(How to) Steps to Finishing a Basement {A Critical Thing That’s Derailing You}25 min read

(How to) Steps to Finishing a Basement {A Critical Thing That’s Derailing You}25 min read

Basement finishing is going to be easy, once you know this one critical thing. You need a bit of inspiration and a lot of perspiration.  Don’t panic, you can do your project in stages and progressively bring the damp space to life, one weekend at a time.

The key steps to finishing your basement are these: Inspiration, plan, {permit} and execute.  Specifically, get all your tools, visualize, plan, draw, pull the permit and then start with the physical work. That is – Framing, electric and plumbing, drywall install, installing doors, and flooring. Put in furniture and your basement will be guest-ready in no time.

Let me tell you a little…

…SECRET!  – with basement projects.

The cheapest way to increase your living space is basement finishing.

Hands down, that’s the cheapest, whether you do it yourself or using a contractor.

Now, there’re some basements with 6.5 feet unfinished ceiling height.  That’s going to be seriously tight when you finish the basement.

If you’re gung-ho about it, you can dig out and lower the floor and put in a nice basement.

It’s almost a cellar and not a basement by true definition if you have anything less than 7 feet.

Check this post to learn more about the difference between cellar and basement.

However, if you have the right lower level space it’s rewarding to put in a finished basement in that space.

Again, it by far the cheapest way to add living space to your house.  In most cases, you can add 40-80% of your footprint.

What Makes you Basement Project Successful?

In the very first line of this post, I mentioned a critical thing that you need to know to make it easy, right?

Treat it as a project and not a honey-do list.

For you to be successful in the basement finishing project (as a matter of fact, in any project) you need to follow the latest project management philosophy – Agile.

Agile is basically this: plan, build, test, course correct and repeat.

So, in essence, whatever you do, you need to be able to do all the steps and quickly get by one cycle.

Now, you would’ve had a lot of learning from that one cycle, and that feeds forward.

This helps you with the progress and you are not going to be stuck anywhere.

Most importantly, your main reason for not succeeding at something is this.

Not Starting.

Agile methodology is going to help you to do the most minimal thing and takes you one step forward.

Now, I want you to subscribe to this methodology, and just trust me on this, you will do just fine. You’ll be better than just approaching a random project.

I will touch upon this fast cycle project management principle again.

Without further rattling, here are the major steps and pretty much in the order that you need to tackle.

Finishing Basement in Stages

This is the first important idea you should have in your mind – Finishing basement in stages.

Why?

However passionate you are, unless you are doing it daily, overwhelm will kill you.

How do you eat an elephant… too big of a problem, right?

Answer: One bite at a time.

Same applies to your basement finishing project. You need to figure out a theme and you break down stages.

Once you have nailed that down, you can further break it down by individual tasks and attack them. It’s way easier looking at a problem that way.

But, how much does it cost, anyhow?

I know you are itching to know that cost of a basement renovation project, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Step by step guide on Basement Finishing

I have laid out the step by step guide on basement finishing here. Although loosely this is the right sequence to work on, you might have to use your judgment.

Some of the steps need to be done twice – for example, plumbing.

If you ever have a sink, you must do the rough in and then once the sink comes in you have to connect it.

And some of the items overlap and go out of sequence, but you will be fine following this.

Step 1: A Lot of Inspiration

Inspiration is your fuel. It motivates the world around you. Trust me, look for inspiration.

Where do you go for inspiration?

It might be your friend’s basement you’ve visited or a movie that you watched or got inspired by the magazine you saw in the spa.

Something triggered your passion and made you take on this path.

Now you don’t put a stop to it.  In fact, this is one thing I will ask you continually do – even though it’s just the first step.

Where else?get home magazines for inspiration to do the basement construction

Get a lot of magazines

Doesn’t matter if it’s dated. It will trigger a lot of ideas in you.

Visit places and take pictures

This is a good idea. If you see an open house and found something unique, different or interesting, take a picture and store it.

Connect it to your good pictures so everything is backed up and you can reference back.

Go online and look for ideas

Google pictures will show you a ton of ideas for a relevant search term. If you click on those pictures, it might lead you to places that you wouldn’t know.

Pinterest pages

Guys – talk to your significant other.  She is going to get you some nice ideas.  Ladies, I don’t have to preach to the choir, so I am going to stop here.

Anyhow, just to make this section visually appealing, I am rounding up a few pictures. Enjoy!ideas from web and pinterest for inspiration

Step 2: Visualize and Plan

This is a decision time, my friend.

