Your Dream Basement

If you had a large, semi-finished basement space, what would be your dream scenario for that space? Indoor root cellar? Storage for canned items? Space for boarders or tenants? A clothesline?

Other than making sure the space didn't flood, what else would you do to ensure that the basement is usable without modern conveniences like a/c or dehumidifiers?

ClareBroommaker's picture

What is semi finished? Has smooth walls? Painted? Ceiling? Has plumbing? Level floor? Floor covered with material similar to the regular living space? Has what degree of lighting? Is totally below ground? Has door egress? Has window egress?

But to give my best answer as to what I'd want-- a place for all in the house to sleep in hottest weather. Storage place for my garden tools, though right now they are in a shed/garage in back. Storage for mops and brooms. A work bench or at least table. Open floor space where all kinds of projects could be worked on-- where I did not feel obligated to protect the appearance of the floor. Water connections for doing laundry by hand. Some way to dispose of used water. A sink or portable laundry tub. Sturdy shelves for home canned goods, emergency water jugs, empty canning jars, wine bottles, fermentation jars, very large kitchen pots, small garden pots & punnets, drying racks & electric dryers. Bins for long storing vegetables. Spot for solar oven and its table mount. Clean well-sealed storage for winter blankets, coats, gloves, hats, scarves, and window blankets. Yep, a clothesline, too.

So far, my partly above ground basement stays fairly cool in summer. It would certainly be better if fully underground. Humidity has not been a problem in the 25+ years we've lived here--until this year! I could experiment now -today- with putting some bowls of calcium chloride out to absorb water, the drying it out and re-crystalizing it in the solar oven. Dang-- I'm gonna ask my mate to check with the little hardware store tomorrow to see if they have any calcium chloride!

You can do many things to keep water out of your basement and my husband and I did plenty.
Basements are unusable if they're damp. You have to fix your dampness issues before you can do anything else.

You want passive methods that don't use energy?
Start by routing all the water in your roof gutters AWAY from the foundations. Walk around the house in a heavy rain and see where the water goes. Add gutter extensions, dry creeks filled with gravel, and slope the ground away from the house.

If your basement walls are raw concrete block, paint them with white Drylok. This is a miracle product that keeps moisture from seeping through the concrete into the basement. Do the Drylok AFTER you fix all your outside drainage issues. Unfortunately, Drylok doesn't work on painted concrete block; it chemically adheres to raw concrete. Only use white Drylok (it comes in colors) to maximize light.

Improve your ventilation by opening any windows that you have and inserting screens if they're missing (to keep out critters). You can add windows to a below-grade space, although you'll need a contractor to do this. If you add a window, get the biggest one you can afford to a) let in more light and b) let in more air. You can also make existing basement windows bigger.

Improve the window wells you already have. Clean them, clean the window glass, clean the screen, replace the gravel with white marble chips and keep the marble below the sill level, paint all exposed concrete with white Drylok and paint the window well itself with white paint. The white paint improves lighting and light reflectiveness. Cover each window well with a salvaged storm window, NOT those worthless plastic bubbles Home Depot sells. The bubbles won't last more than a few years and they get cloudy, blocking sunlight. A salvaged storm window can be cleaned and keeps out the rain better.

Make sure you don't have hidden water leakages such as the hole the original contractor punched through the wall surrounding the outflow sewage pipe. That problem (which we discovered when we replaced the front door sidewalk because of its reverse slope) was what caused many of our long-term water issues. That hole in the basement wall let rainwater flow inside the hollow concrete block wall for decades.

Expect to spend plenty of time and money but it can be done. We did!

Good luck!

Teresa from Hershey

ClareBroommaker's picture

I appreciate these tips. Our basement is coated with dri-lock or something like it; the previous owner did it. The walls are mortared limestone, but this dri-lock paint sticks to that, too. There is a place where the stuff has chipped off, but I think that is because the mortar behind it has pulverized. Not sure why that happened, except that it is probably connected with a fire in the basement in 1941. (Um, in 1941, they were using the basement as a kitchen. A lot of people around here did that.) We have such a problem with the living space wall in the room above that spot, too.

