How Do You Finish a Basement

How do you finish a basement?

Start by breaking all the rules.

Next, throw out all the traditional notions of home improvement projects. Focus on a test cycle that will speed you through the 8 major phases (see below).

To finish a basement you'll most likely start with framing your walls. Here a photo of my workshop, pre-drywall.

When I was learning how to finish a basement I started by framing this exact room. This one room took what seamed like forever, but after that it got much easier. My daughter Charlotte poking her head in the shot.

Finally, empower yourself by learning the one “skeleton skill” that can un-lock the door to anything you’ve ever wanted.

I’m going to address the whole “skeleton skill” part at the end of the post but I’m not just blowing smoke here.

How do you finish a basement – Start Small

You need to think big, start small and fail fast.  This is a mantra I stress regularly in my day time profession as a digital marketer but it applies to basement finishing as well.

Stop worrying about getting permits or finishing some 20 page design or budget. Just stop. I want you to start by building a small wall in your basement during the next free weekend you have.  You can read the posts on permits, budgeting and planning later.

Just start small. You can use the wall you build to hold up some peg board and some storage shelves, so you’ll be getting benefit right off the bat. And yes, you will need permits, but not right away.

The traditional home improvement show or book always says the same thing.  Gather every single possible tool and supply, plan out in detail and then and only then begin.  Well that is crap!  The fastest way to the finished product is to start as soon as you have something of value.  Yes, you will make some mistakes.  But learning from your mistakes is the absolute best method to learn.

“WAIT! Wait, wait, wait.  How many Benjamins (that’s hundred dollar bills to those of you not into Rap culture) is this going to run me?”  For a rough cost break down check out what is the cost of a basement.  Okay, now onto the good stuff.

Plan a little, do a little, progress not perfection

Ok, so you started and finished a small wall project.  Now, how do you finish a basement?  Next, you do want to start designing your basement.  You don’t have to do everything, just enough to get the permit and know where to go next.

How do you want to use your basement?  Do you want a bathroom?  Do you want a guest room?  How about a pool table, and a dart board, and a home theater.  Yes please!

I wanted all of it, but I only had so much space and budget to work. So I focused on designing just the basic room layout.  I wanted a full bath, a workshop, game area and a theater area (not a full blown theater room).  Look around, gather some basement ideas.

Small project of value? Check.  Basic design ideas? Check.  Now it’s on to the big guns.

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picture of a basement workbench fully lit

To finish a basement, start with a test wall. Here’s my basement test wall and work bench after all was said and done. Sweet, sweet candy!

The 8 Major Phases to Finish your Basement

The way I count it there are 8 major basement finishing phases.  They occur in this general order, although they can overlap.

  1. Framing  - You build the ‘frames’ of the walls of your rooms out of wood, typically 2 by 4s.  There are about 3 key concepts that you’ll have to learn but after that it’s just rinse a repeat.
  2. Electrical – Yes, you can do you own electrical.  This is one of the more expensive parts of finishing your basement but if you tackle this phase yourself you can save a ton of money.
  3. Plumbing –  Once you’ve tackled electrical, plumbing is a piece of cake.  It’s a different piece of cake so there is a decent amount of learning, trying, failing to go around but you’ll be the king of the castle with your wife if you can fix plumbing issues.
  4. Audio Visual – O yeah, pump up the jams and crank out some pixels.  For very little money you can pre-wire your basement to be the hottest night spot in your neighborhood.  Or, sit back and enjoy some Yanni, with that glass of red wine by the fireplace as you sink your feet into a soft white rug.
  5. Drywall – Sorry, got a little off track there.  Drywall!  It’s heavy, it’s dusty, it’s awkward and it takes forever to learn to finish correctly.  So, don’t do it yourself.  Hire a contractor.  If the room is small and you really want to torture yourself, go for it, you can do it.  But I just couldn’t find enough savings to make it worth it.
  6. Painting – Yes, do this yourself. Learn to be a painting ninja. No masking tape, that’s for babies and tweens. Cut down the time by getting a bigger 12″ roller. Trick some friends into helping you. Sing while you paint. Own the Zen of painting, save big bucks.
  7. Trim and Doors – WARNING:  Learning curve ahead. But don’t go around it. Trim especially is a skill you can use all over your house. Once you learn to install a door, doors will open for you. Sorry, couldn’t help it.
  8. Flooring – The final frontier.  I stained my floor and tiled the bathroom myself.  Except for installing carpet I would consider tackling the flooring yourself.  Unless you’ve got some budget left, then let the pros handle it.  It can be hell on your back.
how do you finish a basement - hvac room and hallway

Insulated this south wall of the HVAC room in my basement to cut down on noise, it helped a ton.

