As Americans add on to their houses in increasing numbers, many are looking downward - toward the basement.

The size of homes in the United States continues to grow; homeowners want more room for home offices, study nooks, hobby areas, game and recreation rooms, and media rooms. A finished basement can be a good solution.

"No one wants a smaller home," said Gopal Ahluwalia, who heads the research for the National Association of Home Builders, pointing to his survey data. "People under 25 want houses 35 percent larger than the houses they live in now. That demand for more space continues through age 65."

And those who don't buy bigger simply add on to what they have - plus chances are good you'll eventually recover most of the money you put into finishing a basement when the time comes to sell.

In fact real estate surveys consistently show that finished basements rank just behind kitchen and bathroom renovations in recompensing homeowners, according to the Concrete Network, an Internet directory of concrete services and information.

The Remodeling Magazine's 2001 Cost vs. Value report indicates the national average to finish a basement is approximately $40,000, with cost recouped at about 70 percent, or $28,000.

But why finish your basement? The Concrete Network says advantages include:

  • Climate. They're cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
  • Space. They free up the common living area of your home.
  • Bonus room. Additional space when you don't have enough room for a family room or home office.
  • Noise control. Locating noisy activity rooms in the basement makes the rest of the house quieter, and putting quiet activity rooms in the basement insulates them from other household noises.
  • Increased property value. Adding usable space to the square footage of your home increases your home's value.

    There are many facets to finishing a basement, more so than most other rooms, especially because you need to be more mindful of moisture issues. The Concrete Network suggests you take these issues into consideration:

  • Good sound insulation and weather stripping
  • Enough electrical outlets
  • Effective ventilation systems
  • Adequate lighting (direct and indirect)
  • Proper floor drains
  • Quality water-resistant floor coverings
  • Plenty of insulation material on the walls and ceilings
  • Proper wiring
  • Design options including paint, wallpaper, brick or stone veneers, solid stone or brick, cast stone or brick ceramic tile

    So you know you want to finish your basement, but before you start you'll need a permit. Although your contractor should take care of this for you, it's best to be aware of the four types of permits that may be required:

  • A building permit for construction of architectural and structural elements.
  • An electrical permit for all electrical installations.
  • A mechanical permit for installations of all elements and appliances associated with heating and air conditioning systems.
  • A plumbing permit for installation of all elements and appliances associated with plumbing and gas piping systems.

    Once your contractor completes and submits the drawings and permit application to the appropriate department, the application will be logged and returned for approval signatures. After the building permit is issued, separate electrical, mechanical and plumbing permits can be issued.

    As the homeowner, it's your responsibility to check with other agencies or jurisdictions concerning requirements that may be affected by the remodel, so make sure you or your contractor contacts your local fire department, municipality and sewer district. A contractor will help you through the paperwork maze. Plus, according to the National Association of Waterproofing and Structural Repair Contractors based in Maryland, less than 20 percent of basement do-it-yourself jobs work out.

    You don't want to hire just anyone. Basements & Beyond, a Colorado basement refinishing and design company, recommends asking prospective contractors:

  • How much experience do you have in finishing basements?
  • Are you a licensed, insured and bonded contractor?
  • Will you provide the proper building permit?
  • Will you provide assistance with basement design and recommend useful ideas?
  • Do you have fixed price contracts?
  • Do you have a fixed mark-up for changes?
  • Do you supply protection for existing finishes?
  • Do you provide a thorough, final cleaning?
  • How timely is your work schedule?
  • How adaptable are you to changes and modifications?
  • Do you have a list of at least 15-20 recent references?

    According to Basements & Beyond, every contractor charges a different price, but you can generally expect that the more features you're requesting, the more expensive it will be, and the more basic the basement finish, the less it will cost.

    As for the time it will take to complete the work, every contractor is different. Basements & Beyond estimates one week per 100 square feet up to 1,000 square feet, and one week for every 200 square feet over that.

    So now that you've armed yourself with the information you need to get your basement finished, the only question remaining is: What are you going to do with your space?

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