Once upon a time, basements weren’t meant to be used for actual “living” space. They were used for storage of coal or timber to heat the home, and hundreds of jars of pickles to get you through the cold winter months of hibernation.
That was then, this is now. And nowadays, the basement is one of the feature rooms in a new home, and something that buyers put a LOT of stake into when making a purchase decision.
So what about for existing home-owners with low basements? What options to they have?
Let’s take a look at the difference between “underpinning,” and “benching” to add height to the basement…
When I was growing up, I had a “finished” basement, but it was pretty dingy.
The ceiling was really low, the carpet was gross, there was no natural light, and I was afraid of…..something, down there. I’m not sure what I was afraid of, but I would always run up the stairs, hoping that I could out-run…..something, or someone.
Kids are weird…
But the basement was where I spent a LOT of time time, since that’s where we stayed out of our parents’ hair, and of course where our Nintendo (and later – our first computer) were located, as well as a wicked 70’s TV with a rotary-dial channel-changer, and an entire wall of BETA videos that my Mom had recorded from TV.
We made do with what we had, but I have to think that if I showed that early-1980’s basement to a buyer today, they would turn around, and walk out.
The basement has become such an important part of a property search, and over the last few years, expectations for finished basements have skyrocketed.
It’s not sufficient anymore to just have a basement, but rather to have the right basement height, the plumbing necessary for a washroom, a good amount of light coming in from the windows, and a host of other factors that buyers weigh when looking for a home.
Consider this: if you have 800 square feet on the main floor of your home, and 800 square feet on the second floor, then you’re getting along with 1,600 square feet. But what if you could ADD another 800 square feet of finished living space? What would you do to increase your living space by 50%?
It used to be – people would build up or out. You could blow out the 1/2 storey on the 3rd floor with some dormers and add a guest room or kids play area, or you could rip off the back of the house, add a main floor family room and a fourth bedroom (on the main and 2nd level respectively).
Today, with the cost of a major addition, and the restrictions on height (if you wanted to add a 3rd storey), home-owners are looking for other options. So in my opinion: look no further than the basement in the house you already have!
Whether it’s a man-cave, or a kid’s playroom that you desire, the basement IS an opportunity for finished living space, albeit underground, and not very bright.
The problem that most people encounter, however, is with respect to ceiling height, and whether or not the home is suitable for a renovation.
With an unfinished basement that has good ceiling height, there often isn’t much more to do other than insulate, drywall, and throw down some flooring.
But consider a home where the basement is 30 feet long by 20 feet wide, and could offer an additional 600 square feet in finished living space, but the ceiling height is only 5’8″.
These exist all over Toronto, and many owners or potential buyers consider this a lost cause. By the time you add 3/4-inch drywall to the ceiling, and under-padding and carpet to the floor, that 5’8″ is down to 5’6″ or thereabouts. Sure, it could be fine once you’re actually sitting down, but nobody wants to duck each and every time they walk in and out of the room.
Personally, I think if you have an unfinished basement with low ceiling height, then underpinning or benching to add ceiling height is a tremendous investment.
Like I said before – if you could add 50% to the total square footage of finished living space in your home, wouldn’t you do that?
So let me define each type first:
“Underpinning” is the most common type of basement lowering, which consists of adding a new foundation and footing below the existing foundation.
It’s very time-consuming, as usually only one foot can be done at a time, otherwise the entire house would fall over! So the workers have to dig out one foot, then add a footing, then move over and do the next foot, and add a footing, and so on.
It’s the more costly of the two, but doesn’t infringe upon the living space (like benching does).
A diagram can explain it a lot better than I can, so take a look:
This diagram shows the new footing coming out ever-so-slightly from the old one, but with underpinning, you usually don’t lose ANY space whatsoever.
“Benching,” on the other hand, is easier, cheaper, quicker, but you lose living space by creating a “bench” or a “ledge” along the sides of the wall.
With benching, you don’t go right underneath the old foundation, but rather you tuck a new foundation partially underneath it, like this:
See how it takes space away from the room?
Here’s what it looks like in a finished basement:
Notice that these folks have underpinned one side of the house, and benched the other.
This is the most prevalent type of basement lowering: a combination of benching and underpinning.
With the sheer cost involved in underpinning, some people don’t believe it will add value to the home. So these owners might elect to combine the two, save some money, and work the bench into the design of the basement.
For example, you could put your TV on top of the bench portion of the foundation, and build cabinets on the wall atop the bench. Add a faux-cabinet cover to the benched portion, and most people would never know that the bench exists in the first place, like this:
As for the cost involved, there are just too many variables for me to spit out a number. It could cost $20,000, and it could cost $200,000. It depends on the size of the basement, the age of the foundation, the type and style of home, and of course – the number of feet you want to dig down.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. If you have a 5’8″ basement, why go to all this trouble to add 10 inches? Add 18 inches, and maybe a few new windows as well.
If you’re really curious, here’s one of the best videos you’ll find on the web. It shows a combination of benching and underpinning, from start to finish: