House Basements and Cellars – Is it Worth it?

Basements are great additions to a home, and are often preferable to a normal, above-ground room for several reasons: Cool during the summers, warm during the winters, sound resistant, good for survival situations, etc. But before you go jumping hastily into your back hoe or power shovel, you should consider a few things. Basements can pose several safety and maintenance concerns due to the following reasons:

  • Dangerous for earthquake-prone regions – for obvious reasons.
  • Can get flooded out or at the least be rendered into a damp, nasty, moldy, sector of your house you never enter unless you HAVE to – IF you have a high water table, and/or proper precautions aren’t taken.
  • In hotter climates, basements will be cooler than the floors above, and therefore have a higher relative humidity. – Adding the moisture that enters through the basement walls and floor on top gives you an overall damp and muggy environment, one that is conducive to mold and rot. Are you OK with this? If not, do you have dehumidifiers and such to combat these attacks?
  • Aren’t legal as living quarters unless they have proper ventilation, direct sunlight, and a direct exit to the outside. – Such as in daylight basements.

These are concerns that arise “after the fact” – but should be considered long before – meaning they don’t include those that arise prior to and during your digging of the basement. If you have confirmed that you are not in an earthquake daylight basementzone, your water table is not a threat, and you’re cool with the other “limitations” mentioned above, you can move to phase two:

  • Is it possible there are power and/or utility lines passing under/through your basement site?
  • Are you aware of the dangers of soil caving in during and after excavation and how to prepare for it?
  • Do you have knowledge of the various ground forces that will be acting on your basement walls and floor and how to ensure they will be resisted safely?

Ground forces during excavation and after construction of the basement when it’s time to back-fill are factors that you cannot afford to overlook. Bracing can be used to ensure soil doesn’t collapse during excavation, or you can use the “step” method where you dig further out than necessary and construct steps that lead down to your final basement area. This is a much more time-consuming option and won’t guarantee safety, but reduces the risk considerably.

Aside from the above safety and maintenance factors, cost factors must also be taken into consideration when contemplating the viability of a basement in your house. Isolating the reason for digging a basement will help in determining this. Is it to simply provide extra space for storage, hanging out and recreation, or even someone’s living quarters, or is it for specific, temperature and/or acoustic-sensitive uses such as a wine cellar or studio?

Why is this important? Because digging out basements are by no means cheap endeavors – due to the need for ground analysis, safety code inspection, power shovels, disposing of excavated material, and various water-proofing/resisting barriers. These costs contrast with above-ground additions, where siding and flooring, etc, can be cheaper, less robust materials – not to mention the other technical considerations involving planning and inspection.

In short, one must decide if a basement is the best course of action for your particular needs. Basements are in essence, the foundation of your house, and as such, need to be strong and durable. Undertaking such a task without proper foresight and Basement Moisture Sourcesknowledge can turn your dream into a nightmare – an expensive and dangerous one at that. It behooves you to count the cost and to make as educated a decision as possible before embarking on such a project.

After these various considerations have been taken, and questions answered, you can more accurately determine whether or not you still want that basement. And if the answer is yes, and you’re still just as anxious as ever to get that new underground addition to your home, I would seriously suggest hiring professionals to do it for you. Fees incurred from back hoe rentals, inspections, materials, and most importantly, future problems and safety issues due to improper construction all add up.

A skilled professional can do what might take you weeks, in a few hours, not to mention the quality of the work. What you may end up paying in excess of what it would cost you to do it yourself is minimal when looking at the bigger picture. Of course, if you’re still bent on doing it yourself, for whatever reason, it’s not impossible – obviously. You will simply need a good, working knowledge of the various phases of basement construction – the bulk of which I lightly covered above.

And for those who are thinking along the lines of adding market value to your home through such additions, think again. Most if not all basements are considered substandard just by virtue of them being underground, void of sunlight, natural ventilation, and quick exit and entrance. Granted, daylight and look-out basements offer some of these features to varying degrees, but you may find that whatever market value these may add fall significantly shy of the cost of construction.

Just sayin’.

For additional advice on vapor barriers and insulation for basements, I recommend this article.


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