The one spot where water started coming in visibly is inaccessible without deconstructing the wood stairs in the corner. On the outside, maybe ten years ago, we paid more than half the price to shore up a concrete walkway between our house and our neighbor's. They were having water come in their basement and could not afford to do the work. Our houses are about 30 inches apart, so water over there would eventually make it to our house. Where the water is coming in is right by where the concrete work was done--just little dams sealing the corner between the walls of the house and the concrete gangway.

Hey, lp, you asked about possible space for boarders or tenants. I did have my brother living down there for a few months. It is quite crude for living space. He probably would have been homeless otherwise, and in that position, a reasonable person is pretty flexible about living conditions. There is a lot of stuff like that that goes on in my neighborhood on the sly, but there are also neighbors who get bent out of shape about having a boarder/tenant/long term visitor without all the formalities of the law, certifications for occupancy, and so forth.

Hi Clare,

WRT water seeping into your basement. Coat the line where the vertical wall meets the horizontal surface with fastplug, another miracle Drylok product. It can even be applied when there's standing water. Then spread a thin layer up the wall and across the sidewalk. Try and get a slope away from both houses and back towards the outside.

This might help.

As to your wooden steps, you'll eventually have to remove them to patch the wall. It won't get better on its own, I'm afraid. The goal is to ensure you don't get more damage over the next decade.

For auxiliary dwelling units (ADU's or granny flats or mother-in-law suites), check out Johnny Sanphillipo's website 'Granola Shotgun'. He talks about ADU's regularly. The key to an unlicensed one is good relationships with the neighbors and keeping everything immaculate so no one can complain. The key factor with legality is a working stove. You can have a bathroom, a sink (it's for crafts in my craft room!), a mini-fridge, and a microwave but that doesn't legally make an ADU. A stove does.

I hope that helps!

Teresa from Hershey

David Trammel's picture

As I've mentioned, I've been slowly fine tuning my retirement options. Looks like I will be building a small living space in my sister's home now. It will have a bedroom, half bathroom, and kitchenette. I'll post some initial pictures soon and go over what I have in mind. Like you I'll be interested in seeing what others here have to say about modifying a basement to get the best use from it.

I'm still going to build a small office/workshop out in her backyard, while turning the rest of the backyard into a micro farm. Just for permit reasons, I can't actually call it a tiny home.

The key is not having the neighbors rat you out.
Keep everything immaculate and make sure everyone knows you as the generous-hearted but eccentric neighbor who belongs.

I referred earlier to Johnny Sanphillo's website, 'Granola Shotgun'. It's terrific and covers many of your exact points.

Teresa From Hershey

Wow, thanks for all the great ideas! Our basement is partially above ground - about 2 feet above ground and the rest underground. There is a door to the backyard and also three windows (all above ground, with iron bars for security). It currently has a (painted) concrete floor, drywalled walls, has plumbing (and a full bathroom, washer, laundry tub). Like so many things in this house, the finished product left by the previous owner was somewhat haphazard and we are fighting dampness big time. We definitely need to work on making sure water is flowing away from the foundation. The rain barrels are helping, but we need to do more. I'm almost tempted to rip out the drywall, based on your comments Teresa. I would not be at all surprised to find mildew and then maybe we could Drylok the raw blocks.

Sounds like we need to resolve some of the big issues, before tackling the fun stuff like pantry shelves.

I look forward to seeing your pictures, dtrammel! Do you read Granola Shotgun? His blog has ideas sprinkled throughout for ways to create small living spaces that might be helpful.

Hi lp.

Rip out the drywall before you do anything else. You HAVE to fix your moisture problem before you move forward with anything else. The condition of your concrete block walls will tell you what to do next.

Get a dehumidifier. Yeah, it's money and more money for the electricity.

We had so much moisture in our basement that our dehumidifier ran continuously for over a year. A regular part of my day was dumping the gallon or so of water outside on some deserving plant. Eventually, however, the dehumidifier started slowing down. What was happening was we were removing decades of moisture trapped in the joists and walls of our basement. Moreover, we were, at the same time, doing all those things needed to keep more moisture from entering the basement.

