Basement: To Finish or Not?

Unfinished Basement

The Noonan family's first trip to the basement

Late in 2010, my husband and I, and our two young children (2 and 9 months old), moved from our teensy New York City apartment to Southern Delaware and began the process of building a new house. It was like hitting the square-footage jackpot—we could afford so much more for the same money. We were like kids in a candy store. First on our wish list: a full basement. We fantasized about a home gym, an office, a playroom for the kids, storage for tools, a craft area, media room, kitchenette, and guest room with an extra bath!

Unfinished Basement

Pouring the concrete foundation slab

But wait. It turns out basements aren’t cheap. An unfinished one cost $25K. Finishing the space could cost another $80K. Wow. The budget was tight, so we had to step back and rethink. After mulling it over, we realized the structural portion of the basement was the important part. Since we had enough space on the upper floors for our immediate needs, finishing the basement was not essential. We could wait to do it ourselves—for a lot less than our builder would charge. So, for the time being, we decided to make our unfinished basement a rainy day indoor playground for our kids (now 2 and 4).

With a few trips to Amazon.com and local yard sales, we got the things we needed for a boatload of inside fun. We created a dance floor, complete with disco ball and pin spot. We set up the plastic kid versions of a basketball hoop and mini-slide, a tunnel compound, and an art center. I plan to paint a “race” track on the floor for scooters and trikes. I have great memories of roller skating with friends in my basement as a kid; my daughters will now have the same kind of experience.

Unfinished Basement

The unfinished basement as playroom for the girls and their friends.

So if you’d love to have a finished basement but can’t swing it financially, try using it unfinished for the time being. But think about doing a few things to make the interim more comfortable (and a finishing project in the future easier):

1) Add plumbing stub outs for a bathroom and/or kitchenette or laundry. It’s easier and cheaper before the concrete is poured.

2) Consider putting in an outdoor egress. Double-glass doors in our basement add natural light and make moving big things in and out easy.

3) Get your service hook-ups (sewer, water, furnace, electrical panel, etc.) collected into one area. This ensures the rest of the space is free for future living/entertainment.

4) Ask your builder to add some strategically placed outlets. A little basic electric makes using an unfinished basement space much more convenient.

5) Put one or two heating/cooling vents in the space for comfort. In our case, they cut two vents into the main HVAC trunk (easy and inexpensive while they were doing the finish work).

We’ve only been in our house for three months, but I can already tell we will be living in that unfinished basement this winter—and making lifelong memories.

For more on basements, finished or unfinished, consider the following Bob Vila articles:

Know the Rules for Finished Basements
Build a Basement Bathroom
Basement Storage Ideas
Add an Entrance to Your Basement