Q: Our basement is dark and underutilized. How can we brighten it up so we’re more inclined to use the space?

A: Even on sunny days, your basement may not be getting enough natural light. Sometimes the problem is heavy curtains or thick foliage blocking windows. Sometimes basements have no windows at all (or only small ones) and lack adequate lighting. If your basement has these issues, you’re not alone. Most basements in older homes around Seattle were built only for storage. 

Fortunately, there are many ways to brighten up a basement. First, consider what you’d like to accomplish with your refresh or remodel. How will you use the space? Common basement choices include a home gym space, a kids’ playroom, a laundry room, a den or secondary living room, a bar or a rental unit.

Depending on the usage, you’ll want to adjust the lighting to fit the mood. A home yoga studio or media room may not need much light, but a rental unit would. Once you’ve decided on your basement’s purpose, you can determine the best ways to make it lighter and brighter.

Paint the walls

One of the (relatively) easiest, most affordable ways to brighten any room is by painting the walls and trim with a light color. If your basement has wood paneling, paint over it with cooler, neutral hues like white or light gray. Or replace old paneling with smooth drywall and a fresh coat of paint. Choose paint with a slight sheen so it’s more reflective. Only use highly pigmented colors if you want to achieve a moody look.

If your basement ceiling is unfinished, consider painting it white. This will prevent the ceiling from drawing too much attention and make the space feel more open.

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Use reflective surfaces 

Surfaces that reflect light brighten up rooms and make them appear larger. This is because light bounces off reflective surfaces and, thus, fills the room. There are many ways to incorporate reflective surfaces into a basement. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Glossy tile and countertops
  • Light and/or neutral flooring or carpeting
  • Large wall-hung mirrors
  • Glass tabletops
  • Shiny decorative vases
  • Metal light fixtures and picture frames

Add light fixtures

Introduce more illumination and ambience into your basement with layers of lighting. A good starting point is recessed lights, which provide the most brightness without casting shadows. Because they’re installed in the ceiling, they don’t take up valuable headroom. 

Typically, recessed lights are installed when a basement is being finished or remodeled, since they are best installed by a certified electrician and require opening the ceiling. If you’re taking on a larger basement update, add recessed lighting—especially if you don’t have windows.

Track lights and accent lighting are simpler options for adding light. Track lights are a great option for basements since most fixtures have short stems that work well with low ceilings. Place track lights around the perimeter of the room to bathe your walls in soft light.

Further brighten your basement with table and floor lamps, task lamps and wall sconces. Choose lamps with white or neutral shades to help the light shine through. Consider trendy exposed lightbulb styles that don’t require a shade at all and show off incandescent-inspired bulbs.

Let in light

There’s nothing that can truly replace the sun’s invigorating rays, so if you can, invite more sunlight into your basement by:

  • Replacing small windows and dark frames with new windows and white frames.
  • Adding sliding glass doors if your basement has above-ground access.
  • Adding egress windows.
  • Cutting back outside bushes and plants that block sunlight.
  • Using sheer window coverings instead of heavy, dark drapes or blinds.

Transforming your basement into a bright and welcoming space can be an exciting project. In some cases, you can even double the livable space of a home by finishing the basement — which can provide a high return on investment when it’s time to sell. When you brighten up your dark basement, you unlock your home’s full potential.

Emma Zimmerman is the marketing specialist for Model Remodel, a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS). If you have a home improvement, remodeling or residential homebuilding question you’d like answered by one of MBAKS’s more than 2,600 members, write to homework@mbaks.com.