Now, years later, we only run the dehumidifier when it's summer, when it's been raining nonstop, and even then, the dehumidifier stops on its own and not when the tank fills up.

Even better than rain barrels and cubes (because they can overflow in heavy rains) is to guide the rainwater into a swale aimed at garden beds far from the house. Swales need a LOT less maintenance; just mow them. They don't need to be cleaned and it doesn't matter how much it rains. You don't get to catch the water for later use, but you're also putting it where you want it for the best long-term storage: into the ground.

Expect this all to take years.

Teresa from Hershey

David Trammel's picture

If you are having water issues, then I'd also suggest removing the drywall for several reasons.

First there may be mold or mildew on the wall behind the drywall you don't see, or on the wood studs. Or the back of the drywall, and it just hasn't eaten its way thru enough to show. Are there any soft spots in the wall near where you get leaks? All of that needs to be figured out before you start things like cabinets or shelving.

Once the soundness of the wall has been inspected, you might want to consider insulation, especially on that above ground section. I haven't done any research into what kind of insulation is best yet, but I do want to make it as energy efficient as possible. You can also use that time to add electrical or cable/internet wiring.

My sister's basement is similar to yours, partially in ground, and part above ground. I noticed the other day, at least one crack between the bricks that goes all the way thru (sunlight was shining thru the crack), so a good sealing job inside and outside is on the list.

It has 4 small single pane windows and a walk out door too. I want to have the windows replaced with something that also has a screen, so that in mild temperatures I can get some air. The door is in need of replacing, with the frame too, so that I can use it as a exit. Right now it will close but you really have to do it from the inside. I'd almost like to build a small wet room, or at least an "airlock", so that in hot Summer/cold Winter I could open the outer door, step in, close the outer door, then open the inner one, without letting a blast of cold/hot air into the basement.

You don't mention what kind of ceiling you have. Ours has some sheetrock nailed to the joists, which I plan on taking down. The house has electrical outlets which are ungrounded (two wire), and I'd like to get new wire run and new sockets upstairs which will be easier once the ceiling is exposed.

Unfortunately, we don't have a bathroom down there. The previous owner did build a shower over a floor drain, near where the laundry area is. Its just a couple of 5 foot walls and a short lip, all tiled, with a shower curtain. I'm about to start knocking down the shower walls to expose the pipe. Then I'll get some estimates on having the concrete cracked at the drain, the P trap removed and a flush toilet installed. I was thinking of a composting toilet but at 62, I'm not sure I want to be lugging half full 5 gallon pails outside in cold or hot temps, lol.

We don't have any issues with leaks from the walls luckily but we do occasionally get water backing up from the main floor drain. I need to establish a regular schedule of having the line snaked, instead of waiting to do it when it backs up. I suspect that the pipe to the street may have sections that have slightly collapsed. Roots are definitely an issue.

One unusual thing, there is a room beneath the front porch. Does you home have stairs going up to the front and back doors? We have a small front porch with a floor bed in the front. Under it is a small room which holds an old no loner used fuel oil tank (about 100-150 gallons I'm guessing) and the room has a door to it from the basement. I'm guessing it was for furnace oil. I should have that removed and disposed of, so I have to figure out who does that and get estimates. Once cleaned up and insulated, it might make a nice pantry or root cellar.

David Trammel's picture

Found this page on the website for the TV show "This Old House".

How to Remove an Old Fuel Tank

Definitely hire a contractor who has the necessary permits and insurance. They estimate $375, I'd be surprised if it doesn't creep up to around $500 for us, since the tank will have to be cut up to get it out of the basement. The outside door has a right hand turn and it has a room extension over it.

I wondered how to find someone, and the page says contact the local fire department, since they issue the permits.

"Tip: “To find a firm that’s qualified to remove oil tanks, talk to your local fire department. They issue tank-removal permits and should know which companies do good work. Then, make sure whoever you hire carries pollution-liability insurance and is OSHA-trained and certified.”
—Richard Trethewey, TOH Plumbing and Heating Expert"

Our basement doesn't have a room under the front porch, but when we were looking to buy that was very common here (Baltimore rowhouses), usually holding the oil tank as well!

