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my wife and I are in the process of buying our first house. The house has a 750 square foot unfinished basement (cinderblock walls and concrete floor), and is brand new (rather, it will be brand new when it is finished in a week or two). We don't have the option of having the contractors finish the basement for us because we are using a program for first time home buyers, but we would like to finish the basement within the first two years that we live there. Unfortunately, we have received a quote of $30,000 - $45,000 to finish the basement. What we would like to do instead of tackling the whole project at once is to tackle the project in smaller, more affordable pieces. Here is what we would like to see accomplished:

  • We would like to convert the basement into 4 smaller spaces (with walls)
  • We would like to run electrical outlets every several feet throughout the outer walls (I am a bit of an electronics nut)
  • We would like to insulate the outer walls and hang drywall
  • We would like to install some kind of flooring (I am hoping for hardwood as adding hardwood to the whole house is my next major project for the house)
  • I suppose we need to add some sort of drop ceiling, but I am not sure.

My question is compound. First of all, is there any major pitfall to doing this project incrementally that I may not have thought of? The second part is which order would be best for tackling these projects. Lastly, Which parts of this project should I (as a not terribly handy person) attempt to take on by myself in order to maximize my savings while taking on the least risk of screwing the job up? Thanks for the help!

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I would say you need to think it all the way through, even though you aren't going to do everything at once. When we built my detached office the major error was not making sure that all appropriate cables (power, etc.) for the middle of the office were in place before the perimeter insulation/drywall went up. It was a bitch snaking stuff through the walls after the fact. – Peter Rowell Jan 8 '12 at 3:08
Definitely. We don't even move in for another month or so, and then we will probably need to save up somewhere around $5000 to safely take on and complete any of these tasks. So I have started the planning process pretty far in advance. I will probably start a Visio Diagram with exact positioning of everything I want (every power outlet and phone/cable jack included). – Brendon Dugan Jan 8 '12 at 15:03
I'm not sure you are asking the right question here.... Any project short of baking a cake can stretched out to fit any kind of time frame and thus reducing the dollars/time. Are you concerned with doing the project in stages AND having the basement in a "usable" state in between? This is much harder, and will add to the overall cost of the project. – Dave Nay Jan 8 '12 at 15:32
@DaveNay, I'd disagree that any project can be stretched out. When you are framing a new home, you need to get it up, and weather tight as soon as possible. And when you install plumbing, you need to be sure insulation and heating come soon afterwards if there's a risk of sub-freezing temps. In this case, I think Brendon can stretch it out. – BMitch Jan 9 '12 at 12:18
@BMitch, Obviously there are certain steps that shouldn't be interrupted, but after the framing and weather tight, you could wait as long as you want until you start the plumbing. After the plumbing is done, you don't need HVAC if the water supply is shut off. The structure wouldn't be very usable like this, but that is exactly the point I was trying to make. – Dave Nay Jan 9 '12 at 13:20

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

First, handle drainage. If you want to install a sump pump, perimeter drain, or water proof the walls, now is the time to do that. You should also install any plumbing drain lines at this point.

Next, framing. Concrete transmits moisture, so use pressure treated, and a styrofoam underlay that would normally go under the sill plate, to keep the walls dry. With pressure treated wood, you need galvanized nails to avoid a chemical reaction that would eat a normal nail. Make sure the framing is designed for the drywall (16" OC studs, nailing edge in the corners and around the ceiling perimeter). And make sure the walls are positioned/sized for any plumbing or other utility lines. For exterior walls, the thicker the wall (2x6 instead of 2x4) the more insulation you can include.

At this point, utilities go in, including plumbing, electrical, hvac, and communications. I'm a strong believer in conduit for running communications lines (like ethernet, catv, and phone) so that you can upgrade those without opening the walls or running wires all over the floor. Note that with more outlets, you will need more circuits, and copper isn't cheap.

Insulation is done after all the utilities are finished. If you have water proofed the walls, then I don't have much against the standard fiberglass insulation. Actually, I like fiberglass because it's easy to work with as a DIYer, relatively cheap, and replacing a piece or temporarily moving it (e.g. in the attic) is simple. However, with moisture concerns, or if you live in a northern climate with harsh winters, then I'd favor the spray foam. The spray foam has the downside of being difficult (impossible?) to remove, but it functions as a vapor barrier and leaves no cracks that air can get around.

After this, you have drywall, paint, doors and trim, and touch-up paint. I like to paint the walls and trim separately so there's less work on edging.

