A Basement Dig Out Explained


Last week a reader asked about how to do a basement dig out. A reader was kind enough to share his experience:

“After reading the comments it was clear that no one had enjoyed actual experience and that most of the comments were far from my recent journey from a 7,1 clearance to 9,4. Our house is a three story above grade row house that was built in 1911.

Our entire dig out went from Nov 9, breaking up the concrete, until Dec 30 for pouring the new slab. Underpinning the foundation was involved. New ground works were involved. The basement space is approximately 990 square feet on which sits a three story above grade house. The basement was vacant except for the boiler and hot water heater. Our intent is to turn the space into a 2 bedroom apartment.

All of the work was permitted through DCRA. The hardest part was getting one adjoining neighbor to sign off on the project. One did, the other did not. Because one adjoining neighbor would not sign, it took us an additional 2 months to get our permit. The process of working with DCRA, once you have plans, is straightforward.


The cost from our licensed contractor for all digging out, ground works, concrete, plans, new front stairs leading to the basement and new stairs in the back, was under 25K. We had considered other companies that offered bids of more than twice that amount. With the saving we hired a structural engineer who oversaw our contractor’s work. The SE cost was $1,500. Continues after the jump.

Although there was some jack-hammering, most of the work was done by hand. That’s a lot of dirt to dig and move out. The dirt was placed in my back yard space and hauled out every few days. Removal of the dirt from the basement to the back yard and then, eventually, onto the truck has done with wheel barrows and shovels.

Digging out is kind of like having a child, unless you’ve done it, you can’t really know what it is about. As we had a baby while the dig out was happening, I feel confident in the use of that metaphor.

Down side to the dig out. There were few. There was lots of dust on our first floor. That could have been prevented by putting down rozen paper before the work started. Noise from some jack-hammering. Loss of my backyard parking space.


Up side. I know have a 9,4 basement. Lots of head room for a comfortable apartment. Added value to the house that matches or exceeds how much I invested in this project.

The hardest part of us was finding places to put everything, spare boxes, furniture, etc., that we had stored down there and had accumulated in 8 years. Through GoodWill, creative storage upstairs, or the trash, it all found a place.


The biggest headache was dealing with the challenge of one adjoining neighbor who simply didn’t want me to dig out no matter what studies and plans I provided to him. In the end, unless there is some really substantial reason for denying the request, DCRA will grant you the permit for the work, which you can do as a matter of right. The delay took a couple of meetings with our neighbor and a few letters to DCRA.

Would I do it again? Yes, we should have done this years ago. Am I happy with the results? Yes. Having owned the house for more than 8 years, this has been the best project that we’ve done in the house in that time.”

33 Comment

  • Excellent story – you will definitely find the rental income easily pays off the investment. Though having done a similar reno in a similar house, I would suggest putting in a really great light-filled spacious one bedroom instead of a cramped 2.

    • Good luck putting a light-filled anything in a basement.

      • Good point.

        I live in a basement apartment now. Nice area, wonderful land lady, I love the cheaper rent, quiet neighbors but I am considering moving.

        Lack of sunlight is one reason. Lack of vertical room is another. Lack of a parking space. Lack of control over my own utilities. I am frugal with my utilities and I don’t like playing a flat rate where other people are contributing to the bill.

        • I lived in a basement apartment for a short while. I found the low ceilings claustrophobic, and the lack of natural light depressing. It was otherwise a large, nicely-appointed space in a great neighborhood, but the oppressive atmosphere of living in a basement was too much for me.

  • What is the name of the company? I would like to use them.

  • Great explanation — I’m currently having the same job done on my meager rowhouse in bloomingdale. A little bit more expensive than 25K, but my contractor, Stuart Davenport,does remarkable work. I personally believe that his efforts at Big Bear Cafe have served as a pretty big catalyst for some of the change we’ve seen in the neighborhood over the last couple of years (my opinion only!!!).

    If you’d like to see some of his work, visit his website, http://www.davdesign.com. Feel free to ask the web admin for my email address if you’d like to see shots of my basement.

  • Excellent story! I was sharing this idea with my brother over Christmas (he is a contractor in Florida). I told him I had heard you can dig out a basement, as he had not heard of this (obviously not in Florida). Right now, hubby and I have no plans to dig out ours, but it is nice to know that it can be done.

  • When you do this, is a full sump system part of the work? I would imagine on an attached rowhome, especially, you want to make sure that there is no water issue after you do this.

  • Also, this is a great post. I’d like to see the same thing for roofdecks.

  • “After reading the comments it was clear that no one had enjoyed actual experience and that most of the comments were far from my recent journey from a 7,1 clearance to 9,4.\

    Hah. That is fairly typical from what I am seeing in the PoP comment sections :).

    Out of 10 comments 2 will be significantly informative, 3 more will be by friendly grown-ups and the rest will be by youngsters ( or people who write like them ) fighting boredom in a dead end job by trying to instigate penis waving contests.

  • To The Original Poster:

    Thanks for the interesting account of your renovation. The pictures really added to the story.

    Why did the neighbor object? The noise and inconvenience of construction work? Having another person competing for parking?

    Why did you do this renovation? Do you plan on using the rent to help pay your mortgage after you pay back the development fees?

