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Basements come home for renovation
Word Count: 1,300 Article#: TS-H04  Toronto Star  (Oct. 2004)  

By Paul Lima

When Martha and Brad Smythe moved into their dream home, a 3,650-square foot new home in Oakville, in the summer of 1997, they had no kids, four bedrooms, lots of living space, an unfinished, 1,700-square foot basement with walk-out to a backyard boarding on a ravine. And a hefty mortgage. Fast-forward seven years. The couple had three children, ages six, four and two, and the house was feeling a tad cramped. But the mortgage was not as onerous.

Suddenly, that unfinished basement began to look like affordable, prime real estate. 

Martha and Brad had visions of a home theatre system, a dry bar, exercise room, a computer and Play Station for the children, a large bathroom with steam shower and, at long last, easy access from the basement to the backyard.

Like many new homebuyers, the Smythes did not have their basement completed when they bought their house. It would have added considerably to the cost of the home and the young couple did not need the additional mortgage, or space. Besides, new homes take a year to settle. If the foundation were to crack or the basement leak, it would likely happened in the first year and the finished basement might have to be deconstructed to fix the problem.

Last November, the couple called in a contractor to look at their basement, says Martha. Over the winter, plans were drawn up and work began in March. The conversion of their spacious but skeletal basement into magnificent living space was all but completed in July.

"Basements are not the dark, dank, dingy, spider-infested places they used to be," says basement renovation specialist, Ashley Trapman, a self-employed design and build contractor who operates his Oakville, Ontario-based business under the name of his Web site,

Although he started working in the renovations industry 15 years ago as a general contractor, Trapman (as his company name suggests) now renovates nothing but basements. In the last 12 years, he has converted over 550 basements in the greater Toronto area into bright, comfortable family living spaces and home offices. 

What makes for a great basement?
"Design, making for great flow," says Trapman. Most people want an unobstructed living space for pool tables and home theatres. However, jack posts (the steel posts that hold up beams) can interfere with the homeowners' vision of an open concept room. By doing structural work, you can take the posts out of the way and create a great room in the house," says Trapman, who often brings in structural engineers to determine how jack posts can be moved and beams reinforced so that basements can be opened up. 

Although the average basement renovation costs $30,000 to $45,000, Trapman specializes in the $60,000 to $70,000 high-end market. "People are pouring a lot of money into their basements," he says. On top of renovation costs, they finish basements with high-quality flooring, lighting fixtures and furniture and install home theatre systems.

Quality window and wall coverings, flooring -- laminate in living areas, porcelain tile in the washrooms -- carpets and area rugs, can add up to $10,000 to the cost of a basement renovation, says Jane Lockhart of Jane Lockhart Design Communications Inc. ( in Toronto. Solid hardwood framed Canadian or American furniture can add up to an additional $10,000. However, it is generally less costly to renovate an unfinished new home basement than it is to have it complete while the house is built, Lockhart and Trapman say.

Even roughing in the basement can cost you in the short term and the long run, Trapman says. "There are great margins in the rough in for builders, so it costs you up front." In addition, plumbing and electrical often have to be moved to accommodate the design and that adds to the cost of renovating.

For instance, Martha and Brad wanted a full washroom, complete with steam shower. However, the roughed in plumbing was close to the furnace room and there was barely room for a two-piece bathroom. They paid for the rough in and for breaking concrete to get the bathroom they had envisioned.

"Don't rough anything in," says Trapman. "The average builder charges a couple grand for roughing in the work, and then we move all that stuff because it's not in the right spot." Sometimes when work is roughed in homeowners "can't get their minds around the fact that the bathroom has go where the rough in is unless we break concrete," he adds.

Homeowners can save money during new home construction by upgrading basement windows as it less expensive to install larger windows when homes are being built than it is to do so during a renovation, Trapman says. 

Having larger windows installed up front also gives homeowners a clearer idea of how much natural light is available, says Lockhart. But even if a basement feels dark, it can be made lighter with the use of small halogen pot lights to recreate daylight, as apposed to standard incandescent lights that burn yellow, and by compact whiter fluorescent lights instead of the fluorescent lights that burn blue. Area lamps and lights on dimmers can also help set the mood. Make it bright when the children are playing, moderate for exercising or hanging out at the bar with friends and dimmer for watching movies on the big screen TV.

"Colour is another big issue in basements," says Lockhart. People "are terrified" of using deep colours on walls as they think it will make the room feel cramped. But there is no reason to give up your favourite colours if you use lighting properly and add lighter floor coverings to add warmth to the room.

Martha and Brad now have their dream space that includes a small exercise room, a large bathroom with steam shower and a warm, livable open space for the whole family to enjoy. 

Get it right the first time
When it comes to renovating the basement, or any other part of the home, it's buyer beware. Even if you hire a contractor who comes highly recommended, there are no guarantees that the renovation will go smoothly, says Mike Holmes, the face of Holmes on Homes, a home-improvement series that debuted on Home and Garden Television (HGTV) last March. On his show, Holmes, a knowledgeable contractor who is passionate about renovations, fixes home renovation projects gone wrong.

"You're playing the slot machines each and every time you renovate," says Holmes.

However, there are steps you can take to avoid renovation nightmares:
  • Hire a professional, knowledgeable contractor and check references. Professionals have 100 references. If they can't give you 20 you don't want the contractor, he says. If that seems like a lot of work, think of the alternative: renovation hell.
  • Check the contractor's licenses and insurance. Insurance covers you and workers in case of accidents. Some contractors will not work if you insist they have insurance. Do you want someone like that working on your property? Holmes asks.
  • Get it in writing. Contracts should detail the work to be done, supplies and sub-contractors to be used, start and completion dates and a payment schedule. The contract should state that you will not pay costs above the quote unless agreed to in writing. Holmes knows homeowners who've agreed to renovation projects with a handshake. "As honourable as that may be, it is not smart." 
  • Payment Schedule. Some contractors ask for outrageous upfront amounts. Holmes recommends a payment schedule based on work completed: 15% down, 10% on the first day of work and 10% to 20% as various phases of the job are finished. Hold back 15% for 30 days, until you are sure you are happy with the work. This motivates the contractor to fix any problems. 
  • Set firm start/finish dates. Keep them reasonable but definite. Add financial penalties to the contract if work is not finished on time, and bonuses if a satisfactory job is completed on time.

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