As for the flooring, you would usually do this before or after the trim. With hardwood, you would often do the flooring first, and then the trim goes up tight against it. With carpeting, you would install your trim 1/2" above the floor and the carpet installers would install the carpet right under that.

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Thanks for the advice! Are any of these pieces something that a novice DIYer could do with any real probability of success? – Brendon Dugan Jan 8 '12 at 15:07
@BrendonDugan, A lot of this can be done by a DIYer, but the level of risk increases as you go up the list. Utility and structural work will need to be inspected to keep those mistakes from causing bigger issues. My own bias is to learn somewhere else first, which is why I spend a lot of time with my local Habitat for Humanity chapter. – BMitch Jan 8 '12 at 16:04
I disagree with the need to use PT wood. In my basement, I didn't use the styrofoam, but instead wrapped the bottom of sill plate in 12" wide 6mil vapour barrier. Even with just styrofoam it's probably enough. Also, there should be a gap between the studs and cement walls - this prevents moisture and water from getting on them, as well as gives you a thermal break. IMHO PT is just overkill in this situation, and doesn't really provide any real value if everything else is done properly. – gregmac Jan 9 '12 at 3:24
I've always used PT any time I'm in contact with concrete. That's only the base plate, not the entire stud wall. I'd rather spend the extra few bucks and know that the wall will outlast me. The foam underlay has been recommended by others here, I've only used that as weather stripping under an exterior wall base plate. The 6mil vapor barrier seems like a good solution too. – BMitch Jan 9 '12 at 12:13
@BrendonDugan: please read this before insulating your basement. – jberger Jan 10 '12 at 16:06

We just redid our basement into 4 rooms on an existing 30 year old house. A playroom, bonus room, laundry room and a bathroom.

Most likely you will need to pull a permit to do this type of construction and get it inspected.

Bmitch's order is definately correct. How much you want to do is up to you as well as material selection.

I did most of the framing as it is relatively easy as you will have no load bearing walls. If you can make things plumb and level, all that is required is basic framing for wall and door openings. I swung a hammer, but a nail gun easier.

I bought a hammer drill and tapcon screws to fasten the boards to the basement concrete floor. Either that or a Ramset will be required to fasten the walls to the basement floor. Either way, its not a typical tool for a DIYer.

The electrical I farmed out to a professional. They brought it up to code, installed GFIs, can lights, put a fan in the bathroom etc.

As far as drop ceiling, I put it a drop ceiling in the laundry room and around a perimeter in another room and built ladders around the rest of the obstructions. By code, you cannot cover a junction box. So, what I did is I looked up on the ceiling to what was already there. I brought in a plumber to move a gas line up in the ceiling and had the electrician relocate a few junctions boxes so I could go up to the joists as much as possible. The rest I worked around. I also built 5 access points to get access to the main gas line and water shutoffs. Every case will be unique, but I tried to go to the ceiling as much as possible without sinking a lot of cash into relocating pipes, etc.

Once you get everything framed and electrical in, the insulation can be done. We went with fibergrass paper faced rolls as they are inexpensive and all you need is a staple gun, masks, and potective clothing to install.

Then its drywall, which I think is another item you can do yourself. A good drywall screw gun and a good amount of manual effort. If you can get a few people to help out, it will definately go faster. To fasten to ceiling, I recommend renting one of those drywall lifts to hold into place or else you will need a few people to hold while one screws in the board. A rotozip tool can help you make professional cuts around outlets and lights.

I have a relative who is plasterer so we went with plaster, but taping and mudding is also an option. I bought plaster boards versus drwyall boards. Plastering more expensive (unless you have a family member discount), so I would recommend drywall.

I also brought in professionals to do the carpeting and tiling (flooring) and hired a general constractor to put in the trim.

We painted everything ourselves. My wife rolled and I did most of the cutting as I have the patience for it.

Also, be prepared for hidden costs, although since your house is new, probably not too much of an issue. We had to do extra costs to bring things up to code for plumbing and electrical.

If you want to discuss in detail, let me know and drop me a line and I can share more of my experiences.

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according to Building Science, fiberglass paper-faced can lead to moisture problems. – jberger Jan 10 '12 at 16:00
@jberger - I agree with your statement. It depends on your basement. Ours has never had any water in it or moisture or damp issues prior, so I went with the batts. If you have a damp basement or water issues, then definately go with something else. – Jon Raynor Jan 10 '12 at 18:46

Having watched many DIY TV and HGTV shows, I have come to the conclusion that a lot of headaches and problems in any area of renovating can simply be made obsolete with having the right tools doing the research needed for the project and better yet having a friend or family member who has some knowledge and ability in the area.