There you have it. If you’ve done each of these phases then you are now sitting in your finished basement, watching a movie or playing pool while your friends are mixing you drinks behind your new bar. You know the exact answer to how to finish a basement.

But wait, there’s more

You also now possess what I’ve termed,  the ‘skeleton skill’. You know how to learn. Once you learn how to learn you can do almost anything you want. With electrical, you took something you knew nothing about, read books, websites and watched videos and now you can do almost any residential electrical work.

We get out of school and we just stop learning. Then when we want to install a fan in a room we have to call someone to come over. Then we have to wait.  Then we have to give them a bunch of our hard earned money.

basement finishing jason

By sharpening the learning skill you now have the one tool that let’s you do anything you want.

You now know how to finish a basement.  You just need to start.

Do you have a question?  Leave it in the comments below and I’ll answer it within a few hours. Let’s hear it!

Cheers –  Jason

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Comments

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  1. Thanks for commenting. I’ll have to double check with my inspector when he reviewed it he said that’s not an issue as the wires are fully shielded. – Jason

  2. In my area we have to build floating walls in the Basement. Does anyone have an tips or tircks to m ake this as easy as possible. Thanks. I have really enjoyed the reading so far.

  3. Brandon Drury says:

    Well done sir.

  4. What about the heating/cooling vents and air cirulation?

    • Jawwad – Well there are two camps on adding HVAC to a basement. Camp 1: Upgrade your HVAC to support multiple (5-6) air registers for your basement (fairly expensive – 2-3k). Camp 2: Tap an existing HVAC line and just add a few registers 2-3 (not expensive at all). I went with camp 2. I’ll add this question to the blog list, a lot of people are quite sure which HVAC solution is right for there finished basement. – Jason

  5. Lindsay says:

    I see you have the first step as framing, what if your concrete unfinished floor needs to be leveled? Would you suggest doing that first? Our house was built in 1958, so its’s a litte rough down there. What about water proofing?

    • Lindsay – Yes! I should go back and preface step 1 with “level and water proof floor”. I couldn’t start framing until I figured out my basement flooding issue. I was to scared to put a lot of time and money into finishing it if the basement was just going to flood. So yes, make sure your floor is level, more or less. It doesn’t have to be “perfect” the framing can adjust to small changes like little bumps or whatever. Good luck! – Jason (ps here’s a link to my post on dealing with water).

  6. When estimating the cost of creating a finished basement, are you including cabinetry (basement kitchen) as part of the 10k-35k price?

    Im getting ready to build a house. I have a nonconventional idea to build a large primary basement living area, with a smaller home above (yes, basement square footage COMPLETELY underground). We are loving the idea so far.

    • Hi Steve- No, I did not include an cabinetry or kitchen type costs. Count me in for “lovin’ it”! I’ve always wanted a deceptively small house that’s completely pimped out and much bigger than people think.

      Jason

  7. I have the opportunity to buy a house (new construction) that has an unfinished basement. One of the things that attracted me to this house was the idea of finishing the basment into a Man Cave. The construction won’t start for another 12-16 months but I have already started planning and designing the space. My question is two fold, one, I plan on including the framing and electrical into the construction of the house. The builder would assume the responsibility of getting the framing and electrical inspections. The second part is the floor. I am planning on having an epoxy floor. Is it better to have this done while there is nothing in the area or after all the dry-wall and ceiling is complete?

    • While I’m not a pro in any sense of the term, I have worked with epoxy at my church. I would think it’s best to epoxy first and then start framing. Epoxy is like cement and the last thing you want is to remove a wall in your basement and see a part of the floor that isnt epoxy’d (sp?). However, thats just my opinion. I’ll let Jason chime in. I would also ask the builder since he’s the one that would most likely know.

      • You COULD do the floor first. If it’s epoxy, then by all means go for it, that stuff is crazy durable. But if it’s stain or any other flooring, I’d wait until the end. – Jason

    • Mark – So you want the builder to go ahead and frame and wire the basement according to your design? Am I reading that correctly? If they’re doing that I would have them go ahead and do the drywall as well. Then you can do the flooring, painting, doors and trim. – Jason

  8. Hi,

    I want to finish my basement and reading your posts is really helping me put everything in perspective. My concern is about HVAC. Do I need to install a bigger system to accommodate the extra space? Put in a secondary unit instead? Or, do I not even need to worry about it?

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