Converting your basement

For the latest trend in home improvement, don’t look up – look down! This seasons trend is all about the basement.

Loft conversions are old news, and what most homeowners don’t realise is that their dusty cellar or smelly basement is actually an extra room worth thousands of pounds, as well as one which can dramatically enhance you and your family’s lifestyle.

This cost-effective craze has been big news in London for a while, where cramped homeowners are keen to use every square foot of space, but the trend is now taking off in other parts of the UK such as Manchester, Leeds and parts of Scotland.

The main reason basement conversions are really growing in popularity is because, unlike loft conversions, basements are normally closer to other communal areas and can be more versatile living spaces that suit modern lifestyles, not just extra bedrooms, bathrooms or studies.

Let your imagination roam free

Perhaps the most exciting reason to ‘extend’ underground is that you can really enhance your family’s lifestyle.

Your kids can have a giant playroom all to themselves – or the bigger kids can treat themselves to a home cinema, a recording studio, or a state-of-the-art wine cellar to really indulge their passion.

If you own a commercial property it’s also worth remembering your basement could earn you thousands as extra storage, retail space, a car park or even a bar or nightclub.

Are there any financial benefits?

Apart from the extra space for you or your family, a basement conversion can earn you a packet in additional rental income. Most simply, you could rent the converted basement to a lodger, who would then share the kitchen and bathroom with the family.

Or, alternatively, you could convert the basement into a self-contained studio apartment, with its own front door if so desired. If that sounds appealing, however, you should be aware that you will need planning permission if you plan to create a separate entrance to your home.

But even if you decide not to rent out your converted basement, a simple conversion can also add on thousands to the value of your property when selling it on.

Doing your bit for society!

It might seem far-fetched but basement conversions were championed by the Minister of State for Housing and Planning in 2005 as a way of addressing the UK’s increasing inner-city dwelling density. So you’d also be helping out the Government!

Is my basement suitable for a conversion?

Luckily, Victorian houses, and older types of properties which have timber-suspended floors, are ideal for cellar conversions, as the work can often be carried out from outside, which means you can easily continue to live in your property while the renovations are taking place.

A word of warning, however, some older houses may have shallow foundations, so in order to create a safe living space below, you may need to underpin your property first.

If this is the case for your property, then the easiest thing to do is to talk to an underpinning firm or specialist builder who can advise you on feasibility and cost of the job.

Remember – while a basement conversion may seem like a dream come true, always make sure that a cellar conversion is a realistic venture for your property before forking out any cash.

Do I need planning permission?

However, if you choose to add a new entrance or windows at the front of the house, dig an entirely new basement, or need access to dig up parts of the road or pavement outside your home, you will need planning permission from your local council.

You may also want to check out the specifics of planning permission for basement conversions in case you want to extend or change your basement structure in the future.

You can find more details on planning permission from Planning Permission Guide or Communities and Local Government

If you live in a listed building, however, then remember that all renovations require permission before you begin any work - even if they are completely out of sight from the outside. This is because the features in listed buildings are protected for historical reasons.

Whether or not you need planning permission, you will need to comply with the current building regulations for extensions - these are simply legal requirements for any new living space, which exist for your own safety.

What are the building regulations?

Any extension that people will use as a living area is covered by building regulations.

These regulations are designed to protect the inhabitants from health or safety hazards, and include things like adequate fire escape methods.

The most basic regulations for a basement conversion are; ventilation, damp proofing, electrical wiring, safe access, ceiling height and a fire escape route.

Even if you don’t need planning permission, you must get building regulation approval for your basement. These regulations will insist on certain considerations when you are planning your project - for example, a door which is at least 30 inches wide is considered fine but a window has to be a certain size, as well as a minimum distance from the floor, in order to be considered safe.

There’s no need to stress about building regulations though. Details can be found at the Office of Public Sector Information and The Basement Information Centre.

What else do I need to know?

The biggest factors to consider when it comes to converting your basement are underpinning the foundations which we have discussed above, waterproofing or damp-proofing walls, and providing a suitable access point.

Water, water, everywhere!

Your basements biggest threat is water. As the room is partially below ground level, the laws of gravity often mean that rain water is drawn towards the property at this level.

