Dear PoPville – Basement Renovation Advice

Dear PoPville,

I’m looking to do a major renovation of the unfinished basement of my townhouse in Adams Morgan. This will need to include excavation, repointing the exposed brick interior and complete installation of electric, water, gas and HVAC.

Would it be possible to open a discussion thread to get general advice on the process in general, recommended contractors or lessons learned?

Back in Jan. ’10 we were lucky enough to have a reader share his experiences digging out a basement. But if others have lessons learned, contractor recs or other advice – please leave it here.

27 Comment

  • T

    I’m sure you already know this, but this is not going to be cheap work. For a proper basement dig, you’re talking permits galore, structural engineer, sub-slab plumbing, and extensive underpinning to the tune of $30k-50k for a standard rowhouse. And then all of the mechanical and finishes…

    No specific recommendations on a basement contractor since we kept our basement unfinished, but we’ve worked with Scott Evans of Positive Space on a full-house reno and were very pleased.

    • Scott Evans did my basement apt. 6 years ago and it has been great. Every time it’s up for rent I have people begging and offering more than I’m asking. We didn’t have to dig out, but otherwise build up from dirt floor and brick wall and install everything. Including moving the upstairs systems around to make it a legal apt. it was close to $90k.

  • I renovated my basement apartment for around 14k (without the concrete flooring changes). Lowering the floor would have dramatically increased cost because the space would have to be re-framed and plumbing would have to be reconfigured. $30k for my 780 square foot basement is a pretty solid estimate. I don’t regret not changing the floor and I’m 6ft2in tall.

    I’m renovating the upper floors of my house now and I’m thankful I can still live comfortably in the basement apartment of my house in the mean time.

    • Anon – I am thinking of redoing my basement in my small row home in CH (prob about the same size, 700 sq ft) without digging out the floor. We’d need new drywall, drywall or tile ceiling, ceramic tile or other kind of flooring, lighting and convert a crummy half-bath into a full bath. I imagine my budget would be about the same as yours, roughly $15K. Can you let me know what the scope of your work was and who you used as a contractor?? Thanks so much!

      • Sure, I used a contractor I met through a friend, he wasn’t very professional, I had to stay on him for many things… OWuld not recommend him, he wasn’t licensed and bonded. I re-did the electrical work (new panel, wiring, outlets/switches, and recessed lighting) for around 4,000$ (no heavy-up). Then I had drywall stripped to the framing, had a few adjustments to the layout. The framing work that was there before made the basement a maze. I raised the roof as high as I could to the ceiling, drawing a new floor plan greatly helped. We did have to bust up some of the concrete and do a sewer line, and we added new lines for a laundry room in the back section.

        I’d recommend a shower in the basement, you can tile it out after framing with greenboard… Down there space is most important, a tub will simply cost too much space-wise, and its probably not going to work out well with the lower ceiling. Because I did the renovation long ago, the cost for your project might be adjusted a little bit, its best to get a guy with low overhead. The permit should cost around 200$. Make sure you get it classified as an “in-law suite” rahter than a basement apartment, and probably keep the stairwell in, that will get you around most of the rules DC govt’ requires. Cheers 🙂

  • glen at harmony remodeling does basements. he does a great job but you have to get your own permits.

    • I second the recommendation for Glen at Harmony. He understands old houses, does great work and also lives in Petworth.

  • I have heard good things about Ricardo Leon home improvement for basement dig outs. Heard he does a lot of the old Georgetown houses. Thinking of having him come give me a quote on my basement.

  • I really liked my contractor Barrat Construction. We did more than the basement construction with them. Cools guys to work with. They even helped me out after Hurricane Irene ripped a hole in my roof.

  • Related to this…I had posted a question in the forum about removing/replacing basement brick support columns if anyone has additional input…thanks!

  • Treat for TERMITES! Test for Radon too. If not underpinning, should consider waterproofing, french drains and sump pump. Typically concrete floors in older orignal row house basements was just poured right onto dirt which a condition easy to wick up & absorb moisture from the ground. May want to consider metal studs behind drywall.

  • I completed a full-scope renovation last year on a shaw town house, including splitting the basement level into a finished, LEGAL (with C of O) unit. I’m in my 20s, not much prior construction experience, and have a full time job. From that persepctive, here are a few recommendations:
    – Once you have a budget/bids/etc, add 20%.
    – Tile the basement floor. Carpet, laminate, and wood are all easily destroyed by moisture…which every basement has.
    – Spend the extra ~1k-1.5k on an excellent sound insulation system. Others have posted on materials/techniques here, and its the best money you’ll spend.
    – I have a FANTASTIC GC/carpenter. if you’re interested, please ask PoP to connect us.
    – Get the permits NOW. they’re good for a year, but will take 4-6 weeks. you can do it yourself through teh DCRA homeowners center…but be prepared to burn some vacation time and paience.
    – Do it right. 75% of income from a properly licensed/up to code apartment can be used to qualify for a mortgage…increasing your property value SUBSTANTIALLY. Doing it wrong is more expensive in the long run, and more dangerous.
    – Remember your tenants’ windows are at street level. noisier. invest the extra cash in high quality soundproof windows if you can afford it.
    – Basements eat light. put in more cans/track lighting
    – If you’re remotely handly, you can install an ikea kithen yourself. they look good, and they’re VERY cheap.
    – Good exhaust fans are worth their weight in gold.
    – You are legally requried to give the tenant control of their own heat and their heating bill…but are not required to have two gas meters. SO: consider an electric, “ductless split” electric HVAC system, but shared hot water with an on-demand heater. Your hot water bill won’t go up much, and there are tax breaks for installing an efficient system.
    – Have fun!! Get your hands dirty, help your contractors where you can, learn as much as you can, and take photos – you never know when your pre-sheetrock documentation will come in handy (burst pipe, shorted wire, etc). it’s fun to be able to leave comments like this one =)

  • Don’t use CASE. They will lie to you… and then lie again.

