When we moved into our house, the plan was always to finish the basement. The previous owners had built it so that it could eventually be finished, but just never followed through completing the job. Now that my kids are getting older, and toys are getting bigger, I need a separate space for them to let loose without me tripping over the mess. Don’t get me wrong, I will still be playing with them, but I won’t feel so bad leaving their block creations and dollhouse landscapes lay out overnight since it won’t be an eyesore in the morning. I also want this space to be able to grow with them too. So even though it will be a play area now, 10 years down the road it will be a private space for them to hang out with their friends without me around (sad face).
I went about trying to figure out how to finish the basement kind of out of order. So to save you the time and headaches that I gave myself, I have created a list of the 10 questions you need to ask your contractor and things you need to know prior to starting your basement project.
My Dream Basement
Our basement space is huge! There is a door that leads directly out to our yard where the playground is. We have visions of making the space by the door a nice patio area in the future so we can entertain both indoors and outdoors. Which is why I want the basement to have certain things.
There are two must haves for the basement. Extra space for toys and storage! I want to leave a section of the basement unfinished to use as storage for ‘stuff’. You know, the things that I don’t use year-round (holiday items, winter snowgear, seasonal toys, etc.) and things I can’t part with just yet (I don’t know when I will use the lamp but I don’t want to part with a nice, working lamp!)
We had discussed having a small bathroom in the basement in case guests were staying overnight, we were entertaining or for quick access for the kids when we were playing outside. It also needs to be handicap accessible for my father-in-law as it is hard to get him into other areas of my house due to stairs.
I don’t need a kitchen area but want a small bar/counter for the kegerator and mini fridge. I’d love to have cabinets above and around this area for nicer, finished storage.
The additional ideas that I found on were a bar/table area that would be built-in behind where the couch will be. Additionally, I want to have the support beams boxed in and made into small storage areas for books or DVDs. This isn’t too much to ask for, right?
The Wrong Way to Plan A Basement Project
After mentioning these ideas during preschool pick up time one day, a mom friend mentioned to me that her husband does basement work. He came and checked out my space, totally understood my Pinterest ideas and said it would be an awesome project (duh!). He asked me what my budget was and I shrugged. I said to just give me an estimate based on what he thought would be best.
Don’t do this. I received his estimate and was completely sticker shocked. This couldn’t be what it would really cost. I figured finishing the basement would ADD that much value to my house. Not cost me that much up front. So I contacted another contractor to compare his estimate to the first one. And no change! It was going to cost me maybe a couple thousand less going with the second contractor, but I still couldn’t afford either estimate.
What I Really Needed to Know First
My dad was a union carpenter who recently retired (so no, before you think I should ask him to do the basement for me, he already said no). He mostly did commercial work but of course knows it all. I mean, whose dad doesn’t know it all!? So when he was over one afternoon, I told him our idea of the finished basement project and he started asking me all of these questions that the contractors didn’t even bother to ask. My mind was boggled!
10 Questions to Ask Your Contractor
I figured the contractors would ask me everything they needed to know prior to giving me an estimate. Wrong…again! And they didn’t even detail the estimates so I would know exactly what materials they would use and what I was being charged for (materials + labor). My dad laughed when he saw their emails to me. He could not believe the outrageous costs.
After learning these 10 questions and things I needed to know prior to even talking to a contractor, I knew I went about things the wrong way. Before you even set up an appointment with someone, figure out what you would want to do and price out your materials from your local Home Depot or Lowes kind of store. Start with this:
- Framing: This is the first thing you need to calculate. Framing is what you are going to use on your walls to enable you to put up drywall. For my basement, my dad suggested metal studs, but wood is also an option. Metal costs a bit more but the finished product would be better. He also showed me a couple obstacles that the contractor would need to work around and what he would do about those.
- Ceiling: This goes right along with framing as you’ll need to know what kind of ceiling you will want and how high it is going to be. My dad suggested a drop ceiling in case we need to access any of the pipes, but my husband thinks a drywall ceiling will look better. After doing my research, I found out that the cost difference really isn’t that much. And as for access, drywall is just as easy to cut and replace. As for height, a drop ceiling is going to be a couple inches lower than a drywall ceiling. My husband is really tall so we need every inch we can get in the basement. There is also a support beam across the center of my basement, so my dad figured out a plan for what we should do about that. Know what you want to do with these because there are several options!
