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Time and Money

The basement has been a huge renovation and keeping track of the budget and timing has been a task in itself.  For the sake of anyone out there planning their own basement renovation, we figured we'd sit you down and have a talk about how much this might cost you and how long it might take.


I've decided there are three big factors to how much a basement renovation will cost: The current condition of your basement, how nicely you're going to finish it, and how much work you're going to do yourself.

The current condition

Is your basement even able to be finished?  Some basements have so many problems with water, have low ceilings overall, or have utilities right in the middle of the space that it's economically unfeasible to make all the changes that would be required just to make the space usable.

Basements that are able to be finished may still have big obstructions hanging down from the ceilings - pipes, HVAC, electrical, supports.  Any of them can be moved... for a price.  Starting with a basement that's relatively obstruction free is going to save you a lot of money.  If your basement has a lot of obstructions you'll need to decide if you're going work around them (and have lower ceilings/bulkheads) or move them to fit nicely in to the ceiling joists.  We chose a combination of using bulkheads in the laundry room and a few in the bathroom and bedroom, but moved a long radiator pipe in the family room area to avoid a bulkhead there.

Another factor is how large your basement is.  I've come across several inexpensive renovations for basements that essentially have one medium sized living room.  That's a great way to add more space to the house and frankly I'm jealous it can be done in a shorter time for less money.  The larger the basement the larger the scope of the renovation.

How nicely you're going to finish it

There's a wide range of finishing options that have vastly different price tags.  I've seen friends and blog acquaintances paint the floor with epoxy paint, spray the ceiling joists white, and put up some drywall to cover the concrete walls to turn a gross basement into something that feels MUCH nicer for only a little bit of work and money.  On the other hand, I've seen basements you would swear were the 1st or second level of a house - I think they call these "conditioned lower levels" instead of "basements" - and they cost a pretty penny.  Between those two options there are several shades of gray - will you add a bathroom or bar where there isn't plumbing?  Will you add new electric?  New lights?  Insulate the walls, excavate down, re-pour concrete or even add in-floor heating?  They all have a price tag.  We tried to land in the shade of gray that considered the safety, longevity and aesthetic aspects of each decision while finding ways to save money in that price range.  We chose to add a bathroom (and the plumbing for it) in our basement, which was a hefty part of the overall cost of the basement.  We didn't excavate anything, but we did need to re-pour some of the concrete and we're planning on adding in-floor heat in just the bathroom.  We added new electric and lights in our basement renovation and ended up extending it to the main level for safety reasons.

How much you're going to do yourself

I figure in the end our basement will have taken around 1200 hours of DIY labor.  If it was done by professionals it would take fewer hours... maybe 600?  Heck, I'll give myself less credit and say they could do it in 400.  If the average price of labor is $50/hour (which I think is conservative) which adds up to $20,000 in labor we'll have saved by doing it ourselves.  That's nothing to write off!  I'll also admit, though, that DIY work vs. professional work goes hand-in-hand with the previous topic "how nicely you're going to finish it".  We did choose to hire out some of the work, but made our choices based on safety (we hired a plumber for the underground plumbing, had everything inspected along the way) and aesthetics (we hired the drywall and mudding/taping out since we knew our DIY work might look like it was our first time and change the entire look of the finished walls.

Our budget

We've always listed out how much our renovations cost on the blog but for some reason we're feeling sheepish about posting the exact numbers for this one - maybe because it's a lot bigger of a number than things like our $700 kitchen reno.  If someone asked either of us in person we would tell them so if you're trying to figure out costs send us an email and you'll tell you more specifics.  For the purpose of things published forever into the blogosphere we'll just say it's in the $10,000-20,000 range.  Here's where the money has gone by category.  Note, this is through drywall and doesn't include trim, built-ins, paint, and flooring yet.


We didn't think drywall would end up being our biggest expense but it's one of the jobs we're hiring out so that category includes labor.  Plus there's just a lot of space to drywall!  I'm happy to see the lowest percents went to demo (we sold salvaged items so the net cost was almost nothing), paying a general contractor an hourly rate to come help with jobs that were out of our comfort zone, permits (which makes me think they're even more worthwhile because they're so cheap relative to the rest of the costs), and tools.  Sometimes we feel like the cost of tools has been really high - I bought a miter saw, framing tools (hammer, squares and levels), a table saw, circular saw, reciprocating saw, a finishing nail gun with compressor, and all the hand tools I needed for plumbing and electrical.  At the time it felt like a big expense but nowI look at is as 5% of the total cost and an even smaller percent of the cost it would have been to hire someone who already owned the tools.  On top of that, now I own the tools so future projects will be cheaper and easier!

We haven't had an official appointment to determine the new value of our house with the remodel, but when we had dinner with our realtor recently she estimated the house value to increase up to $30,000 by the time we've finished the renovation, which made us pretty pleased with our decision to finish the basement, and just enough inspiration to finish it up already!  Ultimately, the real reason we embarked on this project was for a more comfortable bedroom/bathroom for guests, a less formal play room/movie room, and some organized storage, so the increase in house value will only be a bonus for us!

