Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Should You Remodel Your Basement? No.

Below-grade improvements are usually a foolish waste of money.

The year was 1983.  I was talking with my boss at Carrier who was a wonderful man and highly respected by everybody in the laboratory.  He lived down the road from me in a raised ranch house in a new development in Chittenango.  He was showing us pictures of his basement which he had remodeled to make into a family room.

He spent countless weekends framing up the walls, insulating them, and sheetrocking them.  He had the floor carpeted and put in furniture, including a pool table, and his pride and joy, a full bar.  He envisioned many a happy weekend inviting his friends over to watch the game while serving cocktails from the bar - or spending quality family time with his kids eating popcorn while watching TV, or playing pool on their new pool table.

We were all very happy for him and excited, as he spent an awful lot of time and effort doing this. Two weeks later we had a torrential rainstorm the likes of which we hadn't seen for a decade or more. He came to work the next day dispirited.  I asked him what was wrong and he said, "I spent the whole weekend tearing out carpeting and sheetrock and hauling it all to the curb!"

The basement was partially below-grade, and while sump pumps kept the basement floor dry, this torrential rain was enough to overwhelm even the best basement waterproofing.  And once the power went out, the sump pumps no longer worked.  The basement flooded - only a few inches of water, but that was enough to ruin the carpeting and wick up into the insulation and sheetrock.

I learned a valuable lesson from him.  Always think hard about making improvements to sub-grade portions of your home.  Basements always seem to flood periodically, and even if they don't, they're usually damp.  Probably the only exception of this or places like Arizona - but even then they get periodic floods that come thundering through the desert and wash out all sorts of things.   I don't think there such a thing as a flood-proof basement - anywhere.

As a landlord, I even put this in the lease.  I told our tenants, "Do not put anything in the basement that you don't want to get damp.  Do not put anything on the basement floor that you do not want to get wet."   I knew from long bitter experience the basements always flood eventually, and if you put valuable things down in the basement or spend an awful lot of money improving a basement, eventually it will flood and ruin everything.

When we moved to New York, my parents put a lot of stuff down in the crawl space underneath the house.  It was a basement, although only about five feet high.  It kept fairly dry as it was a fairly new house and well-constructed.  However, one year we had a torrential rain as a result of a hurricane working its way up the coast.  The stream near our house overflowed its banks and a few inches of water went into the basement.  That's all it takes when you have boxes of stuff sitting on the floor.  For some reason my parents saved things like curtains from a previous home they lived in, and put them in boxes and then set them on the basement floor.  They might as well just haven given them away when they moved, because they ended up throwing it all away when it became a moldy mass of smelly garbage.

Our home in Virginia had a particular problem, as it was built on marine clay.  Whenever we had a torrential rain pour, the water would just sit on the surface of the land and try to find a low spot to drain to, which was usually the crawl spaces on either end of our house, or the basement - or both.  On more than one occasion, the water would be more than a foot deep in the crawl spaces and would overflow into the basement like waterfalls.  I installed a total of six sump pumps in that home and even that wasn't enough to keep up with the flow.  One sump pump was actually outside in the yard, just to pump water from the ground out to the curb, to drain down the hill.  Our lot was perfectly level so the water just accumulated.

What got me started on this posting was an email - a spam email - from a basement waterproofing company suggesting that I link to their website about basement remodeling.  On their website they suggest hiring a company to seal your basement before you begin your remodeling job - preferably their company.

Of course, I kindly refused their offer, which was generated by a robot that was trolling the internet looking for blogs that mention remodeling.  The reason I rejected their offer is I think that putting money into basement remodeling is a foolish waste of money.  And yet people do it all the time.  You can waterproof all you want to, the end result is the same - a soggy mess.

At one time Mark wanted to remodel our basement in Virginia - to put up studs and sheetrock and insulation and carpet and a drop ceiling - and make it into usable space.  However, I'm glad we decided not to do this, as it ended up flooding repeatedly and it would have ruined everything we had done to try to finish that space.

Moreover, I'm not sure that the end result would have been worthwhile.  The basement was very small in that house as it only extended under the center section of the house, and under each wing, there was a crawl space.  I'm not sure what we would have done with such a tiny finished space that was below grade.  A photo darkroom, perhaps?

Legally, you can't call below-grade space like that a bedroom unless it has some sort of exit.  You have to have a doorway punched through the side of the foundation and a staircase going up to grade level, or the basement has to be the walkout type or at least have windows no more than so many inches above floor level so that someone could egress in the event of a fire.

