heat your basement by cutting a hole in your main trunk line and screwing on a heat register. This will only create an imbalance in your entire heating system, and won’t provide the heat where you need it. It’s important to place heat registers above exterior doors and windows, and provide plenty of cold-air returns in the right locations. In some cases, a new “trunk line,” or main rectangular duct, will have to be added to supply enough airflow.

The important point to remember is that money spent on proper design is a good investment. Hire a professional heating contractor to design your ductwork. If you would like to do the work yourself, look for a heating contractor who will provide the plan and possibly even the materials.

Frame soffits with OSB

Most basements have ducting or plumbing mounted below the joists that needs to be boxed in. The most common method is to build a wooden frame around them that can be covered with drywall. Here’s a pro tip for building these soffits. Rather than frame the sides with 2x2s or some other lumber, simply cut strips of plywood or OSB (oriented strand board) for the sides.

Measure the distance from the bottom of the floor joists to the bottom of the duct or plumbing and add 1-3/4 in. Rip the strips to this width. Nail or screw a 2x2 cleat to the joists alongside the ducting or pipes, making sure it’s straight. A chalk line or laser works well for this. Then attach a 2x2 to the bottom edge of the OSB and hang the OSB from the ceiling cleat. Finish by running 2x2s between the two sides of the soffit or to the wall, depending on the layout.

Two great basement floor coverings

Choosing material for a basement floor is tricky. Carpet is warm and soft but susceptible to moisture damage. Tile is good for areas that might get wet, but it’s hard and cold underfoot. Still, there are a few choices that strike a good compromise.

Interlocking cork flooring is easy to install, sustainably harvested and warm underfoot. Make sure to buy top-quality cork flooring that has a durable, water-resistant core to prevent moisture damage. TORLYS is one brand. In basements, we recommend installing a floating cork floor over a padded underlayment that includes a vapor barrier. This can go directly on dry concrete or over a dimple mat.

The second flooring choice we recommend is luxury vinyl tile or planks. Luxury vinyl is waterproof and virtually indestructible. It’s also easy to install and looks great. It’s available in a plank form that looks like wood, and squares that look like tile. Floating luxury vinyl floors connect with self-adhesive tabs or interlocking edges. You’ll find luxury vinyl at flooring stores, home centers and online ($2 to $5 per sq. ft. in 2013 dollars).

Ed Stawicki, Field Editor

Ed Stawicki, Field Editor

Frame soffits with wood I-joists

In my basement, I have a 32-ft. run of pipes along the ceiling. To create a soffit around the pipes with a perfectly straight bottom edge, I used 14-in. I-joists (I call them TJI floor joists). I held them up to the floor joists and screwed through the flange to hold them in place. I installed two 16-ft.-long I-joists on each side of the pipes to create the sides of the soffit. Then I framed the bottom with 2x2s and covered it with drywall. The soffit looks great—it’s straight as an arrow.

Tips for a quieter ceiling

How much time and effort you spend on soundproofing depends on what your goal is. Preventing the deep bass of a home theater from rocking the whole house is complicated and expensive. But if you’re just looking to quiet footsteps from the floor above or reduce the impact of your teenager’s video game, then there are a few simple steps you can take. If you do nothing else, consider adding fiberglass batts to the joist spaces. Anything will help. You can add a 3-1/2-in. layer, or better yet, fill the joist spaces with fiberglass.

For even more noise reduction, isolate the ceiling drywall from the joists with resilient channels as shown above. Screw the channels to the joists, spacing them 12 or 16 in. apart (ask your building inspector what’s required). Then screw the drywall to the channels, being careful not to drive screws into the joists. This creates a “floating ceiling” that reduces sound transmission. You may have to visit a drywall supplier to find resilient channels.

Michael Guarraia, Field Editor

Michael Guarraia, Field Editor

Buy a powder-actuated fastening tool

I recommend buying a powder-actuated fastener system for attaching plates and other framing materials to concrete floors and walls. Ramset is one brand. For as little as $22, you can buy a tool that accepts .22-caliber loads. You hit the tool with a hammer to fire the hardened nail. Costlier versions look like guns, and you fire them by pulling a trigger. These cost $80 to $350 in 2013.

Seal around pipes and wires

There are several reasons to seal between the basement and upstairs. The first is safety. The openings around pipes and wires act like chimneys for fire. Sealing them will help prevent the spread of fire from the basement to upstairs. The second is energy savings. Warm air will rise through these openings, creating a chimney effect that sucks heat out of the house. And finally, sealing the openings helps prevent sound transfer from the basement to the upstairs.

Seal small cracks around pipes and wires with special “red” high-temperature silicone caulk. Fill larger openings with flame-resistant expanding foam as shown here. Close openings around chimney flues or other large openings by nailing sheet metal over them and sealing the edges with caulk.

Buy a laser for speedier framing

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to buy a laser level, this is it. Especially if you plan to stick-frame the walls—that is, build them in place rather than build them on the floor and stand them up. That’s because with stick-framing you have to transfer the location of the bottom wall plate to the ceiling. You can do this with a straightedge and a regular level. But a laser is so much faster!

Start by marking the wall locations on the floor with a chalk line. Then simply line up the laser with the chalk line, and the laser beam will show the location of the top plate on the joists. You’ll need a laser that projects a vertical line. And we like the self-leveling type for better accuracy and faster setup. Self-leveling lasers cost from $30 to about $400.

Add a gas fireplace

You can’t go wrong adding a gas fireplace to your basement remodeling plans. Matt Cook, our basement expert, estimates that more than 80 percent of the basement remodeling jobs his company does include a gas fireplace. In addition to the obvious benefit—everybody loves fireplaces—a fireplace can be a great source of extra heat to warm up a room fast on cold winter days.

One advantage of gas fireplaces is that you may not need to run a chimney through the roof. In some situations, you can run the flue directly through the side wall. A DIY gas fireplace kit starts at about $2,000. This article will show you how to install a gas fireplace.

Dave Switzer, Field Editor

Dave Switzer, Field Editor

Hire a pro to tape the drywall

When I moved into my new home, the basement was unfinished, so I tried to do it myself to save money. I did OK putting the drywall up, but if I could recommend anything, it’s if you aren’t confident in the taping and mudding, hire someone. My wall has a hump at many seams because I mudded, but it was heavy and I didn’t sand it down enough. So when the sun shines in or the light is just right, you can see the “speed bumps” on the wall. That’s not a super finishing job!

Subfloor panels solve floor problems

Our home backs up to the greenbelt area next to a lake. We wanted to finish the basement, but I was concerned about the risk of drawing moisture through the concrete and worried that the floor would feel cold. We also wanted to install a hardwood floor in the bar and pool table areas and knew we shouldn’t install it directly on the concrete.

I looked at several solutions based on some type of subfloor but settled on a product called DRIcore. It provided an insulation layer, which made the basement feel considerably warmer. DRIcore comes in 2 x 2-ft. squares with moisture barrier. The panels cost about $2 per sq. ft. and are available at most home centers.

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