Are you going to use a contractor, use subs here and there, or…

…be a rowdy, and tackle everything yourself (a Full-blown DIY)?

Keep thinking but let me talk about visualizing and planning in the meantime.

Did you spend enough time looking for ideas? Good!

Now you need to put all those ideas together. That is cherry pick what you liked in each of those pictures and come up with a grand end product.

Don’t be specific, just imagine and visualize.basement plan using simple sketch

This is a super important step, just don’t skip this.

Put everything in a piece of paper.

Make notes and most importantly…

…draw a plan.  Like the architect’s diagram.

You don’t have to be an architect. Just start scribbling.

All you need is a pencil and paper.

There’re free Softwares to do the design part, but that’s not needed now.

First, just measure all the walls as accurate as possible.

And transfer those onto the sheet of paper.

You don’t have it to scale. All you need it a rough layout, with measurements marked as measured.

Now use that measurement and start planning out your space. Be creative but try to minimize the work as much as possible.

Especially if you have plumbing somewhere, try to keep your bathroom and wet bar closer so you don’t have to break the concrete.

Explore different layouts and visualize to see what you would like once finished.

Step 3: Pull necessary Permits

It’s up to you to pull the permits or not. I would suggest you do.

I know, it will delay your project and cost a bit of money. Maybe your city might even increase your taxes.  That’s all fine and to be taken into consideration.

But understand this.

Permits are there so a third-party regulatory person blesses your place to be up to code (Read: up to a minimum level of safety).

The main reasons I’d suggest you pull permits are these:

Value

When your real estate broker lists the property for the market price, you might be happy.

However, when they pull the tax record, it’s going to show contradicting information.

Your house will have a full finished basement and the tax record will have it as unfinished. A different number of bedrooms, bathrooms etc.

Unless you have a permit to prove the construction, it’s going to be valued less than the market (real value) by the appraiser.

Safety

It is safe to call your city building inspector to check your construction.

Based on empirical studies they have come with the code that is going to be safe for you and your family.

Now, if you do something that’s not up to code and if the unforeseen happens, then…

…You are SCREWED!

The insurance company will investigate and ding you for not building something up to the code.

So, pulling permit wins the cost-benefit test from all the angles.

I am assuming you’re pulling permits 😉

Just call or visit your local house and building planning department and talk to an inspection. They are usually kind and will help a DIYer.

Usually, they will need a design plan, a drawing with some minimum specs written down.

As I said, you don’t have to have the perfect drawing.

As long as they are legible with necessary measures, and showing all the access points (doors, windows, utilities, hookups, and electrical outlets) you are good.

Talk to your city home inspector and he/she will help you if you are missing anything. They are super friendly to work with (usually). Then your city wants some Benjamins too.

Step 4: Build-out Preparation

Moisture

This is probably what you need to think when it comes to a basement.

I am pretty sure 70% of the basements in the US have a basement moisture related issue.

What comes standard with moisture is discomfort due to humidity.

Check this blog on maintaining the right indoor humidity.

First, you must do anything to identify the source of the moisture issue and tackle it.

When you have moisture consistently, then you are prone to have mold growth.

Mold is deadly. Check my mold remediation post to clear mold once moisture problem is taken care of.

Seal Crack

Once your house settles (which every house does) you will start to develop cracks in the wall and floors.

Now, these cracks might not be a structural issue. So, experts would have brushed it off.fill in cracks less than 8th of an inch

Your basement floors most definitely have an expansion crack somewhere.

Even your home inspector isn’t going to be calling in the report, most of the time.

Why would I say most of the time?

It all depends on the width of the crack.

If it’s less than an 8th of an inch and the floor on both the side are flush, nothing to worry.

But wait! I am talking about moisture seeping in here. That’s not good for your floors.

Doesn’t matter – just get to work.

Inspect, identify all the cracks and use a hydraulic cement to fill it.  Or you can use a concrete filling caulk.

Setup Interior storm water drainage, if needed

I am a big proponent of setting up weeping tiles.

For one, it’s insurance against a catastrophic risk. When the water table rises outside, you never know if your basement is going to flood or not.

You have no idea how good the exterior drainage is. I would also waterproof just to be doubly sure there is going to be no issue later once the drywall goes up.

See, if you have an issue, you will have to tear it off, do the work and put it all back up.

Unless you don’t mind doing rework, I will not go this route. Instead, I would suggest setting weeping tiles and potentially drain any water that might come in.

Also, set sump pump to eject the water out.