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Spray Foam

My friend, Jason:  What kind of insulation is this?
Me: Spray foam.
Jason: Like... Great Stuff?

Haha, yes.  Can you imagine me spending days going through can after can of great stuff to insulate the entire basement?  No, this is the kind of insulation that comes from a truck...

Down a hose and through a window...

and into the spray gun of a competent professional.

This stuff is really amazing, I could go on and on.  It insulates at 6.5 R per inch, is air tight, and is water tight.  The main reasons we went with this type of insulation were to keep water out of our house, and to keep heat in.

Mold needs three things to grow: water, air, and food (any organic compound).  There are two common scenarios that create this condition in a basement.

Water seeping in through cracks in the foundation - Water enters the basement in a liquid form, comes in contact with wood, batt insulation, or drywall, and mold grows.  To stop this, the foundation can be water-proofed from the inside or outside (so no water can't get in), you can make sure the ground is graded away from the foundation at 1" per foot for at least 3 feet (so water doesn't stay near the foundation), weeping tile and a sump pump can be installed (to remove water as soon as it's in), and you could make sure downspouts send the water at least 3 feed from the foundation (so water doesn't stay near the foundation).

Condensation on the interior walls - When warm, moist, air comes in contact with a cool surface the moisture in the air turns into liquid water, aka condensation.  Think of a cold glass of water/lemonade/beer on a hot day, the glass gets covered in condensation pretty quickly.  The same thing happens on the cool foundation walls when the basement air has a lot of moisture and is warmer than the walls.  Without ANY insulation there's not really a problem because the walls are room temperature and if any water condenses it evaporates back into the room.

Now, if you put insulation in front of the walls there's a thermal break between the walls and the room.  On a fall day the room is 70 degrees but the wall will be much cooler because it's insulated from the warm air in the room.  If any air gets behind the insulation it will condense on the wall and turn into water.  This is the reason you need to have a vapor barrier (sheet of plastic) on the warm side of the wall.  In my example, the vapor barrier would be between the drywall and the batt insulation, the foundation wall would be cooler than the room but the vapor barrier would block any moist air from getting to the foundation.  If the vapor barrier was on the cool side of the room - between the insulation and the foundation wall - moist air would get behind the insulation and condense on the "cold" vapor barrier and mold.

So, batt insulation and a vapor barrier work together to make a warm room that doesn't promote mold, but the vapor barrier is extremely important.  If it's not air tight, the whole system starts to fail.  If the seams of the vapor barrier aren't sealed, it doesn't work.  If there's a hole in the vapor barrier, it doesn't work.  Any drywall screws that miss the stud can pop a hole in the vapor barrier, any pictures hung on the wall can break the vapor barrier.  If you use batt insulation and a vapor barrier, the vapor barrier has to be perfect.

Because the vapor barrier is never perfect in reality, batt insulation is not a great insulation for basement walls.  The next best option is rigid foam insulation.  Polystyrene (Styrofoam) and Polyisocyanurate (called poly-iso) insulate and don't allow water or air to pass through the 4x8 sheet.  You need to carefully tape each of the seams and make sure there isn't a gap at the top or bottom or air can pass through and condense on the foundation.  Rigid foam insulation makes a great basement insulation if you're careful to seal everything up.  Spray foam insulation has the same properties as rigid insulation but is custom fit to any wall.  It's sprayed on as a liquid and expands to fit every bump, hole, or crack.  It becomes one continuous piece of insulation with no gaps or seams which guarantees no air can pass through to condense on the foundation.  Neither rigid or spray foam is water proof but they're both so impermeable that essentially no water can pass through it.

We went with spray foam insulation because we wanted to make sure our home was safe of any mold and we didn't want to worry that the seams or gaps (which would be many with our uneven walls and floors) in rigid insulation would be letting water and air in/out.  Now that we have our insulation in, our sea foam green walls are out and beige color insulation is in.  Here's how everything is looking.

See the big sheet of drywall in the living room??  We'll update you more on that soon since there's progress being made as I type!

Once the insulation was up we could finish installing the shower that needs to be up before drywall.  We don't really anticipate this shower getting used much so we saved some money and got a pre-fabricated shower.   It looks ok for a pre-fab, right?


We may not have a toilet or a working sink, but we have a shower and we have beautiful spray-foamed walls!  Now onto drywall...

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Inspections News

The last few weeks have been a little stressful as we've finished each stage of the basement rough-ins and had them inspected.  I had a gigantic fear that the inspectors were going to say I did something massively wrong, like using the wrong kind of wire for electrical or something, and would have to completely redo the work.  Lucky for us my fear was completely irrational and the inspections went off without incident.

Electrical: Check
Mechanical: Check
Plumbing: Check
Building: Check

All the rough-ins are done and the city/state has given us the OK to move on to insulation and drywall!!!

We still have to get final inspections once everything is done but it's really hard to mess up anything from here out.  All the structural and behind-the-scenes work is done and passed.  That's a huge weight off our shoulders!

Insulation on Friday, drywall next week!  After 14 months of ugliness, we are so ready for some clean-slate drywall!


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