How to update an unfinished basement without renovating

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My enormous unfinished basement, where I store household supplies, tools, extra winter clothing and the toys I pick up throughout the year for holiday donations, is one of my favorite places in my home. When I moved into the home in 2002, the space was less than ideal. It had cinder-block walls, basic framing, zero insulation and a subfloor of low-grade plywood that was prone to dust and splinters, a hazard for someone like me, who likes to go barefoot.

However, over time, I’ve transformed it into a utilitarian space (although it’s not the prettiest), and it didn’t cost me a bundle or require a major renovation. Whether you want to set up a personal gym, create a crafting area, make a reading nook or store canned goods, you, too, can carve out some extra space. All you need is a little imagination and some practical advice. Here’s how to get started.

Instead of finishing the floor, paint it. Dylan Murray, a general contractor and co-owner of Murray Craft Builders in Westchester, N.Y., covered the concrete floor of his basement with patio paint. It’s more durable than wall paint, and although it usually comes in only white or gray, it can be tinted to almost any color. Murray says that if your basement is prone to moisture, you’ll want to apply an initial coat of vapor barrier, a thick, white paint that will seal masonry.

You can also install peel-and-stick flooring over an unfinished subfloor or concrete to “fake” a completed floor, says Elizabeth Rees, co-founder of Chasing Paper, a company that produces removable wallpaper. “You’ll find a wide range of designs and looks. Some mimic tile, others wood planks. I went with all dark blue for my home basement,” she says. Look for peel-and-stick vinyl with a matte laminate coating, so it’s both nonslip and easy to clean. Rees says these products are easy to find at home improvement stores, or you can order them online. Expect to pay about $1 to $5 per square foot.

Decluttering a basement to make room for work, games and relaxation

Another option: interlocking foam mats. This was the solution for my splintery basement floor. Melanie Musson, a Belgrade, Mont., home improvement expert with clearsurance.com, created an exercise area in her basement using 2-by-2-foot black and gray foam panels, which she estimates cost less than $1 per square foot.

Instead of finishing the walls, hang curtains or sheets to cover them. Musson hammered nails into her basement ceiling, then fashioned wire hangers into hooks and inserted a curtain rod to hang large drapes. You also can use tapestries or oversize fabric posters, says Pittsburgh-based interior designer and home renovator Esther Dormer.

Murray suggests using two coats of masonry paint to cover foundation walls. Another option, if you have a smattering of wood framing available, is to install Homasote, which builders use for sound control. “It’s easy to nail into wood, then either paint or wrap in fabric and use as a bulletin board,” he says.

In my home, I installed basement blanket insulation, a thick layer of fiberglass insulation covered in white plastic and attached to the walls from floor to ceiling. It may look strange, but the space is warm in winter and cool in summer, and the plastic can be wiped clean with a damp cloth. You may need a pro for installation.

Instead of finishing the ceiling, spray-paint it. Rent or borrow a paint sprayer, tape off the walls and any important electrical connections with plastic, and spray the ceiling, including rafters and ductwork, with black or dark gray paint. “It’s a sleek, semi-industrial look that is not only timeless, but makes the ceiling disappear,” says Realtor JoAnn Echtler of Cranberry Township, Pa.

Instead of purchasing expensive light fixtures, buy a mix of plug-in floor and table lamps. You don’t need a matching set, so you can shop at secondhand stores and thrift shops to save money. Replace incandescent bulbs with LEDs; they last a long time, and newer bulbs come in a variety of brightness levels. LEDs now also come in tape lights, and you can replace hanging bulbs with flat LEDs for a more contemporary look. Stringing larger outdoor lights — such as teardrop or Edison-style ones — is another option to create a cozy mood. “It sounds goofy but is actually a nice look,” Echtler says.

Instead of finishing the space under the stairs, turn it into a storage nook. Free-standing shelving units are easy to assemble and come in many widths, depths and heights. Musson created a pantry under her stairs with metal shelving for her home-canned goods. And if you want to dress up the steps themselves, try painting them. You can add sand to paint for extra traction or, as I did in my home, apply peel-and-stick anti-slip strips to each step.

Instead of adding walls to define separate spaces, use tri-fold screens. “They’re stable, sturdy and work well as room dividers,” says Musson, who uses one she found at a yard sale. Free-standing shelving units are another option, or you can consider using ceiling curtain tracks, which are easy to install and work with both curtains and drapes.

Instead of paying full price for furniture, buy discounted pieces. Shop in clearance sections or at big-box stores, such as T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, Ross Dress for Less, Target or even Big Lots, says Shannon Vissers, a retail and shopping analyst for Merchant Maverick. “Amazon also showcases a variety of inexpensive furniture, and if you buy in the less popular colors, you can often receive a deep discount,” she says. “A mustard yellow beanbag chair can actually be a fun accent piece.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Acrylic folding chairs are a great way to add inexpensive but functional seating, Dormer says. Card tables also work nicely as flex furniture. Dormer suggests covering the top with contact paper and an inexpensive piece of glass to personalize the piece.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.


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