We are in a duplex (essentially a brick rowhouse, but there are only two) and the majority of the moisture is around the shared cinder block wall between the two houses (painted). It's sticky to touch, but no visible water. That's also the wall with the washing machine, laundry tub, etc., so we'll need to do some exploring. There is mildew on the back of some drywall where they created a separate room. Who knows what it looks like behind the drywall adjacent to the exterior walls. One-third of the basement ceiling is floor joists, one third is drywall with can lights, and one third is ceiling tile adhered to something (not dropped).

I love the idea of an "airlock!"

Here's the exterior door in the more unfinished area (tool storage, dryer - which I plan to get rid of eventually). You can see a french drain along the wall.

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Tool storage (there's a lot more there right now than in this picture!). This wall has mildew on it. You can see the sump pump; luckily we've no issues with flooding.

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Bathroom (furnace and hot water heater to the right, both gas).

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The more finished half - drywall, ceiling tile, painted concrete floors. If we can sort out the moisture, I'd like to reduce the living area and increase space for tools/pantry/root cellar.

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lathechuck's picture

I've been thinking about how to keep my basement office / ham radio operations room dry in a grid-down situation, so I investigated the idea of using a chemical dessicant (e.g., calcium chloride), which could be regenerated with solar heat whenever it's abundant. But then I rolled the the usual (refrigerant-based) dehumidifier into the room, turned it on, and closed the door. A day later, I had over a gallon of water in the pan! And so on, day after day, even though there's no visible seepage or source of water in the 1000 cu. ft. room. It IS palpably more dry now, and maybe (as mentioned above) I'm just pulling moisture out of the books, drywall, and paneling, but trying to do that with chemical dessicant would be a real challenge. (I also testify as to the effectiveness of dry-lock paint, and the importance of inspecting what's behind your wall finish. I found an electrical box, for outlets, embedded into the inner-surface of a concrete block, so it wouldn't project into the room.)

I'm thinking that fully-enclosed book-cases, with space for easily-replaced dessicant material, is part of the long-term solution.
That will also require a way to determine when the dessicant is saturated, perhaps some sort of pan-balance to see when it's heavy with water.

ClareBroommaker's picture

CaCl2 is deliquescent. (I love that word!) It continues to attract and hold onto water even until it is dissolved. You won't see the crystals anymore when it has taken as much water out of the air as possible. You will just see clear liquid.

I haven't bought any calcium chloride yet, but I think I will place two or three deep containers, shallowly filled, around the basement. That will give space for the water, so that it doesn't slosh and spill when I carry it out to the solar oven. I do need to find out what temp CaCl2 lets go of water. Hope it can be done in the oven.

I don't want to use plastic containers. I fear it would react with metal. I think that leaves me with glass or ceramic. The ceramic containers I have may have metals in the glaze, so I think that leaves me with just glass. Glass and concrete floors call for extra carefulness on my part.

ClareBroommaker's picture

So I just began looking up the process of drying calcium chloride and ran into this: "On fusing calcium chloride in moist air it becomes basic, due to the formation of an oxysalt, CaCl2.CaO." The "fusing" --I think-- is the stage the crystals go through when they've taken up just some water but are still solid and are sticking to each other. (This might be the stage my tiny jar of CaCl2 for making crispy pickles is currently at, eve sealed as tightly as possible in the original container.)

The *CaCO makes the stuff basic, high pH. So be warned, as clearly the presence of CaO, may change not only the pH, but chemical reactivity as well.

That discussion started with a person's complaint of his/her CaCl2 making a solid mass that was hard to get out of its container when dried in a microwave, something I would not be doing, but the problem would probably happen in solar oven, too. One person said they heat theirs over a flames to 250 deg to dry it. But these people are talking about amounts more along the lines of what's in my jar for pickling, not pounds and pounds of it.

Anyway, I need to learn more and am starting to think it is not sustainable or as safe as I'd imagined.

David Trammel's picture

What about the stuff that comes in small pouches in packages of stuff that needs to be dry?

Interteck Packaging 1 lb Silica Gel Packets

You could try this material since it can be dried out and reused.