- Insulation: It is a basement with concrete walls, so naturally it is chilly down there. It is important to think about temperature control and mold/moisture prevention when thinking about finishing your basement. There are many options when it comes to insulation. Such options are bubble foil, fiberglass, foam board and sprayed foam, all of which vary in price. Know which one you will want to use and how much it costs as compared to other options. You also need to keep in mind building codes in your area and what they do and do not allow.
- Electric: Since you are adding another living space to your home, you will need to make sure you have sufficient power available. One of the contractors did check this out when he came over and said we were fine as far as power goes and my dad agreed. But what you need to figure out is where you want your wall and floor outlets to go; how many and what kind of lighting you want; where and how many light switches you want; and what extra is going to be ran in your basement (ex: a treadmill can suck up 1500 watts of power so you’ll need to account for this).
- Plumbing/Bathroom: Luckily we already have the hook ups in our basement for a toilet, shower and sink. But what the contractors didn’t ask us was exactly what we wanted in the bathroom. I said a small shower, toilet and sink and they said OK but neglected to actually tell me what they planned on using in the estimate (doesn’t this just seem odd?) What you need to know is if you want a pedestal sink or vanity (I now think I want a vanity so I can store things in it like toilet paper, hand and bath towels and soap); what kind of shower you want (tile versus pre-fab shower); and where the pipes would go (also called a wet wall so that you can access everything at once).
- Drywall/Finishing/Painting Walls: Which leads me to the actual walls (since we talked about everything behind the wall so far). Did you know there are different thicknesses of drywall? And did you know there is specific drywall that you should use in bathrooms? Another thing I learned from my dad, not the contractors. He suggested I go with a 5/8” drywall in the living areas and green board in the bathroom. My dad also figured out exactly how many pieces I would need and where each sheet would go. He said regardless if we decide to finish the basement ourselves, he would hire someone to complete the drywall after it is hung. That means the mudding and taping of the actual drywall. He said he doesn’t even do this himself because it is highly technical and you will see where you screw up. Plus it is time consuming and a professional can get it done faster. Finally, I had to decide what paint and how much I was going to need to calculate costs.
- Fixtures: Now this is where the extra costs come in. When I say fixtures, sure, that means lights, counter tops and cabinets, but this also encompasses those Pinterest things I found. They all cost extra. My dad was able to figure out ways and materials to make these projects cheaper and easier for us to do ourselves. I am lucky that I have him to tell me these things, but you can always Google or search on Pinterest for other options that might cost less. Make sure you get what you want because when it is all said and done, it is DONE!
- Insurance, Licensing and Building Code Knowledge: Here is one thing I never even asked the contractors. Do they have insurance to cover themselves and their crew while working inside my home; if they were properly licensed to be doing this; and if they were familiar with my cities building codes? I did research the contractors that came to my home after the fact and found out that yes, in fact they were compliant to everything necessary, but be sure you don’t let just some average Joe do your work for you.
- Payment: The first thing my dad said when he saw the estimates for the basement was when do they expect you to pay for this? I never even thought of that. I assumed I would pay them when the work was complete but he made some valid points. He said that you don’t want to pay anyone up front for any work prior to them starting because they could just take your money and never come back. You don’t provide them the money to get materials or to bring on the crew. That is on them to do. He said it happens often that people just take your money and run. His suggestion was that I provide payments in segments, meaning when the framing is done, pay for that part. When the drywall is complete, pay for that part. So at least if they walk away from the job, I have that part of it completed and can find someone to pick up where they left off.
- Time: Time is money. So is paying someone to do this work for you. According to my dad, labor should be able double what the material cost is. I didn’t even bother to figure out how much the contractors were going to make hourly/weekly when they provided me with their labor costs. My dad was stunned when he did though! It was almost four times the amount of what he figured materials would cost. So now I know exactly what I can afford to pay for labor. I won’t be hiring the best of the best, but I can afford more than a newbie just starting out.
DIY or Contractor?
Now that I know all of this, and since my dad drew out a plan for finishing my basement, I feel like I could finish it myself. Yeah right! I have no experience doing this, plus I am at home with two little kids all day. My husband works long hours, six days a week, with literally one day off. He also can’t stand to have incomplete DIY projects so he hurries to get them done. He does GREAT work. But the question I have to ask myself and him is if it is worth it for him to spend his only day off and evenings working on the basement or if it is worth it to hire professionals?
This question is still lingering. But knowing everything about my basement, thanks to my dad, and how much it would cost us if we DIY’ed it, I now know exactly what my budget is and what I want from the contractors should we hire out. I now won’t be ripped off and neither will you!
Have you finished your basement? Did you do the work yourself or did you hire out? Were you shocked at how much every cost?