Tuesday Tips: Re-Doing the Basement

The basement. Once a dark dungeon where you were convinced Freddy Krueger lived when you were a kid. Or was that just me? Today, the basement can be a family gathering place, a home office, an exercise room, you name it. So in my quest to offer tips for renovating your home, here are suggestions for re-doing the basement. I tapped the expertise of Bud Wilson, a former manager at Hechinger's (the old hardware store that no big box hardware store has managed to duplicate) who opened Installation Services LLC, his own general contracting firm in 2000. He's done dozens of basement renovations and had some tips for shopping for the right person to do the job and what you should be doing throughout the process:

Tip #1: Figure out what you want to do with the space. Basements usually have multiple rooms for storage, sleeping, playing, working, exercising and relaxing. So a single basement can be used for multiple purposes. Pick, at most, two functions for your basement. You do need to come upstairs eventually.

Tip #2: Get ideas from neighbors, especially those who have similar sizes and layouts as yours. Ask to see the basements that have been re-done to get an idea of the potential.

Tip #3: You can save about 15 percent of the cost of a basement renovation by being your own project manager rather than hiring a general contractor who does everything. That means hiring your own electrician, carpenter, dry wall expert and whoever else you would need for the job. The drawback is you'll have to educate yourself on all the county permits and inspections required for the work. You'll also need to make sure each of the workers' tasks stays in sequence.

Tip #4: If you decide to hire a general contractor for the job, get at least three estimates. Check with your state to make sure they're licensed to do the type of work you want to hire them for. In Virginia, you can check the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. In Maryland, check with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. And in the District, it's Consumer & Regulatory Affairs. Also ask if they have insurance. The company should have general liability insurance, as well as workers compensation insurance. Ask to see the documentation.

Tip #5: If you're considering at least one of the contractors you've received bids from but they're not the lowest price, ask if they can match the competitor's price. In a rough economy, such as ours these days, general contractors become more competitive for work and will try hard for your business by knocking off some dollars and throwing in a few extra amenities. Expect to pay an average of $25 to $28 per square foot, but prices are negotiable, so it doesn't hurt to ask. "It's a good time for homeowners to get this work done," Wilson says. "You can get the most value for your dollar right now."

Tip #6: Don't expect contractors to let you buy your own fixtures to save money. Many have a policy against installing fixtures they don't know. "If I'm not familiar with it and I install it and there's a problem, I'm responsible for the problems associated with it," Wilson says.

Tip #7: Make sure any changes made throughout the process are documented. The contractor should write up a form that shows the change and how much it will affect the final price and schedule.

Tip #8: One way to save money is to pull out your own paint brush or your wallpaper hanger and do it yourself rather than having the contractor do it.

Tip #9: Try to avoid contractors who want 50 percent of the money up front. A 15-20 percent down payment is reasonable to cover initial costs. "A contractor isn't doing 50 percent of the work upfront, so they shouldn't need that much of a down payment," Wilson explains.

Tip #10: Ask about the workers that they'll be bringing in. How long have they worked for the contractor and will they be using day laborers? You want the contractor to be using workers or subcontractors that they know well and trust. Wilson recommends staying away from contractors that use day laborers since the contractor will have little knowledge of the person's background.

What are your tips for re-doing the basement? Which rooms are you thinking about re-doing in your house? E-mail me at shoptoit@washingtonpost.com if you need tips for a home project.

And while we're talking about home stuff, have you replaced your old appliances with eco-friendly appliances? If so, where did you find the best deals? Have you saved any money on your utility bill? E-mail me at shoptoit@washingtonpost.com and tell me about your experience.

By Tania Anderson |  May 6, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Home Improvement , Tuesday Tips
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

With the housing industry in such a flux, is it wise to invest in a remodeling project at this time?

Posted by: Disco Stu | May 6, 2008 3:22 PM


Many homeowners ask that same question everyday. Those who are savvy enough to realize that the market will eventually bounce back are making smart investments in home improvement projects in order to reap the benefits down the road.

Posted by: tony | May 6, 2008 3:49 PM

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