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Finished Basement Ideas

Maximize Your Basement's Potential

No article about basement ideas would be complete without first addressing the considerations that go along with finishing this space. There are plenty of ways to turn a basement from a room made up of concrete and bare studs to one that's just as inviting as your main level family room. But before you even start pulling design pictures out of magazines be sure that the space below your feet is worthy (and capable) of being made livable.

If you're building a new home a finished basement is something that can easily be incorporated from the start. Even if you don't finish it right away you at least can choose a design that will be relatively easy to convert at some later point in time.

An unfinished basement in an existing home is a slightly different animal and there are a few considerations to think about before trying to turn it into a finished room.

Basements are different from main or upper level rooms in your home. They come with their own unique set of challenges. That's why it's important to first understand those challenges in order to make the most of any design ideas you might have. Once you're clear that your space is indeed worthy of expending some of your hard-earned resources, you can compile your checklist of design ideas that will maximize your basement's untapped potential.

The Prerequisites For Any Finished Basement

One of the best notions within any list of basement ideas doesn't have anything to do with decor or style. Rather, it's the concept that you should do a thorough assessment of your basement to determine if it's even suitable for finishing.

That's right -- it's not the most glamorous idea but it's probably the most valuable.

If done correctly this exercise will bring you the right result -- whether that means a great finished basement or the security of having saved yourself a lot of heartache and frustration down the road (because finishing the space ultimately wouldn't have been a good idea).

How Habitable Is It?

Your first step is to determine how livable your basement currently is and how much effort it will take to make it habitable.

  • Does it have moisture problems?
    Is it damp most of the time or does it have visible water periodically? Leaks and excessive moisture problems should be taken care of before any decisions are made to finish the basement. Don't kid yourself on this one; if you risk moving forward without addressing water problems you're simply asking for trouble later on.
  • Does it have provisions for heating & cooling?
    Is the space equipped with ductwork and registers for heating and cooling (in the case of forced-air systems) or will you have to install a supplemental system? You may be able to tap into existing ductwork to heat and cool the area. Before you do that however, consult with a qualified heating and cooling contractor to be sure your system is able to handle these changes.
  • Are there ducts and pipes below the ceiling joists?
    Pipes and other parts of your home's infrastructure that hang below the level of the ceiling may need to be relocated, particularly if you don't have a lot of ceiling height to begin with.
  • Is your ceiling height to code?
    Minimum ceiling height code is usually 6 feet, 11 inches. Your best bet is to check with your local building department to be sure. Keep in mind that a finished ceiling will decrease your headroom somewhat, more with a suspended ceiling than with a drywall ceiling.
  • Is your home radon-free?
    Depending on your geographic location the ground surrounding your home may have elevated levels of radon. Radon is an odorless radioactive gas that's naturally present in rocks and soil. Get your basement checked for the presence of radon before you finish it. If it is high there are measures you can take to mitigate the exposure and make it a safe living area.

The brutal truth here is that some homes were not built for a finished basement, particularly older homes with older foundations like those made from stone and mortar. The type of heating system you have and the challenges of insulating and keeping moisture out may not be practical or within your budget.

finished basement

In these situations it's best to solicit the services of a professional home inspector and possibly a HVAC (heating/cooling) contractor to determine your home's viability for finishing space below-grade.

It's a different story if you're building a new home. In that case the basement can be designed to accommodate being finished, even if it's done at a later time. If you do plan on leaving it unfinished to start with, make sure you put some forethought into how you eventually want to use the space, including whether you might want a bathroom. That way you'll be able to incorporate the right features and infrastructure to meet your needs later on.