Sealing your basement might seem like one solution to these problems with flooding, but they're only temporary solutions.  When our house in Virginia was built in 1949, they had dug all the way around the foundation, back-filled with gravel, and put in a French drain.  The walls of the basement were sealed on the outside with tar paper and tar, and I'm sure for the first decade or so it was a very tight and dry basement.

Over time, however, these French drains tend to clog up.  That gravel that's all packed next to the foundation of the house slowly fills up with silt and dust and dirt.  Eventually, the gravel is a mixture of soil and gravel that is packed tight and the French drain piping ends up filling up with dirt until it is chocked solid.  And I know this, as I spent hours trying to clean mud out of those French drain pipes before I gave up and just put in sump pumps.

The alternative would be to take a backhoe and dig all the way around the foundation of the house and remove the old sealing efforts and reseal it and then put in a new French drain.  This would have been horrendously expensive and involve tearing up a brand new deck as well.  In the end, the house is bulldozed to make room for two new houses, so I'm glad we didn't spend the money doing that sort of thing.

It is very possible to over-improve a house, and remodeling projects in general only return pennies-on-the-dollar even in the best of circumstances.  Home improvement shows sell the idea that you can buy a house and then throw money at it and make it worth more than the cost of the house plus the improvements.  However, in most instances this is not true.

Even remodeling projects that return the best value for the dollar such as kitchens and bathrooms usually returned only 50 to 60 cents on the dollar.  Thus, you are not making money, but losing it. The only way to really make money renovating houses is to buy them very cheaply from an estate sale or after they've been completely run down.  Then you gut the house and hire low-cost labor such as illegal immigrants, and remodel it on the cheap.

And that is the problem right there with buying a flipped house.  I bought two homes that people had remodeled and put on the market and in both cases we ended up with some minor problems because of inexpensive remodeling efforts.

We were very young and naive we bought our house in Virginia.  It looked very nice from the outside with a fresh coat of paint and a fancy new deck on the back.  But it wasn't until we lived there for several years did we realize that the previous owner had cut a lot of corners.   A lot of the corners he cut were unnecessary, which left us scratching our heads.

For example, there was a willow tree in the backyard that had been planted, and for some reason had died - which is unusual because the area it was planted in was usually very damp and wet and a willow tree will thrive in that environment.  Mark and I went to look at it and I opined that would be difficult to dig out the tree and the root ball or cut it down.  I pushed on the tree and was chagrined to see the entire thing tip over.

The previous owner had taken the tree and its root ball from the nursery in merely placed it on the ground and then put some mulch around it.  He didn't even bother digging a hole, removing the burlap bag or cutting the plastic twine holding it all together.  If he had just cut the plastic twine the tree would have actually grown, eventually punching roots through the burlap bag.  Unfortunately the plastic twine holding it all together ended up girdling the tree and it died.   A few moments with a pair of scissors would have made all the difference in the world.

Another one of his half-assed repair jobs also had us scratching our heads.  The back door was made of wood and was always very hard to open.  One day, I kicked it to try to get it to open and was appalled to see a giant chunk of the door fly off at fall down the basement stairs. It seems the door had rotted through, and rather than going to Builders Square and buying a $99 wood door, he must have spent hours and days carefully building up a layer of sheetrock compound to fill a hole that was 6 inches by 8 inches.   When I kicked the door, this giant chunk of sheetrock compound flew out from the hole and bounced down the stairs.   It took him far more labor to repair this door than to merely buy a new one, the latter of which is what I ended up doing.

Sadly, it seems the people who flip houses tend to do these sort of el cheapo repair jobs that often end up taking more labor and effort than they're worth - when you could just do the job right the first time and not have call backs from your new owners.  Let that be a lesson to any of you who want to buy a flipped house.

Houses generate enough repair bills on their own without going out and looking for new things to add on, such as a finished basement. Over time, you will have to replace appliances, flooring, wall treatments, roofs, HVAC systems, plumbing, and wiring.  Trees will have to be taken down, driveways will have to be replaced - It never ends.  Adding onto a house or unnecessary remodeling just adds another expense to your life without increasing the value of the house by very much, if any. And in many instances, remodeling projects can actually detract from the value of a house. As I noted before, converting a garage into living space often lowers the value of a home.

Think hard before you start putting sheetrock, carpeting, and insulation into a basement.    Even the best of basements will flood when you get that hundred year storm.  And you never know, that hundred year storm could happen next year.  A better approach, I think, is to put your money into above-grade improvements.  Or, better yet, leave your money in the bank and just maintain your house for what it is, rather than trying to make it into something it is not.

And as for Mr. Basement Sealer, I'm not going to link to his website.  I'm sure he does a good job of basement sealing and all that, but even the best basement seals eventually fail, or water just pours in over the top.   There is no such thing as a dry basement!