Beauty and the Basement

You’ve probably thought it once or twice — if we just had a little more space, the house would be perfect. Another room to herd the kids into. A place to finally find some peace and quiet. A small workout room to motivate us to exercise more.
Once you’re back from fantasyland, though, there are all the problems associated with additions waiting to ruin your dreams. Costs, the neighboring house, time, planning and so much more.

But, what if instead of thinking out, you thought down? You know that place under your feet currently filled with broken lawn mower parts, old toys, papers and other household remnants? Clean it out and you could put the kids down there, have a party room or finally have the home office you always dreamed of.

Of course, you’d need to have it finished first. It sounds like a big job but it’s not as bad as you think, says Chris Cahill of Christopher Cahill Construction Inc. in Nashua ( The Amherst home pictured here, says Cahill, while one of the more extravagant basements he’s done, still only took about 10 to 12 weeks.

However, before you drop everything and rush off to haul that flat-screen TV down there, take the time to think over a few practicalities.

When asked what the first step is in finishing a basement, Cahill doesn’t have to think long. “Rule number one,” he says, “is we want to make sure that the existing structure doesn’t have any water problems or any signs of moisture.”

Once it’s finished, says Cahill, the room is part of the house rather than a forgotten basement. If you wouldn’t want mold in your living room, it would be equally if not more unacceptable in a brand-new space often filled with expensive equipment, such as stereos, televisions and computers.

Water issues, though, are not a death sentence for your refinishing plans. There are moisture mediation methods, such as trenches and running piping to a sump pump area. Also, sealing any cracks in the foundation is vital to ensuring no water seeps in.

Whether water is a problem or not, says Cahill, varies from house to house for a number of reasons. You have to consider the elevation, grade and slope your home is on, how close you are to any wetlands and how old your house is. A home built in the last few years, adds Cahill, is much less likely to have problems than an 1800s home.

“Most of the basements are OK,” says Cahill. Newer construction is almost designed with expansions like these in mind.

The next step is to really plan what you want your basement to be. If it’s going to be a kind of playroom — either for adults or kids — open space is important, as opposed to something like an office with walls and dividers.

Many people, says Cahill, want to get rid of the common columns supporting the basement. Steel beams can be used instead, eliminating most of the poles that impede open space.

Another way to add a touch of style to the room is to consider the ceiling. No longer are drop ceilings limited to just that industrial feel.

“Some of those suspended ceiling tiles are really nice these days,” says Cahill. In the Amherst home the ceiling is sheetrock with wood paneling.

Like with most things, the price varies depending on how much you want to do. The two main areas of cost, says Cahill, are plumbing and any kind of media equipment. On average, he adds, the cost to finish a basement ranges from $50,000 to $100,000. But that’s an entire basement. If all you want is a single room to watch television, get some work accomplished or let the kids play, the price is much lower, from around $20,000 to $30,000.

Though it might not be as extensive as building a new home or addition, it still takes a lot of time and effort.

“Just like with any project the couple should communicate their needs and expectations,” says Cahill. “Be prepared for a lot of detail — it’s still a construction project.” NH