Decide What You Want Out Of This Space

Once you determine that your basement can be finished the next step is thinking about how this extra room can best serve your home. Making the most out of this space requires that you identify what you want from it and how it can best serve you. Some ideas that relate to the room's purpose and function include --

  • Family room
  • Children's playroom
  • Additional bedrooms / in-law suite
  • Home office
  • Game room (billiards, table-tennis)
  • Entertainment room / bar
  • Media center and/or home theater
  • Music or art studio
  • Home gym / workout area
  • Craft room or hobby workshop
  • A combination of several of the aforementioned ideas

When thinking about what role you want your basement to play consider how it might need to change as your lifestyle and/or your family changes. A basement that starts as a family room might need to evolve into additional bedrooms later on for a growing family or to accommodate aging parents or in-laws.

basement rec area

Also remember that certain design ideas require compliance with specific building codes depending on the use. For example, basements used as bedrooms need several means of egress which usually means having windows large enough to allow escape from a fire.

Thinking through how you'll use your basement will help you arrive at a design that meets both current and future needs.

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Ideas To Start You Off

There's no official list of ideas and you're limited only by your imagination, budget and the physical constraints of your home. To get you started here's a list of basement ideas that start with overall design concepts and then move on to more specific components.

General Design Concepts

  • Do Something Different Than Upstairs
    Basements give you another "living opportunity", a place that's usually in addition to the upstairs living spaces. Think about how you can make this space unique and different rather than just another family room that's not much different than the one upstairs. It doesn't mean you have to replicate Elvis' Jungle Room but if it's able to serve another purpose, it could make your home more versatile and enjoyable.
  • Design For A Walk-Out
    This concept is primarily for newly built homes where you have an option for choosing the style and site location. A walk-out basement gives you a much more open and light-filled space and goes a long way toward eliminating the cave-like feel associated with below-grade basements. If a home design you're interested in doesn't include this feature ask your builder what the cost would be to incorporate this into the design, provided your home's building site can accommodate this.
  • Don't Forget Your Storage Needs
    Unfinished basements usually end up as good storage areas for all the stuff we accumulate. Good or bad, this stuff has to go someplace when you plan on remodeling your basement. You may need to parcel off some of this area's footprint as a storage area (possibly in an adjacent unfinished area) as opposed to using all of it as finished space.

    finished basement storage

    Other ideas include getting creative with space utilization. Build shelving or small closets under the stairwell. Build a 3-foot high bump-out along the walls to house shelves that you can enclose behind small doors. Use this space to store toys, books, media and whatever other small items need to get stashed away. Use stock cabinetry (or build it custom) to use as bench seats and storage chests.

  • Use Folding Bookcase Doors As Functional Portals
    Maximize the space by using a bookcase door for the entry into places like your laundry or mechanicals (furnace) room. These kinds of "doors" are bi-fold functional bookcases. They do double duty as bookshelves and a door covering the entryway to another space (such as a storage room perhaps).
  • open basement stairwell

  • Open Up The Stairway
    Many basements are accessed by a narrow stairway that makes it look like you're heading to. . .well. . the basement. Opening up the stairwell if at all possible invites that room to be part of the rest of the house.

    With a new home it's easier to incorporate this feature into the design. If you're remodeling, see if part of the wall that borders the stairwell can be removed. A knee wall can help achieve this effect too. Whatever you can do to open up the stairs and avoid the "tunnel effect" will make the basement feel that much more inviting.

    Just remember that you can't tear out any wall without understanding the structural implications. Consult with a contractor to determine if this is feasible for your situation.

  • Equip For Audio & Video
    There's no better time to equip your basement for audio and video equipment than when you're building new or remodeling. Do you have a large flat-screen television in mind or perhaps a surround-sound audio system? Plan ahead for where you want this equipment to go and install the necessary wiring while you renovate. Even if that dream TV only comes later, get the cables in while you remodel so they're in place and ready for hookup later on.

Basement Flooring Ideas

There are lots of choices for home flooring but because your basement is below-grade (meaning below the ground level) your options are more limited.

  • Carpet's OK But...
    Carpet is warm and cozy and seems the logical floor covering for a cool basement. But there is debate within the home improvement / building science community as to the acceptability of carpet here. If you KNOW you have a dry basement and you don't get moisture vapor that comes through your concrete slab subfloor, carpet may be a suitable choice.

