Basements: Old and New


For prospective remodelers, there are really only two types of basements—those built with no thought that the space might one day be finished, and those built with an eye toward habitable rooms. Older homes more often have the first type, and newer homes the second. In the Midwest, where I live, contractors working as early as the 1930s gave thought to basements as possible living space. In general, though, the idea of building homes with basements to live in didn’t start taking hold until the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, it had become the norm.

If you have a newer home, you’re going to have an easier time remodeling the basement. Plumbing is usually in place for a bathroom; pipes, wires, and ducts are tucked in tight to the ceiling or consolidated in a few areas; and the stairs are more accessible and built with better headroom.

In older homes, basements were built as places to put the furnace and to store things that the next owner of the home would throw away. Many older basements have dirt floors or floors of thin concrete. Some have a furnace pit with a crawl space around the exterior and a room for coal and a coal chute. Old convection furnaces were inverted octopuses of huge ducts; with the advent of the forced-air furnace, most of those leviathans were replaced with much smaller units.

New furnaces free up space in older homes. But to make the space practical and in compliance with codes, you often need either to lower the floor or to raise the house, jobs requiring skid loaders, dumptrucks, house jacks, jackhammers, and considerable contractor liability insurance. If your basement requires either measure, have a professional builder do the work. Then you can embark on finishing the basement yourself. Fortunately, many older basements, like most newer ones, pose less daunting, more ownerfriendly remodeling problems.

We will cover them in our next few blog posts.