A Plain Design That Will Never Win Any Style Awards: Or, finishing out a basement from scratch

One of the most fun things about flipping houses is getting to design them. Some flippers hire this part out because they're not good at it or they don't like it or whatever, but I LOVE the design side of it. I constantly get to try new things and create some really awesome spaces - and the prettier they are to look at, the better.

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The thing that a lot of people don't realize is that good design isn't just about looking pretty. It's even more so about how well a space functions. Because if a space looks nice in a picture but doesn't have the necessary features (or ample space, or enough outlets, or walkway clearance) - then what's the point?

To help prove my point, let's talk about this basement that we finished out from scratch at our Alcott project. Finishing out basements (or, alternatively in other houses, unfinished attic space) is a great way to add value AKA finished square footage within the existing footprint of a house, and there's a lot of different ways it can be done. It can be just an open living area, living + unfinished storage (probably the most common setup around here), or you can add bedrooms, bathrooms, bars, offices... whatever your heart (and budget) desires!

This house was going to be a 3 bedroom/2.5 bath Cape Cod, which is really common in the St Matthews neighborhood of Louisville. Most houses in this neighborhood/price point had finished basements of some level - whether they were still mostly original finishes from the 70's or updated is a different story - and this one was completely unfinished when we bought it. We knew right away we needed to finish the basement to sell for the top of the comps, and began planning a layout right away - which side would be the finished living area, and which side we would wall off to keep as unfinished storage space.

One thing I'd like to point out is that this basement DID NOT LEAK, which was a HUGE blessing. You never want to finish out a basement without knowing that it's waterproof first, because flooded basements suck and that's not something we'd want to pass off to any buyer. In previous projects, we've had to spend money on basement waterproofing before getting started with any renovations.

Here's what the basement looked like when we bought the house:

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What was different about this basement compared to other houses is that the house's garage is below grade - and therefore the homeowner will come into the house through the basement, and not on the main living floor. (The door to the garage is the open door you can see in the third and fourth photos above.) That's not typical in this area, and we knew it would turn some buyers away. The laundry was also in this area and would need to be incorporated into our plans for the space.

One of the keys of managing a successful renovation is knowing who your end buyer will most likely be: in this neighborhood, it would likely be a family with kids. With kids comes STUFF - sports equipment, stuff for other extracurricular activities, backpacks, coats, rainboots, LAUNDRY, more food and drinks than you can reasonably stuff into a counter-depth fridge... the list goes on. With all that said, we knew we had to make the entry into the house from the basement an awesome mudroom with plenty of storage and organization space, and also an ample space for laundry: to make it super-functional and turn the basement entry into an ASSET instead of a drawback. Our plan for the basement was to have three separate areas: this entry/mudroom, a finished living area with carpet, and a separate unfinished storage/mechanicals area.

Knowing where to wall off the storage/mechanicals area was easy, as the water heater and HVAC were together in one corner. The steel support columns for the main structural wall of the house ran across the middle of the basement, so we planned the wall placement to encapsulate three of them within the storage area, so they weren't visible from the main living area. This walled off the front right corner of the basement. The rest was pretty obvious - entry/mudroom/laundry where the entry door from garage is, and living area on the other side of the stairs.

With everything framed out, I took final measurements and began planning the mudroom/entry area layout. We were going to build a cubby area, allow a space for a second fridge, and allow for a laundry area to ideally include shelving and counter space to fold clothes on. Here's how it turned out. (Washer and dryer hookups/space are at the very right of the photo, next to the white cabinet end panel.)

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I custom-designed these cubbies for this space. Instead of just having cubbies for four individual people, I added a shelf stack in the middle in order to accomodate for the duct that passed through this area. The bottom shelf is placed purposefully at a height that will allow for tall rainboots to be stored underneath - and yes, I measured my Hunter boots to make sure of that height. Each cubby in the top row has an outlet with USB plugs to charge iPads, fitness tracking devices, anything - and have them all charged and ready to grab and go in the morning!