Framing the walls will be the most important task. Take your time and always measure twice, cut once and always check your level status. A 6' level or longer is a plus when doing this type of renovation because a non-level, out-of-square wall will make putting up the dry wall a nightmare.

Some tasks like running wire and connection to the panel should be left to a professional and always remember any serious renovation where plumbing, electrical and structure is involved requires permits.

Simple plumbing can be done by a novice with a little online direction or a day course at Home Depot, for instance. YouTube is awesome for this.

Always prepare your wallet for hidden costs like extra lumber, insulation, and drywall for instance since many times the wrong cut can mean throwing away that material.

For wall insulation I would recommend the Roxul brand; it is the green stuff. Not only is it a green product it is moisture resistant, mold and mildew proof, fire repellent, and has an awesome R-value and is nicer to use than the pink stuff since it is denser. It also has better sound insulating qualities so it would be great for a home theater room used many times. Of course thick plastic vapor barrier and acoustic sealer around the bottom is a must and tons of tuck tape for the seams.

Remember when you're stumped, use the web or ask a buddy these both work to help you through a challenging section.

For the floor I would recommend using the Dri-fit tiles: they are a bit pricey but they are also a moisture barrier and sub-flooring in one. Never tile or lay any finished flooring directly on cement. A sub-floor not only helps from mold growth and damaging the flooring like hardwood for instance, it allows the cement to breath which is also important for not having mold/mildew growth and smell.

The best renovations are the ones done right the first time. If you're spending good money you might as well make the best looking end product. Remember one thing you may not see all the stuff underneath but if done right you will have the satisfaction and stress relief that you have made something that you and your family can love for a very long time.

If you contract anything out make sure you get many estimates done and have references from each contractor; even go as far as calling the other customers up and asking if they liked the person's work. Going with the lowest price is not always the smartest choice: you want experience and knowledge and never pay full price until the job is completed and you're satisfied; this is how many people get screwed. Watch the progress if you can: many home owners open their house for contractors and than leave coming home to a finished room or addition and they have done nothing but laid crap over the old stuff and then ask for payment, then you find out a few months later you have the same problems you called them in to fix. Kind of like placing a band-aid on a gushing wound. Good Luck and God Bless.

In most cases the exterior walls are the first thing to go up. Run the wiring and plumbing if needed insulation and then sub-flooring and drywall comes last. Try to use 2x6 on all the exterior walls to increase your insulation R-value 2x4 for room walls and other barrier walls is fine. Remember not to destroy any structural beams/ floor joists and watch your HVAC piping and plumbing.

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You do not want a vapor barrier in a basement wall:… "If basement wall systems are designed and constructed to dry to the interior – regardless of where insulation layers are located – interior vapor barriers must be avoided" – DA01 Oct 11 at 22:51

We finished our basement ourselves (for the most part) and I would just add on to what others have said above. For us the steps were basically:

  • inspect the concrete walls/floors for any cracks, etc. Then chisel them out and patch with hydraulic cement.
  • use drylok on the walls and floor to seal the moisture out
  • use a board insulation like "Super TUFF-R against the foundation walls to both guards against moisture and to give us R7.5, then tape all seams with Tyvek tape
  • do framing with pressure treated sill plate and regular wood studs for the rest. They had to be 1" off the walls and TUFF-R (because that's code in MA) but you should check what the code says in your area
  • ran the electrical and recessed lights but had an electrician hook them up to the panel
  • spray foam any gaps around things and then used Roxul (because it's fire resistant and does not absorb water) in the walls
    • covered the Roxul with a moisture barrier (that's code as well)

There are some things that we also hired someone for like re-routing any HVAC or pipes that would interfere with the wall placement. I also hired out the drywall install/mudding to someone else. It's not that you can't do this yourself, but I find it's something best left to a pro because they're really good at it and it will save you the frustration of doing it yourself. The rest of the things like putting in doors, trim, painting are pretty straight forward though, so you can do those as well.

A great place to start it getting the code requirements. Even going into the permit office with your diagram of the walls, insulation, electrical, etc. is good because they'll let you know before they approve the permit if you have to make changes or use something else. That way you know that you have the right strategy before you start putting things together.