Even out the uneven concrete floors

This is a big thing. You will have to make sure you first find what’s going on with your concrete floors.

If you ever find an uneven concrete floor surface, you should get to the bottom of the issue to find the real cause.

Fix the root-cause (I am big on this) and then try to make the surface as straight as possible.

You need a level floor for your finished floor looks awesome. That’s the bottom line.

Radon-proof the basement

Radon is a silent killer that no one is talking about.

I am constantly letting people know, but no one seems to pay attention.

Guy, Radon is deadly. Take it seriously.

Find the level of radon and check it again once you have sealed all the cracks. If you still have a high reading, then plan on having a system to alleviate Radon and toxic gases.

Check this post to learn more about Radon and how to a safer basement.

Step 5: Frame the basement walls

This is the backbone of your basement project.

Actually, this is the very first step and is a purely physical one you take in the construction side of the basement project.

You will be motivated to see the progress once you start the framing.

I know you have got this constant nagging question “how to finish a basement wall” ever since you started thinking about basement finishing.

Like I mentioned before, there is a bit of learning curve with framing. Not that much, but just between measuring cutting, finding 16 inches on center, nailing and…

… most importantly getting all the studs straight so your wall frame is truly square.

Before seeing one video and jumping on framing…

…STOP!

Think about how you are going to frame and what you need to.

Check out my post on framing your basement walls against concrete.2x4 stud framing for interior walls

In short, there are two ways you can tackle.

  • Build it where the wall goes (built-in-place)
  • Construct on the floor and lift it in place (build-and-lift)

Unless in you’re in the part of the country where ground moves (that has Bentonite), you are fine with normal framing.

You must frame for a hanging wall otherwise.  Don’t panic!

A pressure treated plate at the bottom must be installed as usual and then a steel spike to hold the hanging wall and the bottom plate.

If you don’t have a helping hand, build-in-place is going to be easier.  As you will be working one stud at a time.

I will do an in-depth framing post with a step-by-step guide, soon.

Your interior walls are going to be the usual way of framing.

Now, when you complete this step, you can align your inspirational idea, with the visualization you did and the reality that is taking shape.

This is a skeleton, but it will look more real and you can see what and where things will go.

Trust this will be a great feeling.

Oh, one more thing.  Remember to put in firestop or fire block wherever needed to be in compliance with the local code.

For safety reasons, Fire blocking is a must, even if your local building authorities don’t enforce it.

Step 6: Bathroom prep (Optional)

Unless your builder has set out provisions for a bathroom in the basement, this is going to be a project in and of itself.

If you have utilities, especially plumbing already in place for a bathroom, then it’s a matter of building walls and hooking up toilet, tub, and sink.

Otherwise, it involves breaking concrete and thinking about drainage.

Do you have a walk-up basement, and your house sewer line that connects to city sewer sits above the floor space of your basement?

Then you will have to not only construct the bathroom but also set the pump to eject the sewer up and out.

In any case, if you have a bathroom, you need to do some in rough-in plumbing, which I am going to skip for now.

Don’t use sheetrock for the tub surround, instead use hardy planks.  They are like plywood but made of concrete.

It is porous and sucks water in, but it’s way stronger than a drywall.

So, once your framing is done (of bathroom walls and tub surround) use backer board where you will splash water.

Then install tile and grout them.  Install vanity, fixtures, toilet and put your finishing touches.

If you have a really tight space or a small bathroom, don’t worry, check this post to see how you can make the bag look bigger.a finished basement bathroom with standshower

Step 7: Utilities and systems

Plumbing

If you are handy and know how to work the plumbing, you can tackle this.

Else it is better to call a plumber to get rough-in done.

You don’t have to worry that much. For the most part, your builder would already have a provision for plumbing (bathroom) and wet bar.

Even if you want to extend and run pipes, it’s not all that tough either.

PEX plumbing is going to help you work in tight spots.  All you need are the right connectors and crimp.

It’s slightly costlier, but you are not going to solder anything, and you are not going to glue anything together.

PEX has a great life and easy to work with the product.

But in any case, copper is better but is more involved with soldering and such.

If you have only one spot where you have to tap into the cold and hot water line, you can still get a Sharkbite T and get by.

If you are doing any more extensive work, I think the best is to do the plumbing the right way, using glued PVC, soldered Copper or crimped PEX pipes.best plumbing is copper but pex is easier

Electrical

Regular wiring is simple. Get your Romex cables rated for 15 and 20 amps and use it appropriately.

Don’t try to overload.

