Ideas for Remodeling Unfinished Living Spaces

Brittany Paris
Written by Brittany Paris
Updated September 11, 2015
one-room apartment with furniture
Angie's List member Laurel Edgar of Simpsonville, South Carolina, hired Precision Carpentry & Plumbing to help her transform an unfinished basement into an in-law suite for her 79-year-old mother. (Photo by Heidi Heilbrunn)

Get a great return on investment by remodeling a basement, attic or pole barn for a new purpose.

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Homeowners who want to add functional square footage to their home or property should look no further than their unfinished spaces. That dank basement, cluttered attic, or bird-poop pit of a pole barn may not seem like an ideal remodeling project, but with the right contractor team and vision, it can be reconfigured into a place that’s remarkable and useful for a family’s changing needs.

“It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Charlie Dieterich, owner of Precision Carpentry & Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. “People want to get the most square footage out of their homes, and it’s a big resale point.”

kitchen with backsplash, stovetop and microwave
The basement apartment for Edgar's mom, Jacquelyn Sneade, contains a stovetop, but no oven in order to fit the space. (Photo by Heidi Heilbrunn)

Customizing an existing room can save the cost of building a new addition and provides a great return on investment, although some projects require expensive structural engineering or other fixes to get them up to code and livable.

Remodeling magazine’s 2015 “Cost vs. Value Report” shows an attic bedroom or basement remodel offers more than a 70-percent recoup on investment — one of the best returns for extensive home remodeling projects, topping the value of a bathroom addition or major kitchen renovation.

Chicago remodeler Guy Hincker, owner of G.C.M. Construction in Riverwood, Illinois, estimates the average basement remodel in his area costs between $20 and $35 per square foot.

“Most homeowners will gain an additional floor of living space at a fraction of the cost for what an addition would cost,” he says, adding that infrastructure is his first priority to make sure the area has enough electricity, heating and cooling capacity, and will stay dry and comfortable.

hair styling salon in remodeled basement
G.C.M. Construction remodeled the basement of Jessica Sarowitz's Highland Park, Illinois, home, including adding space for a hair styling salon and spa. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Serradimigni / Develop Photography)

Envisioning a finished room’s potential is another tricky task.

“It can be very difficult for people to visualize,” says general contractor Mark Downing, owner of  Atelier LLC in Portland, Oregon. “As a designer, I almost prefer working on existing sites, because the bones of the original structure inspire the addition — kind of how some poets prefer rhyme and meter over free verse. The existing structure helps create something new.”

two women and dog posing in front of transformed pole barn
General contractor Mark Downing transformed an old pole barn owned by Lauri Shainsky (left) and Judith Crop, pictured here with their dog, Bodhi, into a spiritual retreat. (Photo by Brent Drinkut)

These three Angie’s List member before-and-after transformations illustrate the common building challenges associated with renovating an unfinished living spaces, along with the creative amenities they included.

Read about the details of each job below to ignite your remodeling imagination.

In-law Suite Perfectly Suited for Mom

Laurel Edgar utilized her experience as an interior designer to turn her raw basement into an in-law suite for her 79-year-old mother. The Simpsonville, South Carolina, member designed the 980-square-foot downstairs apartment, as well as painted and decorated.

“I couldn’t be more pleased, and most importantly, my mother absolutely loves the space,” says Edgar, who hired a general contractor to bring her vision to life.

two women sitting on couch in remodeled apartment
Jacquelyn Sneade (left) sits in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment with her daughter, Laurel Edgar. (Photo by Heidi Heilbrunn)

Contractor: Precision Carpentry & Plumbing. Owner Charlie Dieterich has tackled everything from extensive remodels to minor home improvements for more than 100 Angie’s List members.

Services: Rework staircase for chair lift; build living spaces; install custom drop ceiling; add HVAC system and 100-amp electrical panel; add insulation, lighting, and sump pump.

Cost: $53,900• Materials = $23,500• Labor = $30,400

Timeframe: 3 months

Amenities:• Kitchenette and dining area with open floor plan• Bedroom with walk-in closet• Bathroom featuring shower with bench• Two storage areas• Laundry center• Chair lift• Custom coffered drop ceiling

Challenges:• Added HVAC unit and extra electrical panel• Installed sump pump for drainage since space sits below sewer• Attached architectural drop ceiling’s suspended frame to the wall with drywall to save Edgar money on border tiles and give it a more cohesive, custom look• Reconfigured stairs to fit chair lift

two women sitting at table with dogs at feet
Sneade sits with Edgar at a small dining room table in her basement in-law apartment. (Photo by Heidi Heilbrunn)

“Charlie and crew created an amazing in-law suite for my mom,” Edgar says. “The work was top-notch. The attention to detail was evident and the crew was patient, informative and professional.”

Edgar says the contractor went out of his way to accommodate minor changes — an inevitable part of any remodel, especially when dealing with the intricacies of an existing space. “The [building] inspector commented on the quality of both the rough inspection and the finished product.”

Dieterich shrugs off the compliments, saying it’s all part of his job. “We go out of our way to make people happy and meet deadlines,” he says.