  • Just so people know that when my neighbor paved their backyard they flooded their property and caused structural damage to their house that dropped it about 5 milimeters- it produced cracks all along my wall facing them, disturbed the exterior bricks that met theirs, etc. All happened within about 2 weeks of their major work- I’d come home from work and the 6 inch hairline crack in the plaster was 2 feet and wake up the next morning and it was 6 feet long and then it would be the entire length of the wall and then in my closets. I spent about $300 repairing those cracks and repointing (an estimate) and I’m still nervous that they caused damage I haven’t found.

    If they wanted to build out their basement I’d have to challenge that based on my experience when they had structural problems. I will never buy a townhouse again for this reason. It is perfectly fair for the neighbor to refuse this, not that it mattered in the long run.

  • Because of the new footings, our SE told us not to do a French drain. However, we did add a sump pump with a back up battery system. That was included in the price. Running new electrical was not. Along with the new slab, we had new waste plumbing done, as well as new drains at the front and rear of the basement. That was inclusive in the price.

    We’ll not be able to get much more light into the basement, but with the additional height, the finished space will have central air/heat, full size washer and dryer, and upgraded appliances. We thought about doing a larger one bedroom design, but in talking with lots of people who have rented basement spaces, our accountant, the designer, and others, it was decided that a 2 bedroom unit was the best balance from all of the input.

  • Agree with Anon– think it would be great to see a post about people’s experiences building roofdecks.

  • +1 roofdecks!!!

  • Important question that appears that others would like to know as well.

    Who was the contractor?

    Who was the structural engineer?

    Who was designer/architect?

    Thank you.

  • To the question of “Why did the neighbor object?” We never got a straight answer. He did say that he simply did not want us to do the work. We presented both neighbors with full plans, the numbers of our architect,contractor and structural engineer, and contact information for DCRA. They were invited to check the work out and question it at any time. All of the work was permitted and inspected by DCRA.

    In doing the work, we became responsible for any and all damage that occurred to the adjoining properties. Thus we did everything that we could do to ensure that the job was done right. Once again, hiring a third party structural engineer was a key factor to knowing the the work was done according to code.

    On our block three houses have been dug out within the last 4 years. It is major structural work that can be done with no damage to the adjoining properties.

    Having been on both sides of DCRA and zoning issues, the best advice that I can give is to be as open and available as possible. All projects can have issues, the key is to eliminate or minimize them through proper planning and legal execution.

  • Congratulations on a successful project.
    I am confused about one thing. If a homeowner can do this kind of work “as a matter of right,” why is it even necessary to ask neighbors for their permission? Is the point to give neighbors an opportunity to object and present any evidence they have that the project is unsafe?

  • I’m sorry if I missed it,but can you share the name of your contractor?

  • And one suggestion for PoP – Perhaps you can add a new section that contains the threads on home improvement/construction projects (I don’t think this is part of the real estate section). As a homeowner contemplating several projects, I would love to hear about other people’s experiences – good and bad. It would also be valuable to have the names of the contractors and design professionals involved to get an idea of who does good work and who should be avoided.
    Just a thought.

  • It was confusing to us as well. Doing a basement dig out can be done “as a matter of right”. Having the adjoining neighbors sign is not asking for their permission to do the work. It is simply process of notification and making them aware of their rights and DCRA codes concerning the operation.

    Here is the DCRA sample letter that we used. http://dcra.dc.gov/dcra/lib/dcra/services/permits/underpinning_notification_letter_sample.pdf

    Without consent the project can still go forward unless there is some unique structural reason presented. This “signing/notification” process is fairly recent, within the last two years.

  • I’d love if you could keep us updated when you finish the basement. I’m curious to see if you make the windows bigger, decide to do 1 bedroom or 2, what choices you make, etc.
    I’ve lived in a basement once before and probably wouldn’t again, but then, that’s mainly b/c of a few quirks about how the place was (poorly) finished. (Mainly, it started to fall apart about 3 months in…)
    A lot of people redo and rent out their basements, though, and thus, a lot of people rent them… I’m sure it’d be a welcome feature on PoP, if you’re up to it!

    • I second that mainly because I am currently a Petworth basement apartment renter and looking to move in June and not ruling out basement apartments. It would be interesting to see how this basement shapes up. It is nice to see a basement being done so thoughtfully as the one I am currently in is slightly ranshackle.

  • Sorry if I missed – what was the name of the company that did this?

  • Pointing Plus for brick repointing (and in my case, rebuilding a granite retaining wall).

  • I’m impressed, but still…at $25K for the work so far and to build out the apartment won’t it be at least $25K to $40K more? It’s still a lot of money to lay out – I always wonder how people manage it.

    I can see how this could be worth the investment in some neighborhoods, but I’m not tempted to try it in Petworth, not yet. But kudos to you for taking the leap!

  • Can you post finished/furnished pictures.


  • For my basement reno I used a great local (Petworth) contractor – Scott Evans of Positive Space – [email protected] – total price for entire project (already dug out, but otherwise bare dirt) was around $80,000.00 – but a big chunk of that was for moving the upper house mechanicals, HVAC, water heater, circuit board etc. so it could be a legal apt. – also, nice finishes – no nasty carpet.

    I rent it for $1,500.00 a month, (underpriced it seems, but I’ve had super tenants) so figuring $1,000.00 as profit, that is more than a 10% yearly return on my investment.

    By using glass-panalled pocket doors inside we kept an open feel and maximized light. I decided that a huge 1 bedroom would be more attractive to stable couples than a 2 bedroom apt. share/roomate situation – so far (4 years) it has worked out splendidly.

    I’m not so familiar with picasa – but maybe here are photos.


  • No mention of contractor’s and SE’s names!

Comments are closed.