You should have a breaker box and you need to pull power from it.

I am almost positive your builder had some wires running around and have breakers in place.

You could alternatively put in a sub-panel and run wires off the sub panel. This way you will isolate basement outlets from rest of the house.

If you have power supply already running around or if you are drawing just a few outlets and light fixtures, it okay to wire yourself.

I would highly advise you to use an electrician, or at least run the wires and have him finalize and put in the sub-panel for you.

You need to know some basics for regular simple wiring. #12 gauge wires can take 20 amps and #14 takes on 15 amps.

If you have an outlet in a proposed room and want to add a few more outlets, it’s fine to tap into the existing one.

Always think about the load when wiring. And make sure to put in GFCI outlets near water sources.

Electrical is a deep subject in and of itself, and this small section is just an introduction and wouldn’t do justice.

Hey, are you going to have a media room?

Then start thinking about behind the scenes wiring or at least leave junction boxes and conduit to run the wire without breaking the wall open again.

HVAC and Ventilation

You have A/C unit and furnace in your house.  But I am not sure if your basement is ventilated.

What I have seen is that since it was left as a big open space, your builders would have left one or two vents here and there.

Now when you are partitioning the space and making different rooms, you might need more vents put in.

Now I would say, when you do your basement design, try to design with vents in mind.

You don’t want extensive ductwork to tap into the main line. That’s a big job.

Instead, if you can design in such a way that your existing duct runs touches each of the rooms in your basement, then it’s going to be easy.

All you have to do is cut holes and add vents and you will be done.  That’s the easiest.

In cold climates heating a basement is very important. Extending your duct might or might not help. Check this post for other ideas on heating your cold basement.

Step 8: Insulate and install drywall

Install Insulation

In cold climates, it is essential to have a basement framing insulated. I have seen some contractors cut corners here.

IRC code requires insulation for homes. IRC excludes zone 1 and 2 only with a 0 R-Factor for basement insulation.

Since an unfinished basement had no insulation, it is normal to think of just slapping up drywall and paint over it.

But it is not that simple. Only after thorough research, IRC has come to this conclusion.

Insulating interior rooms are not required unless you need to soundproof and control temperature for some reason.

Now, putting a certain type of insulation touching the concrete wall is not suggested.

If it’s waterproofed from outside then it might be okay, however, you are never really sure.

It’s better to insulate it fine. Foam board should be ideally used between lumber and concrete.

Remember, it’s not a good idea for regular lumber to touch a concrete surface.  It must be a pressure treated wood for one to touch.

Use batt insulation between the studs. Foam board also acts as moisture or vapor barrier giving you protection against moisture and providing thermal insulation.

There are different schools of thought, however, the best is this.

Foam board touching the concrete wall (and use a seal tape to seal the joints) and batt insulation in between studs.

Mud, tape and finish drywall

It’s going to come to life once you put in the drywall.final stage of finishing drywall after hang mud and tape

When you cover and bury all the framing, wires, plumbing, insulation and everything else behind a plain white wall, it looks totally different.

If you are not great at drywall, you can definitely find a sub-contractor to hang and finish drywall.

The usual process is hanging, mud, tape, and finish.

Drywall isn’t costly, so you can get a few sheets to hang it.

It is just keeping it flush on the frame and screwing it on the studs.  You need to get them all plum.

Also, make sure to butt the joints as close as possible without stressing.

Then you must apply mud and use a joint paper to go over it. Now, apply mud over it and let it dry.

Remember to skim and remove any excess mud when you apply the first time.

Usually, the process is to start mudding over the tape using a 4-inch knife and then follow it with a 12-inch knife.

Wider the mud patch gradual the bump will be. And so, the bump will not be visible at all.

It needs the skill to get a fine flat finish, so it’s better to call a finisher to do, even if you hang the drywall.

Check this post for tips and tricks on professionally finishing drywall.

Step 9: Put in the ceiling

Adding ceiling is again a drywall job.

But you need to make drywall cutouts for all the vent holes and light recess.

The ceiling is an important part of your basement when it comes to soundproofing.  Check this to get ideas on soundproofing your basement ceiling.

Step 10: Install basement flooring

Installing basement flooring is a rewarding experience. You will transform the space instantly once the flooring is done.

Choice of flooring material is important in how your install and finish the floor.

For some flooring material, you might have to add in sub-floors. I don’t prefer or recommend that solution.

