Thursday, April 9, 2009

Finishing A Basement (Part 3)

Once you have determined the layout of your basement living space you can devote your imagination to the "look and feel". Lighting, flooring, mouldings, paint are the most significant factors that will influence how people feel when they spent time in your basement.

Light can come from a variety of sources like windows, ceiling fixtures and floor/table lamps. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, for example, natural light is preferable but is only available during sunny days! The big decision most people struggle with is when to use standard light fixtures and when to use pot lights. Before you can make this decision you have to understand the difference between the two types.

Pot lights are recessed into the ceiling and cast a spot light straight down. From a height of 8 feet that spot will be about 6 feet across. This means that, in order to overlap the spots and provide uniform lighting, pot lights must be installed in 4-5 foot intervals. Because of the nature of the light they project, pot lights are ideal for small areas where a more intense light is needed.

Ceiling fixtures provide diffused lighting, that is, the light is evenly spread out over a wide area. This means a small number of fixtures can adequately light a large room. Unlike pot lights, because the light is unfocused it is not suitable to work areas. Also, if your ceilings are less than 8 feet high ceiling fixtures take up valuable head room. This is the primary reason why pot lights are widely used in basement applications.

There are many types of flooring that are suitable for a basement such as carpeting, laminate, hardwood or tile. Each type has its appeal and, if installed correctly, will provide long life.

The key with flooring is to ensure it cannot get wet. Nothing is worse for a basement than wet flooring. Aside from damaging the product, trapped water breeds mould and mildew, as well as the musty smell we associate with older finished basements.

Fortunately, there are many ways to ensure your flooring product stays dry. If you are installing directly over concrete you must first ascertain if the floor is leeching water. Place a sheet of plastic over the floor overnight and check it in the morning. If the underside of the plastic is damp then your flooring will get wet. If not, you're good to go, presuming your basement does not leak!

If there is a risk of water on the basement floor then you must install a raised floor beforehand. This will ensure any water either in or on the concrete floor does not come in contact with your flooring product.

Having taken the necessary steps to ensure you will have a dry floor then you can choose which type of flooring to use. Tile should be used in high traffic areas such as stairway landings and walk-outs where dirt and moisture will be tracked. Beyond that, anything goes!

Mouldings and Paint
Baseboards, door/window casings and crown mouldings are what decorators refer to as "architectural details". They are pleasing to the eye and break up the monotony of all the straight lines of walls, floors and ceilings. The best way to make them noticeable is by highlighting them, typically with white paint. White is a good contrast with all paint colours, gives a clean appearance and is a good break between the different colours and textures found on walls and floors.

In the same way you highlight these architectural details you can draw attention to the walls, floors or ceiling of a room. Pick a dramatic paint colour for a "feature wall" or use a richly coloured hardwood or laminate on the floor. Use your imagination! A word of caution here though... if you plan to sell your house soon then neutral colours are advised. Nothing turns off potential buyers faster than bold colours! After all, we all have different tastes in decorating :-)

Good luck with your basement!


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Finishing A Basement (Part 2)

Of all the factors we talked about in the last post the most important is how you design the space. After all, you won't be thinking about the mechanicals or the amount of natural light when you spend time there. It will all be about what you can do and how you feel when you're actually in the space.

For example, if you want to create a bedroom the most important factor is having a window which is large enough to be used as an escape route in the event of fire. Although it's nice to have natural light in a bedroom the safety issue far outweighs anything else. By the same token, make sure you don't "waste" your windows in storage or mechanical areas.

In many newer homes the basements incorporate angled walls to support whatever exterior appearance the architect intended. Don't be tempted to square off these walls to create simple boxy rooms. Take advantage of the visual appeal angled walls can create to create some interesting nooks and crannies which can be used for individual pieces of furniture, storage, etc.

Ductwork is the biggest roadblock to effective living space design. If you're buying a new house it's a wise idea to pay a premium to have the builder dig a deeper foundation to allow at least a full 8 feet below the ductwork. This will allow you to have flat ceilings throughout and avoid the bulky boxes in your ceiling to hide the ducts.

If you're already dealing with the ductwork and you're not lucky enough to have the largest ducts confined to the service room then it's time to use your imagination and try to make them into interesting "features" since they'll be staring everyone in the face. You won't be able to hide them so make the most of them!

In Part 3 we'll discuss lighting and flooring.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Finishing a Basement

Finishing a basement is a much more complex task than most people think. Many of us have a vision of the finished basement of the 1960's where Dad and some of his buddies got some 2x4's and fake wood panelling and, before you knew it, a finished basement.

There are many factors at play in designing an effective living space in your basement:
  • Ceiling Clearance. How high can you make the new ceiling and how many obstructions are there? Ceiling height is critical to creating a comfortable space. If tall people have to duck their heads wherever they go figure your basement is going to feel somewhat claustrophobic.
  • Windows. How much natural light can you count on. Moreso than lighting fixtures, natural light makes a huge difference in how people feel while down there.
  • Mechanicals. Are they scattered throughout or consolidated into a small area? If they're scattered then you will end up losing valuable living space to service areas.
  • Humidity. Your basement must be dry. A wet basement is no place to build, unless you want to rebuild every 5 years!
  • Type of space. What do you want to use the new space for? This has a significant effect on cost and design, especially if you're introducing plumbing where there was none previously.
There are many more factors at play which we'll discuss at length in the next epidsode.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Increase Your Home's Value

Whether or not you are planning to sell your home (not a great idea in the current market) it is always wise to treat it as an investment. When you plan home improvements you should consider the Return On Investment (ROI) of each project and try to avoid those that provide little or no return. Of course, if the project is a repair there's no question you should go ahead with it but most renovation projects are done by choice, not out of necessity.

