Dear Mr. Electrician:
How do I get estimates for remodeling my basement?  I called several carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and heating contractors to give me suggestions and estimates on what could be done.  The prices that they came back with are all over the place.  Not one contractor’s quote in any trade is close to another’s.  Can you please help me sort out my basement renovation?

Answer: You need a plan for your basement improvement and maybe some specifications. You are off to a good start by meeting with contractors.  Having plans and specifications will enable you to compare estimates because each contractor will be bidding on the exact same work.  The more planning that you have done ahead of time, the more power you will have to make informed decisions and keep the work moving along.  This applies to any home improvement project.  NOTE: Text links below go to applicable products on Amazon and EBay.

Planning a Basement Renovation

Draw sketches and/or plans on your own.  Write down exactly what you really want as far as design, layout and materials.  Determine what would be nice to have if you had the money.  Figure what you might want to add later after you’ve finished paying for the initial project.  Put together a list of specifications for materials such as brand of windows, type of heating/air conditioning system, lighting, flooring, sinks, toilets, etc.

Basement stairs leading to an unfinished basement.
Basement stairs leading to an unfinished basement.

Don’t overlook small details like choice of faucets, wall switches, dimmers, electrical receptacles, cable TV jacks, telephone jacks, network connections, paint, molding, doors, etc.  Not all materials are the same.  There are different grades for everything.  The building codes only specify minimum standards.  You decide if you want better quality materials.

If you do not know what you want, you should look at other projects that are similar to yours.  Talk to your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives.  Go to design showrooms.  Look in magazines and books.  Talk to suppliers.  I know this is a lot of work, but to get what you want out of your home improvement project you need to do your homework.  If you don’t know what you want, how can you expect your contractors to know?

If you cannot handle all of the pre-planning for a basement renovation, you can hire an interior designer to help you or to take on the entire design process.

What about your long term needs?  Do you plan on staying in your house until you can no longer care for yourself?  If so I suggest that you consider installing some accessibility features to enable you to stay there.  Grab bars, wheel chair accessible showers, lower wall switches and higher electrical receptacles are all things that will make life a little easier as it becomes more difficult.  Take a look at the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

Unfinished basement wall studs and fireplace.
Unfinished basement wall studs and fireplace.

Finding a Contractor for Your Basement Renovation

There are design/build contractors available.  They have designing and/or architectural abilities as well as the means to build your project.  These contractors are becoming more and more popular for the simple reason that your contractor is on board during the planning process and is able to provide input from a build aspect as well as design.  In addition your designer is available during the build process to ensure that the project is being built as planned.

If needed, have an architect draw your plans.  Make sure that you get plans drawn for electrical, plumbing, heating/air conditioning in addition to the structural and foundation drawings.  Also have a set of specifications made (You can do this) for each trade that tells the contractor exactly what materials that you want used such as Decora style electrical receptacles and switches instead of the standard face type.  It would be best if you include manufacturers part numbers.

Once all of these plans are drawn, go to a photocopy store (Not all of them can do this) and have full size photo copies made of all of the drawings and specifications.  Photo copies are much cheaper than the architects plans.

Next solicit bids from at least 3 contractors by giving them each a COMPLETE SET of photo copied drawings and specifications.  That way each contractor will be bidding on the same type of work and materials.  If you don’t specify, then the contractor will determine his or her own specifications which may have higher or lower standards than your own.  In that case you would have no idea if you are getting a good deal or not because you cannot compare apples to apples.

If the bids come back too high, start to look at ways to save money.  Perhaps you could do some work yourself such as insulating and painting.  Another way to save is to tell each contractor that you will be responsible for cleaning up the job site and disposing of the trash.  You could act as your own general contractor and solicit bids from each trade.  You could also cut some things out for now that can be added later.  For instance, suppose that you wanted recessed lighting everywhere, but it adds a significant cost to your electrical price.  You could have the electrician install the switches and some wiring up into the ceiling to feed the lights, but have the recessed cans installed next year.  You could have the bathroom plumbing roughed-in, but finish the bathroom when you have more time and money.

Good planning is the key.  On some projects It should take you more time to plan than it does for the actual construction.

Do not skimp on permits and building inspections during your basement changes.  Double check with the local building department about needed permits and inspections prior to the work beginning.  Do not take the word of a contractor who tells you not to bother with permits.  Permits and inspections protect you and they also protect the contractor by certifying that the work meets minimum building code standards.

Design Choices for Your Renovation

As far as choosing a design I suggest that you take a look at your neighborhood.  What have the neighbors done?  Will your idea for a design be consistent with the original architecture of the house?  When it is finished will it look like an addition from the outside or will it look like it was an original part of the house?  There are many books and magazines with pictures of homes in them.  Browse through them for ideas.  Avoid unproven materials and manufacturers with short track records.

Submit the plans to your town for approval and have your chosen contractors apply for necessary permits and make sure that all rough and final inspections take place.  Be wary of any contractor who doesn’t want permits and inspections.

You might be interested in some of my other planning posts.