    Look at it from the flip-side -- if you have a water problem, consider the hassle and implications of a perpetually damp or wet carpet. These conditions are an invitation for mold and mildew.

  • Use A Sub-Floor Specifically Designed For Basements
    There are a number of products designed specifically as sub-floors for basements. These products form a barrier to any moisture that might permeate the concrete slab underneath. Their special design provides an air space between the concrete and the sub-floor which allows any moisture to dry.

    Products fall into a couple of categories; membranes (basically a rubberized mat) and OSB-topped plastic tiles (OSB being oriented strand board, an engineered wood product). Both forms use a dimpled structure that "lifts" the sub-floor off the slab, keeping the flooring on top isolated from the concrete and any moisture.

    Membrane products include Platon, Delta-FL and Superseal. The wood/plastic tiles are found in products like DRIcore® and Barricade tiles.

  • Use All-In-One Floor/Sub-Floor Tiles
    These products combine a finished floor surface on top of plastic sub-floor tiles. The top surface looks like wood or tile and some even have carpeting. Products include TileFlex, ThermalDry and MillCreek. The one drawback is that the latter two products are proprietary to the Basement Systems company, one of the finishing companies that specializes in remodeling basements.
  • Go With Stained/Colored Concrete
    Why mess with materials and sub-floors made from organic materials that can ultimately harbor mold? Use stamped and/or colored concrete as your floor. The design possibilities are plentiful and you don't have to worry about moisture problems associated with carpet or wood.
  • Warm It Up With Radiant In-Floor Heat
    Combine the previous idea (a decorative concrete floor) with in-floor radiant heat for a comfortable and attractive design. The best time to do this is before the floor is poured, either in a new home or a new addition. However there are products that can be retrofitted to existing basements where the system is installed under the top floor covering. With any retrofit however the same "right choices" should be made relative to the kind of flooring you use.

One more good idea relative to flooring: check the warranty of the product you intend to use. The fine print might reveal that the product is NOT covered when used in below-grade installations.

Finished Basement Ceiling Ideas

Ceiling choices are governed in large part by the particular basement's design. It's height and the prevalence of utilities like plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling ducts play a role in your available choices.

  • Drywall Ceilings Made For Accessibility
    One advantage of a drywall basement ceiling is that it affords the same finished look as the rest of the house. However there are circumstances when drywall isn't the best option if you need access to plumbing or gas connections periodically. In these situations you can still use a drywall ceiling, but one that incorporates access panels where you need them. Products made by Bauco, Windlock and others provide different looks for ceiling access panels.

Publisher's Comments

There's some real truth behind the drawbacks of a drywall ceiling that covers plumbing lines. Relatives of mine experienced this first-hand when their home's plumbing joints developed leaks. The home wasn't old either, having been built in the early 1980s. Regardless of the specific cause, they ended up with a wet ceiling, wet carpet and a mess that had to be cleaned up. After the plumbing was fixed, they needed a drywall contractor to patch up the ceiling.

Access panels probably wouldn't have helped much since the leaks weren't in areas that would require access anyway. The take-away consideration here is to think about the risks associated with permanently covering any plumbing and whether drywall is the right choice in your particular design.

  • Suspended Ceilings (They Don't Have To Look Like An Office)
    Suspended or "drop" ceilings don't need to look like the ceiling in your dentist's office. They're convenient in that they offer accessibility to whatever's above them. They also work well in situations where you have pipes that hang below the structural joists because the ceiling is suspended at a lower height than the bottom of the joists.

    suspended basement ceilingArmstrong Ceiling Photo Courtesy Of Armstrong World Industries, Inc.

    Products like those from Armstrong and Ceilume have come a long way in the looks department with smooth, textured or imprinted finishes and an attractive appearance. One thing to remember however is that you'll need to have sufficient floor-to-ceiling height to use a suspended ceiling. That's because it installs lower than a drywall ceiling attached to the joists.