  • I’m an architect putting together some drawing for an underpinning job for a rowhouse near Logan Circle. Within the last few months DCRA has added a number of new requirements to get through permitting. Some include geotechnical testing, photographic documentation of neighboring properties, etc. Plan to spend a few extra thousand on those. And make sure to have an experienced structural engineer on board. They will be well worth the price.

  • We didn’t have all the structural work you’re looking for, but I loved our experience with using Jose Lopez as a contractor for finishing our basement. His quote was extremely thorough and accurate, he finished the job on time, and his crew was good. Most of our work was pretty straightforward, but he was able to come up with some good solutions to challenges that were unique to our space, and the work looks exactly like we envisioned it. He got permits for everything, too.

    You can find his contact info – and another positive review – here:

  • Greetings to all. I’m the original poster of the article from Jan 2010. I’m still very pleased with the work done on our basement. There are a few quick bits of advice that I’d give to someone beyond the comments already posted.

    1) Take lots of photos of the entire process and video all of your systems, electrical wires, plumbing pipes, etc. These videos will let you “see” behind the walls. Having a video of the a/c ducting allowed us to make just one cut to find a vent after the drywall was in place instead of poking many holes.

    2) Use a structural engineer who is beholden only to you, not the GC. We used George Norton of Norton Structural Consultants.

    3) Our GC was super. Would work with him on other projects. Michael Loudon of Loudon Construction. He works in DC. He was flexible on our requests and scheduled the trades well so that there was not any down time on the project.

    4) If you have to underpin and are in a row house, as we were, talk to your adjoining neighbors. One neighbor would not sign off on receiving the paperwork. This delayed our project by 3 months.

    5) Make sure that once you put in a new slab to seal it with several coats of dri-lock cement sealer.

    Costs – Our project involved digging down, underpinning, moving the location of the heating and cooling systems, new heating and cooling for the basement, separating the electrical, all new appliances, windows, sump pump, DCRA permits, etc. The space looks great. Our approximate cost was 100K. Our footprint is 1000 sq ft.

  • When estimating budgets and scope of work, be aware that current systems may need to be updated or reconfigured extensively to accommodate the new apartment.

    Starting with the small stuff, you may need to increase the size of your hot water heater from say, 30 gal to 50 gal or more.

    Also, depending on the state of your electrical wiring you might need to rewire the house, and this can put a serious dent in a renovation budget.

    Regarding HVAC for the unit, I highly recommend getting a ductless mini-split system. Best investment for heating and cooling by far, and they can act as a dehumidifier. Good luck!

  • I just finished building out a 2 bedroom basement apt in an old bloomingdale victorian and love the work of our contractors, Dwayne and Steve Harvey of HP Construction. They had to do everything minus dig out the floor and my sister and I couldn’t be happier. They were professional, did excellent work and made sure we understood and were happy with every decision. My sister and I admitted we were novices in the whole renovation process, so HP helped us save were possible but at the same time made sure we spent money in the right areas to get the C of O. Feel free to contact me and you can swing by the apt to see how great their work is. They an be reached at: HP Construction Services, LLC HP Construction Services, LLC or you an reach Steve at: 718.664.8421. I have nothing but glowing reviews for our architect as well, so if you need one, please contact me.

  • We did a conversion from an unfinished basement to an apartment for $45K. Well worth it, for the enhanced value of the house, and rent that virtually covered the mortgage. But being a landlord, keeping the place rented, providing maintenance, and worrying about who’s living there, is hard work.

    One caution: worry about rainwater penetration now, before you’ve done the conversion. Now is the time to install external drains to divert rainwater before it gets into the basement.

    • That is about how much we paid, which will make its way back in 2 years of rent (in theory)! But then all the extras come in…either way, it’s a great way to subsidize your mortgage and buy a beautiful DC home. Although many people veer away from spending money on the extras, get yourself an architect and make your property legal! Your architect will know codes and help guide you and the GC towards building everything to DC code. Thank goodness our contractor strongly recommended we work with an architect or we would have had to go back and tweak a lot of things that we just paid for (we didn’t know that a GC is not expected to know DC code for how to convert a legal rental unit, hopefully you get lucky and they do, but, its a gamble)!

      I strongly agree with your thoughts on being a landlord, lots of work and constant maintenance..someone flushed a paper towel down the toilet last week and it created a backup in the basement’s toilet and shower, since it was affecting our renters, we didn’t have the luxury of waiting until business hours the next day to fix, that was a $500 emergency plumbing cost we had to incur to be due diligent landlords. Ex, stuff constantly comes up, you have to be a proactive person to work through all that comes along with that responsibility.

      Best advice, get a good team around you bc it is not a quick process to undergo construction (we thought it would take 3 and it was 7 due to inexperience with obtaining permits/inspections with the city). Financially I never wanted to spend an extra cent, but, all proactive efforts paid off and those we did not take eventually cost us on the back end and lost rent! I thoroughly documented who to contact and timelines so, if you are going through the process, get in touch and I can consult.

      • Clarification, we thought it would take 3 months, but took 7 months instead (lots of lost rent in there!)

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