Bring Out the Best in Basements

Basements are often dark and dingy or cluttered and chaotic. Find out how to brighten up that space and make it look livable.

September 1, 2010

Basements can adopt a split personality. On the one hand, it’s a sweet storage space with minimal décor and a high tolerance for accumulating dust. Yet when it’s time to sell — especially in a competitive real estate market — or expand the home’s livable square footage, the basement needs a little dressing up. That’s when home owners and real estate pros can work together.

One approach is to think big and transform this below-ground level into higher-end living space, whether that's a family room, children’s play area, or guest bedroom. “I have seen people take a basement and turn it into a family room, put in nice carpeting, and even build a little room around the utilities,” says Chobee Hoy of Chobee Hoy Associates in Brookline, Mass. “Hanging pictures … anything that looks pretty.”

It might encourage a sale. Yet it might not up the asking price, says Hoy. Many times a basement is not included in a home’s total square footage of livable space. “The square-foot value is not as high as the second or third floors. Don't put in the fanciest bathroom you can, because you might not get your money back,” she says. “You might have trouble selling the house for what you think it will sell for.”

Still, buyers want more room for the asking price, and a basement provides that option.

“Sometimes if a buyer needs extra space, and that’s the only space that’s available, that’s attractive,” says Hoy. She’s seen photographers gravitate towards homes with sizeable basements simply because they make great darkrooms and studios.

A listing for a home that Steve St. Arnault, an associate with Newbury Properties in Quincy, Mass., is attempting to sell has a basement that could be a model for all the dark, damp basements out there. In fact, he says, “it’s a bright and sunny spot.” The home owners painted the exposed pipes a brilliant shade of copper. Travertine flooring is a step above concrete or cheap carpet. “They wanted to encourage resale,” he says. “They also added a master bedroom suite on the top floor and granite countertops in the kitchen.”

But for basements that need just a little decorating rescue, there's a lot of hope.

“Make the basement a place that you want to go to,” suggests Peter Jeswald, author of Basement Ideas That Work: Creative Design Solutions for Your Home (Taunton Press, 2007). “So often, basements are associated with low-quality, cheap hung ceilings, wood paneling, and inexpensive carpet on the floor. Treat it no differently than you would the first floor of your house.”

Home owners should start by upgrading the basement's entryway and gradually work their way through the space, with the end goal a lighter, brighter, and cleaner basement. If it’s down a dark, narrow stairwell, open up that stairwell or — at the very least — install brighter lighting. In lieu of opening up the staircase, which can be quite expensive, Jeswald suggests add a half wall or creating an open railing. “Make it so that you’re no longer traveling through a narrow door to this narrow, dim-lit stairway,” he says. “Long, narrow spaces accentuate the feeling of being depressed.”

But if the end goal isn't more square footage but simply a cleaner basement, there are many inexpensive approaches to consider, starting with a broom and dustpan.

“The best thing you can do is clean it up,” Hoy says. “Get rid of the cobwebs. Whitewash the walls. Do whatever you can to make sure it has a good smell.”

Eliminating moisture may require the installation of gutters or a French drain. “Vapor can migrate through the walls and come up through the floor,” says Jeswald. Installing a dehumidifier should eliminate this problem.

The No. 1 problem with basements is a lack of adequate lighting. While the natural-lighting flow can't be altered because the space is underground, plenty of lights will create a sense of open, airy space on a par with the rest of the house.

“You want to get light into the basement and then you want to spread it around, to penetrate the space,” Jeswald says. Adding a table lamp here and there is probably not going to be sufficient. Adding larger windows is the best bet.

Creating larger window wells adds light — and offers an additional safety feature. “Nowadays most window wells have a ladder,” Jeswald explains, “so not only are you adding light but you’re adding an element of safety, especially if it’s a bedroom or recreation space.”

If either or both of these fall outside of the budget — but increasing light remains a priority —there are other options that are more about cosmetic fix-ups. These include installing French doors, which help divide the space, or putting up opaque walls that allow sunlight to bounce around.

Artificial lighting should be a last resort, Jeswald says.

Even more inexpensive are these two tips he offers on how to deal with the infrastructure of piping and columns by integrating them into the design. Create a bookshelf by installing flat boards between two columns. Turn an awkward pole into a bistro table by featuring a flat surface that juts out from it.

“If your budget is limited,” says Jeswald, “integrate these two into the design.”

And don’t forget about any exterior entryway to the basement. Even if it's rarely used, it's still going to be examined by potential buyers. It also could discourage people from coming into the basement if it’s not attractive. “Sometimes the door leaving the basement isn’t very attractive and people don’t put a lot of thought into it, but they should,” says Hoy.


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Taking its cues from Native American and Spanish Colonial styles, chunky looking Pueblos emerged around 1900 in California, but proved most...