10 Common Basement Renovation Mistakes Homeowners Make, According to Experts

Avoid these pitfalls when you're overhauling your home's subterranean level.

modern basement renovation


Basements can easily turn into dead space. They might serve as a catch-all area for extra stuff you don't know what to do with—or they might be utilized as a makeshift laundry room, home office, gym, or playroom hybrid without a clear purpose or aesthetic.

Reclaiming your basement—and investing time and energy into a renovation—is worth it: It adds valuable square footage to your home. It also means that you can create a subterranean space that is as functional as it is beautiful. Beautifully finished basements can even boost your home's value should you decide to sell in the future. 

The prospects of a basement renovation are exciting, but just like any home improvement project, it's important to go into the process with a plan. Doing so prevents you from falling into common pitfalls that can ultimately cost you time, money, and peace of mind. We spoke to interior designers and contractors about the biggest basement renovation mistakes they see homeowners make—so you can head into this project with confidence.

Going Full DIY Without the Skill Set 

The question of hiring a contractor or going the DIY route will inevitably come up as you contemplate a basement renovation. Ultimately, what you decide depends on your existing skill set, personal determination, and comfort level. "This is always a tricky question, because only you know how handy you are and how much time you can realistically commit to your renovation," says interior designer Shivani Vyas

You may feel comfortable enough to complete a full renovation independently—or you may only feel comfortable taking on certain parts of the project, such as laying floors, painting, or installing cabinetry. "It's best to prioritize safety and always hire a professional during the technical portions of a job, like a plumber and an electrician, and be pragmatic and honest about what you can really take on," says Vyas.

Hiring an Unqualified Contractor 

For aspects of the project where you do hire a professional, get at least three bids from local contractors and only hire someone you trust. While you hope that your project will go off without a hitch, the reality is that hiccups are inevitable with any remodel. "It's important to have a professional who will respectfully communicate with you on the job, and where you can rely on their expertise," Vyas says. "You may also risk jeopardizing the quality of your renovation if you hire an inexperienced or low-quality contractor."

Hiring a reliable and reputable contractor—even if it's more expensive—can ultimately save you money and stress in the long run.

Cutting Corners 

One of the biggest basement renovation mistakes people make is viewing the space as an afterthought and skimping on the budget. This leads to cut corners on materials, furnishings, and contractors. "I see a huge disconnect between the more high-end, public spaces in other areas of the home and the basement," says Jade Joyner, the co-founder and principal designer for Metal + Petal. "[It becomes] a makeshift place with worn-out furniture, which is less than ideal and takes away from the overall vibe of the basement design as a whole."

Instead, Joyner urges homeowners to make their basement feel like an extension of their house and design style, so that the area feels purposeful, functional, and cohesive.

Not Getting Proper Permits 

Every city in the United States requires a permit for a basement renovation. Failing to get one is not only illegal, but potentially dangerous. "Permits are required for a reason—to ensure a job is done to code and that the work is safe," says Kat Christie, a licensed contractor and founder of She Fixed That, LLC. "Call your local municipality and see what is required for the type of work you want to do. Board inspectors will come in and check the work to ensure it's up to snuff—and if it isn't, they'll require you fix it before going on to the next phase of construction." As for who handles the paperwork? Either you or your contractor will pull the permits. 

Forgetting to Install an Egress Window

You need an exit strategy for the primary and upper levels of your home—and the same is true for your basement. It's important to have an emergency exit for your lowest floor via an egress window. Hopefully there's no need to use it, says Christie, but you'll still want to have it there for safety purposes. She says you can check with your local municipality for the necessary requirements.

Forgetting to Waterproof Walls and Floors 

Basements are prone to leaks and moisture. In fact, there's a good chance you know of at least one person who has dealt with a gnarly case of water damage because of this very issue. Forgetting to waterproof your walls and floors can potentially lead to damaged structure and personal belongings, says Natalie Rebuck, the principal designer at Re: Design Architects. It can also make the space more susceptible to mildew and mold. "Fortunately, there are things that you can do outside your home, such as adding dry wells and French drains to pull the water away from the home," Rebuck says. 

She also strongly advises filling cracks and holes with concrete foundation, and to make sure all your walls are sealed with hyaluronic cement. Also, seal your floors, stick to flooring materials that are forgiving of water, and avoid wood and carpet during your basement renovation.

Poor Lighting Strategy 

Basements are notoriously dark, which makes any space feel instantly uninviting. Make excellent lighting part of your basement renovation plan and the room will turn into a beautiful, functional destination in your home. "Don't just pop in recessed lighting and call it a day; that will not provide the warmth you need in the space," Joyner says. "You need ambient, accent, and task lighting, as well as a laid-out electrical and lighting plan that addresses the whole space and a well-planned layout." 

When possible, incorporate as much natural light as you can (an egress window will help with that!). Painting the walls a light color and incorporating lots of overhead and recessed lights can help quite a bit, as well, says Andi Morse, an interior designer and founder of Morse Design.

modern basement living room

Anatoli Igolkin / GETTY IMAGES

Keeping Low Ceilings 

Along with being a naturally dark space, basements also tend to have low ceilings that can make the room feel confined and unwelcoming. The whole point of renovating is to create a more usable space, notes Morse, so create a game plan to lift very low ceilings. This adjustment will add to your budget, but the impact is worth the spend.

Neglecting the Stairs 

Basement steps are often narrow and higher compared to typical steps, which can make it feel awkward to use them. "Review the space with an expert to determine what needs to be done, as well as what is possible," says Rebuck. For example, the stairway opening might need to be enlarged if you want to rebuild the stairs—or there might be a way to shift the stair spacing.

Failing to Refine Your Focus

You're feeling excited about the potential of your new basement. Embrace that energy, but remember to refine your focus. Joyner says that many of her clients want "too much" from their basement remodel, which ultimately works agains the design. "They want it to be a bar, a game room, a guest suite, a movie room, a home office, and a playroom," she says. "This can often create small and closed-off spaces. Failing to create a thoughtfully planned, purposeful space becomes apparent quickly." 

Instead, prioritize what's important to you and your family and move forward with that edited vision. Less is often more for basements—this space benefits from an open floor plan versus a series of closed rooms, says Joyner.

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