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However, we also added an interior wall in the main living area so we could hide the rest of the mechanicals. It would never have felt like a true living area if you could see and hear your sump pump from your couch, would it? So we framed a wall about 4 feet in from the concrete foundation wall - it's the bump out on the left in the below photo, against which the carpet ends. The sump pump, main sewer line, dryer vent, electric panel, most wiring, one of the two main ductwork lines, and all plumbing are concealed behind that wall. It also provides easier/cheaper access for a plumber and electrician in the case of needed repairs; allows for more storage space, and makes it easy for the future buyer to add a wet bar if they so choose - because you can't run plumbing in a concrete foundation wall after-the-fact, but you can in an interior framed wall!

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The rest of the basement is a large living space. We trimmed out the two visible steel support columns, and ran all the wiring anyone will need. Internet, sound, cable, everything is all pre-wired, and outlets are placed strategically to allow for a wall-mount TV, gaming systems, Blu-ray player, and other electronic devices I've probably never even heard of.

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Throughout the process, we made it a point to use materials appropriate for the space. We added can lights in the ceiling to make the space bright and well-lit, rather than dark and dingy, or dependent on lamps. The flooring in the mudroom area is luxury vinyl - a product that will withstand mud, dirt, water, large dogs, you name it. It also allowed us to keep the slope going down to the floor drain, which had to stay where it was. It's technically possible to move it, but that would involve $$$$$ to jackhammer up concrete, move it to the unfinished storage area, and re-slope the floor towards the new drain location - which made it not feasible. Some people may prefer hardwood or laminate in a basement, but I like carpet because of the sound-absorbing quality and also because it was likely that at least part of this space would be used as a kids' play area. Lastly, the cabinets and countertop in the mudroom area were purchased off-the-rack at Lowe's, and the hardware from Amazon - making it easy for a homeowner to purchase matching materials if they decide to add more cabinets or change the configuration of that space, without having to scrap everything and start over.

Guys - this space is never going to win a design contest. In fact, I'd say it looks kind of boring if you just glance at it. It's neutral colors, there's no wow factor, I mean come on it's a finished basement. BUT - the space WORKS for a family - it's FUNCTIONAL! The ugly mechanicals aren't visible, there's plenty of storage space, there's a place for all of the coats/backpacks/sports equipment, there's a second fridge for all of your Costco shopping or Super Bowl party prep food; and maybe best of all - dirty/muddy sports clothes never have to go upstairs - they can go straight into the washer!

(When I was growing up I rode horses competitively, and my mom would have killed to not have my dirty horse laundry brought through the house. I thought of her many times during this renovation.)

We try SO hard to keep function top of mind in all of our renovations. The very first question we ask ourselves when evaluating a floorplan and how it may need to change, or planning a kitchen cabinet or master bath layout, is "How will the future owners use this space - and DOES IT WORK?" We evaluate if there is enough space between the door opening and the sink (and which way the door needs to swing); if a person can still walk past the dishwasher or oven even when the door is all the way open; where a buyer will likely put their TV so we can make sure there are enough outlets in that location... and the list goes on and on. It's something you'll probably never see in a listing photo or Instagram post, but balancing functionality with aesthetics is how good design is acheived (in my opinion, at least). And sometimes, it's why some houses sit on the market for a long time without selling - because they don't function well.

Lastly, here's everyone's favorite - before and afters!

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Have a basement you want to finish out but have no idea how to plan out the space? (Or any other renovation, for that matter) I'd love to help! Design consults available. I'll talk through your goals and ideas with you to help create a plan. Learn more on our Design Services page, or click the button below to get started.

After photos: Tim Furlong Jr., RealTourCast Photography

Cabinets: Arcadia Collection from Lowe's

Laminate countertop: Formica Ouro Romano from Lowe's

Vinyl Flooring: Driftwood Gray Vinyl from Lowe's

Cabinet Hardware: Cosmos Polished Chrome from Amazon

Door Hardware: Schlage Bowery series