What are the Hidden Costs of Finishing a Basement?


by Marcus Pickett

Interested about, fascinated by, or fixated on finishing your basement? Whatever your level of emotional investment, it's a great idea to evaluate your basement to identify hidden costs that may pop up during the finishing process. A few simple steps should allow you to determine the relative ease or difficulty in completing the project, as well as the likelihood of facing a dauntingly high price tag.

Do Your Homework: Basements that Look Good on Paper

The biggest obstacle to basement refinishing is waterproofing. Almost any basement renovation will require some type of water sealing for the interior walls. If a concrete foundation or lawn grading is compromising the exterior waterproofing, you're in for a hefty price tag. Since you probably don't have the access or expertise to immediately size-up your exterior foundation, it's a good idea to consider the year your home was built and the foundation itself.

Over the last generation, home builders have become acutely aware of the value of basement areas. Even if they leave the basement unfinished during the initial construction, any reputable builder will construct a solid foundation with good waterproofing features. If your home was built within the last 20 years or so, there's a good chance that refinishing your basement won't take the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This doesn't mean older homes are necessarily poor candidates, but in these cases you should probably brace yourself for sticker shock when soliciting estimates and considering recommendations for basement finishing plans.

Conduct a Field Test: The Garbage Bag Method

One simple way to evaluate the humidity levels and water seepage problems of your basement is to conduct the garbage bag test. Use duct tape and secure a garbage bag to your basement floor, covering at least a one-foot by one-foot area. Make sure no air can escape from under the plastic. Wait 24 hours. If the garbage bag has water or feels wet on top, you have condensation - a problem, but not a fatal one. If the concrete underneath the bag feels wet, you have a water seepage problem and this could once again make for a hefty basement refinishing price tag. You might get lucky and discover the water seepage is a problem with the basement plumbing or a faulty guttering system, but you must identify the source before commencing the rest of your basement renovation. For larger basements, it may be a good idea to use three or four garbage bags throughout your basement space.

Look for the Upside: Try to Imagine Your New Basement

Aside from waterproofing, some basement spaces lend themselves more freely to the remodeling process. Low ceilings, for example, will limit the possible uses even after the basement is finished. But if you have the perfect space for a home theater, pool table, wet bar, or an extra bedroom, the upside may compel the project despite the high cost. Hopefully, you also have a beat on the existing plumbing and electrical lines, so you can begin to imagine where a basement bathroom and/or recessed lighting may enhance your basement space.

After all, the financial value of refinishing your basement is a combination of the project's cost and the added value your new basement brings to your home. Talking about increased property value and return on investment has gone out of fashion with record drops in home prices, but unless you plan on selling your home in the next year or two, the current housing market is unlikely to reveal the long-term value of your basement project.

Steps to Maximize the Value of Your Basement Finishing

That said, there are two simple rules of thumb that will help you maximize the value of your basement finishing. First, if you're able to add bedrooms and/or bathrooms to your basement space, the ability to list these rooms when you put your home on the market should allow you to increase your initial asking price. Second, once you get prospective buyers into your home, the basement area needs to live up to the vision these buyers have of their ideal basement space. While there is no one remodel to fit all buyers, pay attention to the general rules of interior design. Stunning tile floors for your basement bathroom, contemporary recessed lighting, and flexible floor plans will allow you to cast a wide net in terms of dazzling prospective buyers.

Finding a Basement Finishing Contractor

After you've completed your own preliminary evaluation and reviewed your budget limitations, it's time to look for basement finishing contractors who can provide specific bids that will determine the cost of the project. Like any homeowner, you need someone who will give you a good price without sacrificing quality or accountability. One underused resource is online referral services. Consider the comprehensive services of a site like ServiceMagic.com, which puts contractors through a rigorous 10-step screening process and provides homeowners with reliable customer ratings and reviews. According to data collected by ServiceMagic from across the country, recent basement remodels have ranged from less than $10,000 up to $70,000. Your preliminary evaluation can give you clues and help you plan financially, but only a qualified basement remodeling contractor will be able to determine a more precise cost for your basement finishing plans.

-- Marcus Pickett is a senior home improvement writer with ServiceMagic.com. He has written more than 1200 articles on managing your home and home improvement trends.