FAQs Lower Levels
Can I put a wood floor in my lower level?
Wood below grade can be a real problem and the short and long answer is don’t do it. There are proprietary products like sealers and floating substrates, some that even raise up the floor with areas below for nothing but problems to hide. Rule of thumb is that water always wins when introduced below grade with even the best prevention. Sooner or later a drain will clog, a sump pump will seize or that 50 year rain allows water intrusion. That aside, many older homes with basements have latent water problems below the slab or in the walls. Wood behaves very badly when the humidity is high anywhere and wood is at its worst when it it wetter on one side of the board than the other. Can you say severe cupping? Possible mold? Stinky space? Avoid this installation below grade.
I have stained foundation walls, it that a problem?
Stained concrete block or poured in place walls can indicate active moisture in the masonry product or an older problem that might have been previously corrected. Seasonal moisture or intermittent moisture due to rains, flooding, clogged gutters or yard drain lines or sprinklers (yes, sprinklers) can all cause come-and-go water spotting or active wetness. The only way to really tell is to moisture test these areas over a period of time, perhaps up to a year. There are several ways to test for moisture, some low tech, some high tech. Give your remodel pro a call as this is a terrible thing to cover up with a basement finish or to just avoid and wonder why your family might be dealing with breathing related issues that might be point sourced to this moisture issue.
Do I have to have an egress window when I finish my basement?
Well, yes and no. Don’t even consider putting a family member in a lower level for any extended purpose or activity like sleeping without an egress window. This is one of the best codes around; requiring a secondary egress in a lower level. Imagine a situation where the stairs or the space above is blocked by some emergency and people below are trapped because there is only one way to escape. Never let a Chuck in a truck talk you out of secondary egress if you are planning a bedroom in that lower level. This is why pulling a permit is so valuable to you as a homeowner. It protects you and your family from the guy who is only interested in selling you the job at the cheapest price. Not worth it, not to mention you can’t advertise that finished lower level has a bedroom when you go to sell unless that egress is in place. Realtors, inspectors and appraisers all know better than to allow that.
Are bathrooms easily added?
Yes and no, and maybe! Baths are pretty busy from a plumbing point of view. You need to not only accommodate several drain lines but you must also add the hot and cold water supplies. Generally speaking, if the area below the proposed area is open and accessible, that’s good. If this area happens to be close to another bath or at least a 3 or 4” drain line below the floor line, then you are sure to save some additional plumbing costs. Usually adding a bath in existing space can be a challenge, particularly in older homes where space is at a premium. Sometimes space can be found fairly easily for that half bath. Three-quarter and full bath are a bit more of a challenge, requiring at least 50 square feet or so. If unsure if you have adequate space or the plumbing within a reasonable distance don’t hesitate to contact a design professional or that established remodeler you can trust.
What do I need to make the basement stairs comfortable and convenient?
Most building codes are pretty clear as to what is required here to make stairs safe and accessible. Basically, if the stairs access a basement or cellar that is used for storage (not considered habitable space), then you simply need stairs that are built to code as far as the tread depth and the riser height is concerned as well as a simple rail to guard the open side(s). Regardless of whether the stairs are open or not, one handrail is required. If the area is finished (habitable), then the stairs must be enclosed below the rail height on both sides. This can be an open balustrade or solid wall(s). Codes only require one rail but consider railings on both sides. Convenience and comfort should easily outweigh the relatively inexpensive additional cost. Don’t forget about lighting the new stairwell. Most stairwells are terribly under lit. If you are unsure how to properly illuminate this space there are many in the business who can professionally advise you and offer actual fixtures, bulbs and switches and controls worth considering an many different price points.
How low can the ceiling be throughout the lower level?
There are no code requirements for ceiling heights in lower levels (i.e. basements), unless you are using that space as a habitable area. Habitable living space, (i.e. a bedroom) has to have a minimum of 7’ ceiling. That 7’ ceiling level could be ceiling tiles, drywall or if left open and painted, the bottom of the floor joists from the room above.