A basement can be a tricky space to work with due to its low ceiling, uneven floor and posts to hold up the center of the house.

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Q: We have an old, damp basement we’d love to better utilize. Any tips for getting started?

A: Many of the oldest homes in the great Northwest have basements, but the problem is that they weren’t designed for entertaining or even family use. They were meant for storing coal, canned goods and farm tools. These basements can be tricky to work with due to their low ceilings and uneven concrete floors, no heat, and with posts every 6 feet to hold up the center of the house.

How should you approach these types of basements to best meet your remodeling vision?

Taking on a basement with a low ceiling is not easy. You’ve got to do everything possible to not reduce the ceiling height. A low ceiling is anything under 7 feet. The building code allows a 7-foot ceiling but if your basement is 6-foot-10, you won’t be required to raise the house or lower the floor. This is because it is considered an existing condition. But will it be comfortable? If you’re working with a sub-7-foot ceiling, make sure you can live with the existing height after all the work is done.

Even with most of the area at 7 feet, the code allows shorter ceiling height under beams and soffits and at doorways. A typical interior door is 6-foot-8, so you can use that as a guideline.

What else should you consider?

First, there’s the flooring. Uneven concrete is very hard to cover with tile without having to fill in the low spots. Carpet and/or tile can add one-half to 1 inch to the floor. One solution is to roll on a protective synthetic coating which creates a gleaming floor and no measurable thickness. This material is made for concrete floors, goes on in two to three coats, and can be made to look like a natural surface. Look for companies that specialize in this type of installation.

Next, consider the beams that hold up the house. Make them as small as possible with the longest span allowing fewer posts. You will need to use a structural engineering firm to make sure the beam is sized correctly for the span between posts and the load of the house above.

Consider also what material will cover the ceiling. Drywall is typically used on residential ceilings, which is a half-inch thick or more depending on how much shimming needs to be done to make it look level.

Ceiling lights in this instance are usually the recessed type. Set into the space between the floor joists to prevent using precious ceiling room. You need more of this type of lighting because it casts the light down and can leave dark spots in between if there is not enough. Adding a few wall sconces also helps fill in the ambient light.

Now, about the lack of heat. Removing all concrete and putting in radiant flooring with a new slab is wonderful but adds a lot to the overall cost. Other options include radiant heaters, a gas fireplace, baseboard heaters or extending the ductwork from the existing furnace. When extending an existing furnace, make sure it can handle the additional area.

In all, an old basement can be transformed from a dark, dank, dungeonesque space to a welcoming light-filled, enjoyable addition to the home.


Gary Potter owns Potter Construction and is a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, and HomeWork is the group’s weekly column. If you have a home improvement, remodeling or residential homebuilding question you’d like answered by one of the MBA’s more than 2,800 members, write to homework@mbaks.com.