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Basements: The treasure found below grade

If you think your basement is the last place you’d ever choose to spend time hanging out as a family, watching movies and chilling out, it likely has a lot to do with your insulation and flooring.

Stacey Brandford

If you're looking for a house to buy or have recently bought one, you're likely all too aware of how far your dollar goes (or doesn't go) in the current real estate market. It would be fabulous if your budget got you the house of your dreams, complete with all the bells and whistles, in move-in condition, but that's not reality for most home buyers. Cash-strapped as most buyers are, you'll need to invest your renovation dollars to get the most impact and the best return on your investment. And with a hefty price per square foot, you'll need to make the most of every square inch of your new abode. So let's talk basements.

Make the most of what you've got

Many of my clients itching for more space think first of building an addition. But it's not always necessary to add on space when usable space already exists underfoot. Basement space is essentially free, since you already own it, and if you have a high and dry basement, it's worth investing in. Getting past seeing your basement as a subterranean zone worthy only of storage and laundry is key to maximizing your square footage and living large.

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Open up and say ahhhh

Establishing the scope and square footage of any project is an important starting point. Since the rest of your house sits on the foundation of your basement, you could require some structural modifications to create the open areas you desire. You may be tempted to cut corners and do a quick and cheap "tart job" in your basement, but I would recommend spending money on an engineer and having proper drawings approved if any significant changes are being made. Not every basement is dry, and ensuring you have the proper waterproofing and insulation in place before adding finishing touches should be a top priority. To create the vast open space in this room, we removed almost 20 feet of concrete block and replaced it with a recessed steel beam. It cost a few thousand dollars, but the end result was worth every penny.

Divide and conquer

Once you've committed to tackling the basement and turning it into a family-friendly zone, you need to establish the overall footprint you'll be working with. Finishing your basement will take away some storage, so be sure to leave as much room for the ugly realities of life that you actually need in order to avoid having your new living area become a dumping zone (boxes, tools and Christmas decorations are not the finishing touch to your newly renovated room).

Prepare for wear and tear

Since we live in a climate that is guaranteed to deliver months of cold weather every year, there needs to be a place at home where kids can be kids and, as Maurice Sendak wrote, "let the wild rumpus start." How is that possible in a room as nice as this? Well, instead of putting drywall all the way to the floor, you might want to consider a more durable option. The panelling on these walls cost less than $20 per 4-by-8-foot sheet and is a composite fibreboard with a rustic, rough-sawn wood texture. I'm generally not a fan of anything "faux" but once installed and painted, it looks great (and is more resistant to mini hockey pucks than standard issue drywall … especially since the paint has a scrubbable finish).

Get cozy

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If you think your basement is the last place you'd ever choose to spend time hanging out as a family, watching movies and chilling out, it likely has a lot to do with your insulation and flooring. Just because your basement is below grade should not mean you feel as if you're six feet under. Thanks to a thermal imaging camera, we found out the existing insulation in this basement was not up to par, so we installed spray foam insulation to raise the R-value. To make the floors extra durable and toasty, we installed heated floor mats beneath inexpensive honed Brazilian slate floors. Wall-to-wall carpeting is a cheaper alternative, but it will be prone to stains and will show the wear and tear over time. If you are taking a long view at your renovation, you may decide that it's worth springing for heated tile or stone. And you don't need to go without the creature comforts of plush textures; just pick up an inexpensive patterned carpet to use as an area rug. It's an easy way to add colour and pattern to the neutral foundation of your room.

And keep it cool

Basements aren't generally overwhelmingly bright, so the natural reaction is to paint the room a light, bright colour to make it appear more cheery and happy. But before you order up a few gallons of sunny pale yellow paint, I'd encourage you to think about how and when you will really use your basement room. What are your living patterns? If it's a nighttime room, why not dress in a cool, nightshade palette that creates a moody evening atmosphere? Silvery greys and smoky blues accented with rich chocolatey woods and durable leather allow you to tread the line between man cave and media room.

Prepare to serve

If you don't want to put your movie on hold while you dash upstairs for refreshments and snacks, consider installing a little servery in your basement. If you've visited the concession stand at your local movie theatre lately, you know that it can quickly drain your wallet, but a bar fridge and microwave are inexpensive indulgences that can be integrated with a couple of cabinets to hold barware and dishes.

Your home theatre can offer all the indulgences without the lineup!

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Keep it under wraps

If you are installing a wall-mounted TV, you'll want to plan ahead for the placement of your audiovisual components so the wiring can be completely hidden. I like to have a pair of cabinets installed flanking a fireplace to reinforce symmetry. Deep cabinets that can accommodate the depth of A/V components also offer great storage options for board games and kids toys, and ample storage ensures you won't be overrun with mess and mayhem. I opted to install inexpensive base cabinets and topped them with butcher block to add some rustic texture to the room, while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

Make a reservation

Not every basement has room to spare, but if the layout allows, I love to add a table and chairs to the mix. The reality is many of us enjoy "dinner and a movie" and might have the occasional meal while we are tuned in. Instead of trying to balance a plate on your lap, why not plan for a table so you can eat while watching the feature bill? As a bonus, the table is a great spot to spread out craft projects, jigsaw puzzles, or board games.

Sarah Richardson's Real Potential airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV.

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