When both the size of your property and the funds in your wallet are limited, it can make sense to look down when your family needs more space.
If adding on isn't an option, finishing off a basement can add significant square footage to a home's living space. While it may be tempting to put your handyman skills to the test, this job is usually not for a weekend warrior. To keep that space both safe and comfortable, it can pay to bring in the professionals.
And they aren't all eligible for conversion. Steve Touloumis, chief building inspector for the village of Oak Park, says a typical basement project requires that plans be submitted for review prior to permitting.
"We review the plans," he says, "to make sure everything called for is up to code before we issue the permit. There are so many variables with a basement, but a few things are really important."
What is one of the most important factors when dealing with older homes? Ceiling height. In order to be considered habitable, a basement space needs to have at least 7 feet of headroom from finished floor to finished ceiling. Touloumis stresses that the measurement is taken from the bottom of the overhead floor joists.
"This is one of the biggest problems people run into," he notes. "These old basements weren't designed to be habitable space. If you want to call it a den or a rec room, it's got to have that ceiling height."
Habitable basement space also requires an emergency exit. According to Touloumis, this emergency escape and rescue opening is the key to being up to code.
"Some basements have doors that reach the outside only from stairs that go to a landing," he says. "You need to have a grade exterior door or windows of a certain size that open and provide basement-level exits. Stairs that open only in the middle of the house will not work. In addition, a bedroom in a basement has to have its own emergency escape and rescue opening to be considered a bedroom."
Plumbing the depths
Other requirements, Touloumis says, such as framing out walls and adding insulation, are fairly straightforward, but getting into plumbing requires more consideration. "With plumbing, you're going to be breaking up the floor to put in an ejector system. It's a good idea to tie that into the plumbing and drain system that is already in place. That affords a lot of protection from backups, which is a problem with the sewer system in our village."
Overall, Touloumis emphasizes that the village is flexible when dealing with basement projects, while staying focused on safety.
"We realize we're dealing with old homes," he says, "so we are flexible — within reason. Access to a basement needs to be fairly reasonable. It's not acceptable if you have to duck your head to enter, and you're 4 feet tall. Stairs need to be reasonable and not too steep, but we realize they may not meet the modern standards of width and steepness."
These standards aren't arbitrary in Touloumis' eyes.
"You might have someone come to you and say they don't need 7 feet of headroom because their family is all short," he says. "That doesn't apply to the firemen with gear on their backs. Plus, there's a smoke collection issue in case of fire: You need more headroom to be able to escape the effects of smoke in a fire. It's not purely a comfort standard. Before my time, a fireman died in a basement rescue, so we take this very seriously."
The fun place
Once you and your contractor have met the village's standards, the enjoyable part of finishing a basement begins. Local interior designer Amanda Miller of Amanda Miller Design Studio has seen a surge in basement-remodeling interest.
"People are telling me their houses may have lost value," she notes, "so they can't move. Basements are the best way to gain space and function for their families."
Miller's assistants point out that basements are popular for families with children. Stephanie Yaeger says families are looking for a dedicated space for children and their toys, and Brittani Anselmo agrees that parents see a finished basement as a way to reclaim the living room as adult space.
According to Miller, clients want a basement to fill many roles.
"People want play space, television space, laundry space, a kitchenette and a place for crafts," she says. "We try to think about how we can double up functions and make spaces multi-purpose. We might have an office that's also a guest bedroom, or a craft room that is also a laundry room."
With design choices, Miller notes that people are using finishes similar to the upstairs of their homes while making a few concessions to the fact that basements can get messy and occasionally have water issues.
"For flooring, we use a lot of tile. People also gravitate toward vinyl plank floors that look like wood," she says. "We've also used epoxy, painted concrete, carpet or FLOR tiles. Clients and their contractors address any water issues before we are brought in to finish the space, but if clients have had water issues in the past, we can put cabinets up on legs to protect the contents and use easily removable modular tile floors."
Yaeger says some clients look to basements as a way to break away from the historical confines of their Oak Park homes. "It can be appealing to go more modern in the basement when the upstairs is a Prairie style with lots of Stickley-style furniture."
Miller says many clients are looking to imbue their basements with a cross between vintage and modern styles, but some clients take a different approach.
"One family wanted to continue the Prairie feel of their upstairs but make the basement more family-friendly. Another client wanted to create an English pub feel with oak wainscoting, English wallpapers, and a billiards room. This basement has a very antique-y feel."
Whether it's installing swings for an indoor play space for small children or building a palatial bathroom that just won't fit upstairs, Miller says her clients are more and more turning to basements to respond to the needs of modern family life in their historic homes.