  • Install A Sound-Deadening Ceiling
    Installing a basement ceiling that helps cut down on sound transmission to the floor above is a good idea particularly if Junior decides to take up the drums. One way to do this is to install resilient channels to the ceiling joists. The ceiling is then fastened to these channels. You lose a small amount of ceiling height (about an inch or less) but it may be worth it to help keep the area quieter.

    Suspended ceilings also offer some sound reduction particularly if you install acoustic panels designed to absorb sound.

  • Go With A Different Look Altogether
    Why not shake things up and use a tin or wood-look ceiling? Your ceiling doesn't have to be a plain smooth white surface. There are products made by companies such as Sauder and Armstrong that provide a wood or tin ceiling and can give the space a unique style relative to the rest of your home.
  • wood basement ceilingArmstrong Ceiling Photo Courtesy Of Armstrong World Industries, Inc.

  • Wow Them With A Coffered Ceiling
    For a total departure, go with a coffered ceiling. They're certainly dramatic and an interesting style statement. You can have them custom-built or you can buy coffered ceiling kits, like those offered by Classic Coffers. This may not be the right kind of ceiling for every basement but for some, it could be the right choice for a truly different design departure. Just be sure you have sufficient headroom to accommodate this type of ceiling.

Basement Window Options

  • Enlarge Those Small Windows
    Lots of basements have small rectangular windows that don't provide much light. If this describes your situation consider opting for a larger window. It requires some foundation work and some excavation to make a larger window well outside but there are many sources that specialize in this kind of work. You can choose between fixed or operable windows that offer fresh air and an alternate means of egress.
  • glass block basement windowPhoto Courtesy of Columbus Glass Block

  • Get Light But Opt For Privacy
    Regardless of whether you have small or larger basement windows there are scenarios where you want more privacy, maybe for your home gym. For these circumstances consider using acrylic and glass block windows. Small or large, they offer the benefits of valuable daylighting while keeping your space private.
  • Use A Faux Window If You Have No Windows At All
    If your basement has no windows at all here's an idea that may not necessarily fool the eye but adds some needed atmosphere. Hang a faux window on the wall and back-light it with rope lighting or something similar. One suggestion is to restore an old barn window or some other type of cool-looking window that still retains its glass. It's obviously a decorative 'trick' but one that might lift the spirit of an otherwise windowless room.

Basement Lighting Ideas

Basements aren't usually known as "light-filled rooms". They tend to have few windows and many of those are small, with little chance to bring in much daylight. To compensate for that you should employ good home lighting design principles. To get you started, here are some suggestions for turning what could be a dark cave into a pleasing space.

  • Recessed Ceiling Lights Are Tailor Made For Basements
    Recessed lighting is a good, if not obvious choice, particularly in basements with minimal ceiling height. If you're fortunate enough to have a generous amount of headroom then you have more latitude to choose other types of light fixtures that hang from or attach to the ceiling. Otherwise recessed lights are a good option. They can be incorporated in both drywall and suspended ceilings.

    basement lighting

    Getting the right recessed lighting spacing is important but don't fret too much about needing to hold to some exacting standard. You may have to work around existing structure, pipes or ducting, particularly in this area of the house.

  • Consider A Walkout For New Home Designs
    A walkout design was mentioned before but it's also worth mentioning again relative to lighting. Larger daylight windows and patio doors make a basement feel less like a closed-in vault. If the home's site orientation is situated to capture a lot of sunlight you can fill a basement with lots of daylight, minimizing or in some cases eliminating your daytime lighting needs.
  • walkout basement daylight windows

  • Light Tubes Can Add Daylight Too
    The conventional use of light tubes is to add daylight by gathering light from the rooftop and channeling it to an interior room. However, it's not out of the question to use light tubes on a side wall to help light areas below grade. The viability of doing this on existing basements depends on many things including your home's specific design. However it may be an option. It's also something to consider for new construction, particularly if a walkout design isn't in the cards. The technology associated with daylighting tubes is such that they can transmit light over long runs and around corners with little to no loss in light effectiveness.