Simply because you will be taking away vertical space and basement is usually a tighter spot in the house (if your house is a little older).resilient flooring for basement

How to Finish a Basement Floor

You can go from doing nothing – that is just painting your concrete floors to…

…installing tile, carpet, wood, laminate, luxury vinyl, and the list goes on.

Some of them are generally a great fit for a basement, for some of the expected and known issues basements seem to have.

For example, the carpet is great from keeping your feet warm and giving you the plush luxury feel.

Check out my blog on Berber carpet for a basement to learn more.

However, if you have impending moisture issues it is going to let the mold grow.

In any case, you should try to get a resilient flooring material for your basement floor.

My go-to option is Luxury Vinyl Planks (LVP) these days.

LVP hides imperfection, contour around uneven spots, and is totally waterproof.

If you ever have a water spill or even water damage, you can clean and reuse the same flooring material.

It doesn’t soak water up and is mold resistant.

Confused on what floors work best for your basement? Check out my post on basement flooring – ultimate guide.

I have laid out 17 ideas -some good and some not that good.  Every situation is different, and you might find the right flooring option for you, there.

Step 11: Media and audiovisual

If you have a home theater planned, kudos to you.  This will increase the perceived value of your house.

Go back to your electrical work. You should be thinking of the media room when you start wiring.

But media related cabling is technically low-voltage wiring and you can do it easily if you follow manufacturer’s instructions.

In any case, start thinking about media wiring behind the walls before you put the wiring in.

The reason why I have it in this step is not about the wiring. But about the finishing part of the media room.best use for basement is a media room or home theater

Step 12: Hang doors

Nothing much to discuss here.

Get the right sized door with frame and hang them where you had in your original drawing.

Remember interior doors are usually 30 inches wide. Add bi-fold closet doors if that’s what you planned.

Most definitely get a louvered door for your utility closet. You want HVAC room to breath. Your furnace needs air (oxygen) to burn and the louvered door is going to help move the air.

Step 13: Paint and Stain

Choice of color is crucial here.

I advise you to go with light colors.  The light color will make the room bright and that is super important for illuminating your basement.

You can’t go wrong with any off-white tones.

I love off-white because they have some color in them and is bright. Most importantly, I love warm colors and a yellowish tinted off-white has warmth in it.

But going with a cool color or a warm color is your personal preference.

Whatever you choose, go with the lightest shade available to make the basement brighter.

If you have any exposed wood, such as transitions stain them to protect it.

Step 14: Fixtures and Finishes

You should think of finalizing the space.  The list of items you would be working here is installing light fixtures and doing finish carpentry.

Do the following and stain and paint where applicable

  • Light fixtures
  • Trim work (around window and doors)
  • Baseboard and shoe molding
  • Crown moldings (optional)
  • Faceplates

Step 15: Décor, move furniture in, setup room essentials

A bare room (or floor) looks good but not great.

Go back to the set of inspiration you used.  I am almost positive that each and every one of those pictures had staged furniture and interior décor.

In fact, you were probably inspired by the décor.  That showed, what kind of a picture you can paint in that space if you have the canvas.

You see, where I am going,

So, go back to the same set of inspiring pictures and see what you can copy, steal and borrow to decorate your space.

Once you hang pictures and get the needed furniture, you are all set.

Oh, don’t forget to get other room specific essentials.

If you have a recreation room, get a pool table or a ping-pong table.

And if you’ve got a home gym, try to get a treat mill and other gym equipment to fill the space efficiently.

And that’s it, you’ve done it.

Now it’s part-time, my friend.

Invite your friends over; what are you waiting for?

Wrapping Up

Well, there you have it. A dark, damp and musty space turned in to a bright, nice and useful basement.

It is a great feeling to convert your basement. Do it and you will know what I mean.

Hey, are you thinking about the cost of doing it all? Wouldn’t cost much but you may want to check my post on house hacking to finish a basement. If money is what is stopping you.

I know you have a ton of other questions coming to you…

  • How to Finish a Basement Cheap
  • Good Finishing a Basement Ideas
  • Finishing a Basement cost estimator
  • Basement Finishing Checklist
  • Basement Finishing Tips

This post is already more than 4500 words long. I don’t want to bore you to death talking about other stuff mentioned above.

I will soon come up with articles to cover each in detail.

Anyhow, Basement conversion project is probably what you need to tackle.

Because that is the cheapest way (that I know of) to increase the size of your house fairly easily (and cheaply).

You can increase 50% to 100% of your living space in a short period of time. And that space would mean a lot to your family.

Finally, your kids can run around and play, when you have guests around.

Enjoy the process!

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