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I'd only recommend drylock for a cheap, no-insulation usage. Beyond that, drylock is hardly foolproof and often will lead to a false sense of security. Better to just make sure the basement is dry to begin with. I would not use any foil-based insulation. That will create a vapor barrier--something you don't want in a basement wall. Pressure treated lumber is OK, but I'd suggest steel studs. Easier to deal with, and no nasty chemicals. And, again, do NOT add a moisture barrier. That's bad news in a basement. – DA01 Oct 11 at 22:47
I will say, code sometimes insists on a vapor barrier, but that is very antiquated science. You may have to do a bit of legwork on your own go convince the code enforcers the new way is better. I'd suggest looking at all the work Building Science Corp is doing on this (of which the US Dep of Energy agrees with). – DA01 Oct 11 at 22:48

Some ideas to consider:

  • Make your stairs easy-to-use. A 3' 6" or 3' 7" wide stair is nice, especially with handrails on both sides. Angle the ends of the handrails into the walls. If you can manage a rise/run of 7"/11¼" or 6⅓"/12", they will be easier to climb. Make sure to include the code-required nosings -- they really do help. The closer to uniform you can make the step heights, the better. (Take extra care at the top and bottom to align with the finished floor heights.) If you are building the stairs before you finish the floor, include a short step 3' long by <stair width> wide so that this step's top matches the finished floor height.
  • Maximize headroom in the stairway. 6' 8" is a code minimum (where practical); 7'0" is even better. If needed, you can slope the ceiling where beams are in the way. (Modifying or moving beams usually requires structural engineering.)
  • There are building code requirements to install egress windows and window wells.
  • Align the tops of your window wells so that they are about 1" higher than the ground.
  • Make it easy to climb out the window wells. Some window wells come with molded-in steps.
  • Taper your furred walls at the sides of your windows. Make sure to insulate these angled portions of walls. By tapering the walls, the sunlight coming in will bounce around more, and you will avoid having dark shadows around the sides of the windows.
  • Where your drywall has corners that poke into the living space, use rounded (metal) corners instead of square (metal) corners. The resulting edge looks better, is safer, and is more durable. It does make the baseboard a bit more complicated -- my builder used two 45° angles instead of one 90° angle at each baseboard corner.
  • If you choose to spend the money to have hardwood floors, choose composite hardwood floors. Solid hardwood floors are rated for above-ground applications. Composite hardwood floors contain enough plywood to minimize wood-movement, which is theoretically an issue in basements. Unfortunately, this could easily be the most expensive part of your project.
  • I recommend linoleum or Marmoleum for the bathroom, utility room, and/or laundry room floors. These floors need a layer of particle-board or high-quality plywood between the subfloor and the finish surface. This makes them more even, and brings them up to the level of your other floors.
  • Consider insulating the floor with closed-cell foam insulation under a subfloor. "When your feet are warm, you're warm all over." Optionally, support the subfloor with wood sleepers, and put the insulation between the sleepers. Another diy.stackexchange question received options that were cheaper, thinner, and still effective.
  • Design in an area for a half-bathroom (possibly a three-quarter or full-bathroom). If you are lucky, you might not need a sump pump for the bathroom.

A suggested order of projects:

  1. Sketch out a floor plan. Decide where you want the stairs, bathroom, utility room, laundry room (if it will be in the basement), shop sink (if the basement will have a shop), and windows will go. Mark in where the various pipes, wires, and ducts will need to go.
  2. Use tape to mark out on the basement floor where the finished walls will be. Mark the windows and door locations. Mark the tapers of the walls at the sides of the windows. Mark the bathroom vanities, sink(s), toilet, and tub or shower. Figure out how much the floor will rise, and how much the ceiling will descend.
  3. Shop for windows, a lumber yard, electrician, plumber, HVAC installer, cabinet maker, flooring company, and dry-waller. When you have found ones you like (and expect you will be able to afford), get their feedback on your plan.
  4. Change the plan as needed, and make a budget.
  5. If needed, make permanent drainage improvements. (Start with the slope of the ground around the house, and the gutters and downspouts.)
  6. Install the windows and window wells. I recommend having the windows professionally installed.
  7. If the stairs need to be widened, lengthened, or moved, re-build the stairs. (Also build the adjoining walls, per the tasks below.)
  8. Build each room as you decide you need it. Within each room, the order goes something like this:
    8a. frame
    8b. install rough flooring (everything from the subfloor down)
    8c. install rough utilities (Most people hire pros to do them.)
    8d. insulate
    8e. drywall (I recommend hiring a pro to do this)
    8f. flooring (allow time for the flooring to acclimate to the house)
    8g. baseboard
    8h. paint
    8i. cabinets (such as bathroom vanities)
    8j. finish utilities (outlet covers, fixtures, etc. Again, most people hire pros to do them.)
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