    Talk with a contractor that specializes in light tube installation and/or your building contractor to determine whether this type of idea is feasible for your basement.

  • Use Sconces And "Off The Floor" Lighting
    Wall sconces add to the "layered light" concept that's part of good lighting design. Another benefit is that the more light sources you can put on walls or ceilings the fewer floor lamps you'll need (if any at all). Floor lamps take up floor space (which is a valuable commodity in small basements) and add to visual clutter, particularly in rooms with low ceilings.
  • Don't Forget About Efficiency
    Any good lighting plan should include efficiency as one of it's objectives. Daylighting (using natural light) using larger or more windows is one way of achieving this. When it comes to artificial light don't overlook the new lighting technologies, particularly LED. It's more expensive initially but it's designed to last well longer than any other type of lighting available, mitigating the up-front cost. It's also available for recessed fixtures and is dimmable as well.

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Some Additional Basement Design Considerations

Now that you have some good ideas to mull over, you're almost ready to go from planning to implementation. But before you pick up a hammer or the phone take a look through these additional considerations. They'll help you move forward with an informed game plan for your new basement design.

  • DIY Or Contracted?
    Finishing a basement is not out of the realm of the do-it-yourself handy-person. However if that's not your thing you can take advantage of a special niche in the building community aimed specifically at this task. It involves companies that specialize in finishing basements. The unique part about some of these firms is that they use proprietary materials and techniques. Some, like the Owens Corning Finishing System forego the traditional stud-and-drywall route, enabling you to get a remodeled basement in a shorter amount of time.

    Using one of these companies or contractors who specialize in this type of work can be an advantage because they understand the unique challenges that come with the territory.

  • Finding Local Basement Specialists and Free Estimates
    If you'd like to find basement specialists in your area and obtain a free quote for your project, simply fill in the form below. HomeStyleChoices.com partners with Reliable Remodeler to help homeowners find local contractors and sources of products. Once you submit the form, you'll be contacted at your convenience by qualified basement renovation contractors in your local area.

  • Don't Skip Steps
    Regardless of who does the work make sure you (or they) don't skip steps. Utilize building inspectors and your local building department to determine what codes require compliance. It'll make for a safer environment and minimize the possibility of having to undo any work later on because of non-compliance. Trying to get away with non-code remodeling is a bad idea not only from a safety perspective but if you try and sell your home later on you might run into trouble.
  • Think Through Your Basement's Evolution
    Houses evolve as we need them to and basements are no different. Plan yours so that it can change along with you and your family's needs. In other words, take some time to think about how you'll use the space now and in 5 or 10 years (that is, assuming you plan on staying in your home that long). You might want to upgrade in stages. Skip the expensive finishes for the time when it's a children's playroom. When the kids grow (and hopefully calm down a bit) update it into a comfortable place where they can hang out with their friends.
  • A Basement Bathroom (Without A Lot Of Construction)
    If you have the need or the desire for a basement bathroom but your house isn't plumbed accordingly you still have some options. Companies like Saniflo specialize in technology that allows you to install toilets, sinks and showers in locations that don't have original plumbing. They do this by means of special pumps and macerators that handle waste water.

    If the addition of a half-bath would be an advantage in your design but your home doesn't have original plumbing to accommodate it, this type of technology might be the right choice.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Home Design Help - Whether it's remodeling the basement or putting on an addition, all your effort falls into the "home design" bucket in one way or another. Find out how to get the process started and where to go for help.

The Owens Corning Basement Finishing System - Discover what this renovation system is all about and whether it might be a worthy option for your basement.

Acrylic And Glass Block Windows - They make great privacy windows while still letting that much needed light stream through. Find out what choices are available with acrylic and glass block windows.

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