Should you finish that old house basement?

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

I never could get used to basements. Almost every home I have ever lived in had a basement, and each time I went down those steps, I felt anxious. Whether it was a series of earthen steps that led to a dirt-floor basement or fine carpeted steps that led to a fully finished floor, something about the entire house sitting over my head made me a little nervous.

Despite the dash of fear whenever I walked into a basement, I am the first to admit that the extra space can do wonders for a house, especially an older one, where the available space is already at a minimum. A finished basement can add a whole new floor to the house, and that means a family room, more bedrooms and another bathroom. Who wouldn't welcome that kind of space?

But making the decision on whether to finish the basement means considering much more than nerves.

Solutions to common basement problems

Old houses have plenty of problems. Basements have plenty of problems. Put the two together, and problems are almost certainly going to be a part of your life. The real question is, how bad are those problems, and are you willing and able to fix them in order to have a finished basement?

Here are some of the most common problems you might encounter, and how you can solve them:

  • Moisture issues. This is by far the biggest problem most basements have, whether they are a century old or brand-new. Because the basement is essentially a room buried in the ground, it is literally surrounded by moisture at all times. Sometimes that moisture gets in, and that means trouble. Moisture barriers can help prevent this, as can careful sealing of the basement walls. Proper installation of all materials you want to use in the basement is also essential to making sure that your finished basement isn't plagued with damp walls, standing water or mold.
  • Moving things around. Because the basement was likely designed just for storage, it tends to be where many things wound up, including the electrical boxes, the hot water heater and more. If you have to move those things around, the services of an electrician and plumber might be required.
  • Space. Most old house basements were meant for storage, not for living. That means that they could be much smaller than the rooms in the rest of the house, with a lower ceiling clearance. Since it isn't likely you want to actually shift the house upward, making more space means digging even deeper. That can be quite tricky, and if it is done incorrectly, the house really might fall on your head. (Seriously.) If you need more space, it's time to call a professional contractor for an expert opinion.
  • Health and safety. It's highly doubtful the house will collapse on top of you (despite what my fear of basements tries to tell me), but there are other safety and health concerns that come along with old house basements. Mold is always a concern, as is the possibility of radon gas. There is also the common issue of exits -- many basements only have one narrow entrance, and that can be against permit laws at best, and dangerous at worst. Ask your contractor how you can make your basement as safe as possible.

If you decide that these problems are something you can tackle, then you can have a gorgeous finished basement to turn into whatever new rooms your old house needs. There might be cures for all these old house basement woes, but there isn't any cure for that 'the house is sitting over my head' feeling -- that's just something you might have to learn to like.