Real estate agents can provide you with the best advice but there are some simple rules concerning your home's value:
  • Curb Appeal: Easily the most important if you are considering selling. People won't even look inside if the outside does not look as if it has been maintained. If they do venture inside they'll be thinking of a "low ball" price; not the place any seller wants to be!
  • Kitchen: A new kitchen typically returns two dollars at resale time for every dollar you spend. Why? Just look at potential buyers' behaviour when they visit your house. The first place everyone goes is to the kitchen. If you can "wow" people here then half the selling job is done.
  • Bathrooms: Like kitchens, bathroom renovations also pay off handsomely. These are the second most frequented spaces in your house and are the next place buyers look. The reason kitchens and bathrooms are high on buyers' lists are because they're the most expensive to renovate. If they're going to buy your house they don't want to invest thousands more afterwards to get what they want.
  • Decorating: Paint and flooring are fairly inexpensive renovations that add value to your home. A good paint job can be easily by most people but get a professional to install new flooring. Nothing ruins the investment you've made on flooring more than a poor installation.
Your decision to carry out other types of projects should be based upon whether or not you plan to sell the house in the immediate future. If so, the rule of thumb here is, if you can't see it don't spend money on it. For example, replacing wiring or plumbing in an old house is an expensive job that won't pay off when you sell because people will see it as repair work.

If you are planning to stay in your home then there is another type of project that should percolate to the top of your list. Projects that generate savings in your operating costs will do little for resale value but will pay off over the long run. For example, doors and windows, attic insulation, upgrading your furnace to a high-efficiency model all take about 10 years to generate ROI.

Finally, there are the projects that are "wants" rather than "needs". They are modifications to your home that are unlikely to generate ROI but improve the living environment. Some examples are basement renovations, changes to floor plans and backyard decks and landscaping. Many people see these types of projects as good investments but they are unlikely to induce a potential buyer to value your home higher than a similar home down the block.

The most important factor in all these projects is ensuring they are done properly. If you undertake an ROI project before a sale and the result looks bad then you will have lowered your home's value. Similarly, a badly-executed project you expect to live with for many years will be a nagging annoyance when you have to look at it every day.

Do your homework if you want to ensure the result measures up to your expectations.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Some Tips on Wet Basements

As a general contractor I am constantly presented with people concerned by wet basements as they think it's an expensive disaster. True, some basements allow water to leak in because of a serious problem but, in my experience, most basement water problems are easily fixed.

How does basement drainage work?

First, you must understand how your basement is designed to deal with water. The typical house foundation is surrounded by something called "weeping tile". This is a pipe with holes around its circumference, buried around the bottom of the basement walls. This hose is used to carry the water that would saturate the ground around your basement either to your street's storm drains or down to a sump pump which sends the water to the drain or out a pipe into a culvert. If the water is kept away from your basement walls and foundation then your basement will stay dry.

Easy Fixes

In order to solve this problem you must discover why the water is there in the first place. Most houses are built on the highest point on their lot, primarily to avoid water pooling beneath them. Therefore, it's not ground water that usually concerns us but rainwater. If your downspouts are not effectively carrying water away from the foundation it will settle there and eventually enter the basement walls. Downspouts should be extended to they carry water at least 3-4 feet from the foundation.

If your downspouts are functioning correctly and you live in a region that experiences snowfall accumulations then look at the landscaping around your house. Where soil meets the foundation the ground must slope away from the house so water runs off. Gardens placed against a basement wall are great water collection points.

These are the typical sources of water coming into your basement.

The Bad News

If your water problem is caused by inoperative weeping tile it's time to break out the checkbook as it's an expensive fix. You'll have to hire a competent basement waterproofing contractor who will excavate around the foundation, repair the weeping tile and waterproof the exterior of the basement walls. This is the only way to properly fix weeping tile.

Good luck!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Welcome to my blog!

The idea of writing this blog is to help homeowners get the right information. As a general contractor I constantly hear stories of renovation disasters and I thought I'd do my part to make things better.

Most people I talk to, who are preparing to renovate, are avid watchers of TV reno programs and take the advice presented as gospel. This is not necessarily a great idea. Yes, all those programs do offer valuable advice but, as with all media, the primary reason for their existence is to sell a product. If you know this going in then you can make accurate value judgements but, before you can judge, you need to be informed.

Another source of reno information for homeowners is the contractors they hire. Time and again I'll encounter a project gone wrong and the homeowner will relate a tale of woe which usually starts with, "The contractor I hired told me...". Contractors are like all other business people. Some you can trust and some you cannot. Some are good salespeople and some are not. Problems occur when homeowners hire good salespeople who cannot be trusted!

The best advice I can offer a homeowner preparing for a renovation is to do your homework. Don't expect the contractor to "lead" you through a project or you'll end up with a result you didn't expect, likely for a lot more money than you expected. Make sure you clearly understand what you want but, more importantly, make sure the contractor is clear on it too. One of the biggest factors inhibiting project sucess is differing expectations.

In short, a successful project depends on you and your contractor being "on the same page".