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5 Things to Do Before Finishing a Basement in Chicago

Whether living in a bungalow in Lincoln Square or a split-level home in Des Plaines, many Chicago-area homeowners find that when the weather breaks, they begin to see past the dark, damp clutter of their unfinished basements to recognize the potential value of the extra space. They want to begin using that below-grade area confidently for storage, living and even entertainment purposes.
But they also know that finishing a basement is no small project.

The trick is to do a bit of prep work and avoid jumping right into the remodeling portion of the project. Here are five things you should consider doing before you finish your basement.

Identify Water Issues

The most important part of this project is to avoid starting any remodeling until you know that your basement is dry and protected from any potential water issues. Moisture can impact basement walls and floors, causing dampness and excess humidity. There’s nothing worse than putting thousands of dollars into a new basement only to have it ruined by plumbing leaks, a failed sump pump, or even municipal sewer backup.

Whether you have an existing water problem or not, start by looking things over outdoors. Examine gutters and make sure they are free of debris (this should be part of your seasonal maintenance); take a look at your downspouts and extend/divert them so that they are sending water at least 10 feet from your foundation; and make sure soil and pavement slope away from your foundation.

Then, move indoors. You can do a check yourself, but you might also consider hiring a professional waterproofing company, which can provide you with a more thorough inspection of your foundation (inside and out), and can give you a detailed explanation of any potential issues they find, along with the recommended solutions to protect your investment. These inspections are usually free and can potentially save you money in the long run.

Consider Waterproofing Solutions

There are many elements you can consider as part of a professional waterproofing solution: An efficient sump pump is important, as is a sub-floor drainage system (which intercepts water and diverts it to the sump pump), a waterproof wall liner, and a battery-backup pump system.

By incorporating a battery backup system, you can stay better protected during power outages or if your primary sump pump fails. The goal is to have the ability to control any amount of water and keep it out of your basement.

A professional evaluation of your sump pump system, as well as any wall cracks, can help you identify a potential problem in advance. Aside from water destroying your treasured belongings, wet environments can cause health problems for you and your family.

Pick the Right Finishing Materials

When you’re planning how you’re going to transform your basement, the fun is in the possibilities. Will it be a playroom for the kids? A home office for Mom or Dad? Maybe a new man cave or home theater! Whatever purpose you have in mind for your basement, it is important to choose the right materials, so do your research.

Most basements are refinished with traditional building materials, like wood framing, fiberglass insulation and drywall. Sound familiar? Well the problem with these organic materials is they are very susceptible to any kind of moisture, and can be ruined if a water problem ever occurs.

Instead, it’s a good idea to consider finishing products that are made to work with your waterproofing system to help keep your basement dry and your belongings protected.

Many professional waterproofing companies offer products such as waterproof walls, liners and flooring that will not absorb water and are made to direct any water to the drainage system and sump pump. In addition, insulating your basement walls to lower humidity and your heating bills is a very good idea. Instead of the typical building materials that can be easily ruined by water, you’ll want to use a waterproof liner or foam board that has an insulation value.

Check Local Permit and Plan Requirements

As with many other home improvement projects, basement finishing and renovation projects in the city require a permit, according to Chicago Building Code. (There are permit-fee waivers for senior citizens on projects that meet certain requirements.) Some basement projects may also require architectural plans or drawings, so check first before you begin. Many suburbs also require permits; for instance, the Village of Gurnee requires a permit for a basement finishing project, along with a layout of the entire basement. An experienced, reputable waterproofing contractor should be well-versed with the regulations and requirements and ensure the process goes smoothly, including obtaining the necessary permits and approvals.

Run a Radon Test

Another often-overlooked pre-finishing step is a radon test. The Chicago Department of Public Health advises homeowners to test their homes for harmful levels of radon, a radioactive gas that’s attributed to more than 20,000 U.S. lung cancer deaths each year. Radon is created when uranium in the earth decays, and it can enter your home through cracks and gaps in floors and walls. And while radon can also be found in above-grade living areas, you should probably consider running a test if you plan to finish out your basement and spend time down there. Low-cost radon test kits are widely available at home improvement stores. Radon reduction systems are relatively affordable and can be incorporated into most any basement finishing project.

A little bit of advance planning and preparation can ensure that you’ll have peace of mind knowing your investment is protected after turning your basement into a fabulous lower-level living or entertainment area.

Roy Spencer is the founder and president of Perma-Seal.