On top of that, its lack of access to direct sunlight means that it is difficult for damp to escape or dry up, leaving your basement prone to mildew and other damp related problems.

There are several ways in which water may pose a threat to your basement conversion. One particular problem may be that rain water seeps from the outside boundaries of the property towards the basement, and damages the exterior walls.

This can be rectified by ensuring the slope of your garden faces towards the exterior edges of the lawn, rather than towards the house. But this can be a big job, and an easier solution may be to place corrugated iron piping at the base of the foundation walls to take the water away from the foundation.

Another potential problem for basements is clogged gutters and downpipes, which may cause rainwater to pool around the corners of the house, and cause seepage. To ensure basement water proofing it is essential to clean and unclog these on a regular basis.

Ground water may also be the cause of water seepage in the basement. If there is a ground water leak, you would need to install a pump pit and a pump to direct the water away from the basement to ensure basement waterproofing.

It seems tempting to try to fix any water problems from the interior but this does not fully solve the water problem, rather it just diverts the water to a different area of the property – which will cause you headaches at a later stage.

Most experts agree that if you have serious moisture problems it is vital to have the problem repaired from the outside of the foundation walls, as well as from the inside.

But this needn't be a big job. There are many approved waterproofing companies available at www.structuralwaterproofing.org who can talk you through your individual needs.

Damp proofing company Safeguard also have several case studies of waterproofing basements for conversion which you can access on their website. Some of the more informative are below:

Once your basement has been waterproofed, then a handy tip to minimise future moisture threat is to invest in a dehumidifier, which is an electrical appliance that reduces the level of humidity in a room.

The dehumidifier works by running the moist air in the room over a cold refrigerated metal coil with a fan, located inside the appliance. As cold air loses its capacity to hold water, the water then drains into a catch at the side of the dehumidifier. The dry air is then released over the warm side of the metal coil and released back into the room.

Proper ventilation will also help prevent damp building up in your basement. As part of your building regulations, you should also have ensured that you are at least one ventilator in the room, which will bring fresh air into the basement. Most experts agree that fresh air and sunlight will work wonders for banishing damp!

Lastly, you should always check for history of flooding in your area, especially if you have just moved to a new property. Your local water board should be able to provide details.

What about the neighbours?

If you live in a terraced or semi-detached property, then it is likely that you and your neighbours share walls, which are known as party walls.

When you are planning your basement conversion, your party wall neighbours are entitled to enquire about subsidence and request a report at your expense.

This need not be a bother, however, as a property surveyor will be able to provide important details about the party walls, and an independent architect or structural engineer will be able to advise on the continuing security of the structure of both your properties.

If in doubt, check with an architect before drawing up any plans, and it may be advisable to drop into your neighbours to discuss any concerns they may have before spending any money.

What else do I need to know?

Converting your basement can be the most exciting home improvement you may ever undertake – but don’t forget the boring necessities!

A living area downstairs will not be much fun without the obvious services such as plumbing, electricity, heating, ventilation, storage, and phone or TV points. Your builder will be able to advise you about connecting your basement to your existing services upstairs.

It’s important not to forget the safety of your basement either. You should install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms in the basement, and ensure you have an alternate means of escape if your stairway down into the basement became blocked by fire.

Try to ensure also that your window can be easily opened in an emergency, and a handy tip is to try and keep an item of furniture such as a stool in the basement, which will help you climb out the window if needs be.

I can’t hear you!

Although your basement could be designed to be an oasis of calm in a busy household, you will still want to hear your doorbell and telephone.

Make sure you have found a way to hear your front doorbell when in the basement, and it’s always handy to have an extra phone point or internet connection in your new room.

A continuation of style

Your new living space should blend in as seamlessly as possible to your existing house. This is easily done by copying existing mouldings, trimmings, or paintwork from the main house, or continuing with your colour scheme or furniture style down below.

Down is the new up!

Basement conversions are the new black when it comes to home improvements, and as well as enhancing your family’s lifestyle, they can also add thousands to the value of your home, and earn you a tidy sum in rental income.

Do remember our advice on planning, regulations and moisture control, however, if you are interested in pursuing this exciting idea and you should find that you’ll be safe and sound going underground!

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