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Home Inspector

Finishing a Basement
February 2010

To finish the basement or not to, this is the question. When adding a finished space below grade, multiple decisions need to be made before you invest thousands of dollars.

1. Should I get a permit? Absolutely. Today's building codes are far stricter regarding finished basements and of particular concern is a second means of egress (exit) for fire safety. I can't tell you how many homes that I have inspected that not only playrooms are found in basements but also bathrooms and particularly bedrooms. Most municipalities today will require a Bilco-type entry door or foundation window that provides a means of safe egress. Although the Bilco entry may be more expensive, I suggest that you invest in this type entry as it is much more useful for bringing items into the basement. For weather protection a steel door can be installed at the basement to prevent heat loss. A foundation window, provides daylight which may be more convenient but can be a liability particularly if someone is attempting to break into your house.

When you are listing a property with a finished basement, be sure to check if the seller secured a permit for this renovation. A second means of egress may need to be installed in that municipality prior to closing. Foundation windows can run $3,500.00 while Bilco entries can cost $4,000.00 plus.

2. Is the basement dry? I do not recommend finishing a basement with a stone foundation, as a parge coating will need to be redone every five to seven years to keep moisture levels down. Concrete block walls tend to be less porous but water infiltration and efflorescence will form particularly along the bottom courses of block and/or at the corners of the foundation. A sump pit and pump are always recommended. Also consider installing a battery backup pump system. Although it may add $500.00 to the budget it can help save your valuable possessions once the rooms are completed. Do not allow the sump pump to empty into the public sewage system. In most municipalities, this is considered an illegal hookup and can be a fineable offense. The only county where this may be acceptable is Philadelphia, but this should be verified when the permit is issued.

3. Wood or steel studs? I had a great conversation with Jessica at a home inspection in Doylestown a few weeks ago. She and her husband had been planning to finish their basement over a couple of years. They are now at the framing stage. For this particular client, I recommended the use of steel studs over wood for several reasons including;
a. Mold. When wood rests on a concrete floor and a perimeter drain is present around the basement there is a chance that water overflow can be absorbed by the wood members. This can also soak the sheetrock finish which is a breeding ground for mold. With steel studs this absorption factor is minimized. Compatible metal tracking is available for the bottom plates to support the steel uprights. Holes are also available in the studs for wires to pass through. It is a fairly easy system to install as well.
b. Insulate between the steel studs and install a layer of plastic to create a moisture barrier.
c. Use moisture resistant drywall for a minimum of the first four feet above the floor in case water is absorbed. This material is far more resistant to mold growth than standard drywall.
d. Use dropped ceilings instead of fixed drywall. Although portions of the ceiling may be finished with drywall, including ductwork, encapsulation of steel beams, etc. access above the ceiling is critical for the maintenance of the home.

4. Will a bathroom be installed? Today it is much more popular to put in a half bath or full bath in the basement. A sealed ejector pump assembly in most cases will be installed in the floor in order to pump wastewater into the sewage system. Proper venting is important. Most municipalities allow the vent to go though an outside wall or preferably through the roof via the main venting system. Air vents, cheater vents, and quickie vents are not allowed with toilet operation. Again this can be determined when the permit is issued for the renovation. A tank alarm is also recommended if the pump fails.

5. Is my electric service large enough to handle the renovation? This item is often overlooked as most homeowners are excited to get the project underway but may not have the electrical to handle the additional load. Modern electrical requirements include wall outlets, overhead lighting, bath fans, pumps, etc., you can understand quickly how the electric service may be overloaded. This discussion should be held with your electrician or general contractor prior to the start of the project.

6. Do I still have access to all of my mechanical systems? In many finished basements I have to be a contortionist in order to be able to remove the electric distribution panel faceplate or work around a furnace or hot water heater. As I tell my clients, think like a mechanic. If a breakdown occurs do I have to remove walls in order to service or replace the equipment. Electrical codes require three feet of clearance in front of a distribution panel at all times. I also suggest a minimum of three to four feet around the perimeter of a water heater as well as a boiler or furnace for service purposes. Make up air is also important particularly for gas-fired appliances. Fire codes require certain minimum clearances between metal flue connectors and combustibles materials. Don't forget the water meter and sewer clean outs.

These are just a few things to keep in mind. Finished basements allow for extra living space in your home, increased property value, a place to have children enjoy themselves, entertain, and can also give you a chance to get away. If you follow these guidelines this renovation should prove successful. I can't emphasize enough to do your homework. Choose contractors that have a track record of finishing basements on a timely and professional basis. Don't be afraid to ask for referrals.

Jack H. Milne, Jr. President, Tri-County Inspection Co.