Pole Barn Converted Into a Place Worth Retreating

Judith Crop and Lauri Shainsky, owners of Hidden Lake Retreat, planned only modest improvements to turn their shabby pole barn into a meeting space for small groups visiting for spiritual healing sessions.

“There was mold and mushrooms growing in the gravel floor,” Crop says of the 1960s barn. “The sliding metal doors were almost inoperable and it was surrounded in a sea of weeds.”

Once they met with a local general contractor, the project blossomed into a full-blown remodel so the 30-by-60 foot structure would better blend with the lodge, cottage and natural settings on their private 7-acre lakefront property in Eagle Creek, Oregon.

“It was an evolving project that took many lovely turns and iterations,” Crop says.

two women standing inside large open space
Crop (left) and Shainsky say they use their spiritual retreat every day. (Photo by Brent Drinkut)

Contractor: Atelier LLC in Portland, Oregon. Owner Mark Downing is a woodworking craftsman who often creates watercolor renderings during the design phase of his projects.

Services: Frame and drywall walls; reinforce interior poles; replace metal walls with cedar shake siding; add drainage ditch and retaining wall; build storage area; install windows, doors and flooring; design and install entry doors and roof overhang; add carport and outdoor storage area; coordinate flooring and insulation subcontractors; research and install heating and lighting.

Cost: $160,000• Four 8-by-6-foot windows from building salvage yard = $1,500 (worth an estimated $40,000 new)

Timeframe: 6 months

Amenities:• Exterior French doors and large windows• Open metal ceiling with exposed rafters• Four custom wood carriage-house entrance doors• Roof overhang featuring planked ceiling and extended trellis• Insulated floating cork floor applied directly to concrete slab• Nine large, tapered wall sconces and three chandeliers• Two wall-mounted ductless heat pumps• Expanded storage areas, including wraparound carport

Challenges:A year after the remodel, condensation seeped through the fiberglass batt insulation above the open ceiling. Because the original barn structure didn’t have any roof ventilation, moisture formed between the insulation and roof sheathing.

Downing worked with the insulation subcontractor to fix the leaky roof issue by rebuilding the roof structure and adding eave and ridge vents. The subcontractor, who insisted ventilation wouldn’t be necessary, reimbursed Crop the cost of required repairs, and she put that money toward a new composition asphalt roof to avoid future issues.

sign on door to Hidden Lake Retreat
A custom entryway welcomes visitors to the Hidden Lake Retreat, operated by Crop and Shainsky. (Photo by Brent Drinkut)

“Mark’s a gem — his integrity and meticulous, beautiful, cost-effective and highly collaborative work resulted in a wonderful addition to our small retreat center,” Crop says. “It turned out far more beautiful than we had ever envisioned. We use it almost every day — for the public as well as for ourselves personally.”

Downing says the clients’ enthusiasm was his favorite aspect of this remodel. “Judith and Lauri got excited about the project and kept supporting more of it as ideas developed.”

Dream Basement Remodel Brings the Downstairs Uptown

Jessica Sarowitz turned the concrete basement in her historic Highland Park, Illinois, home into a 1,500-square foot oasis. It required moving mechanical systems and adding structural support for an open floor plan, among other challenges, but she says the finished result was well worth it.

“To say my family is extremely happy with the basement is an understatement,” Sarowitz says.

newly remodeled kitchen with bar
Jessica Sarowitz's dream basement remodel includes a fully functioning kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Serradimigni / Develop Photography)

Contractor: G.C.M. Construction Professional Basement Finishing & Remodeling in Riverwood, Illinois. Owner Guy Hincker specializes in basement remodeling, and has since remodeled other unfinished spaces for Sarowitz.

Services: Demolition of partially finished basement, design layout, help select building materials, manage subcontractors and supply deliveries, and complete general construction.

Cost: $170,000• Demolition = $8,000• Structural = $20,000• Mechanicals = $50,000• Carpentry, drywall, millwork and finishes = $92,000

Timeframe: Approximately 7 months of design and construction. Hincker says his average basement remodel takes three months.

Amenities:• Media and home theater room• Game room• Beauty salon & spa nook• Bathroom with steam shower• Bar and full kitchen• Large laundry room• Four pantry areas and cedar closet

Challenges:• Replaced all mechanical systems to accommodate open floor plan and allow more headroom, confining them to a closet• Hired structural engineer to move or eliminate existing columns, shore up ceiling beams and doorways• Addressed water seepage by installing second sump pump, fixing masonry and applying waterproof sealant• Fixed faulty install of engineered wood flooring due to uneven subfloor. The floor installers redid the work to Sarowitz’s satisfaction.

laundry room
Sarowitz says her new laundry room is no longer a dark and dreary place that she avoids. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Serradimigni / Develop Photography)

“The kids now have a safe and fun game area. My husband is really digging his new man cave, and my laundry area is no longer the dreary avoidance room,” Sarowitz says of the finished space.

Sarowitz praised Hincker’s guidance and diligence during the long remodeling process. “This is honestly the best contractor I’ve ever used.”

Hincker reciprocates the appreciation. “This is what I wake up for: beautiful basements, nice people and a great relationship with the family. This project really did turn out great.”

media and home theater room
Jessica Sarowitz's basement remodel also included adding a media and home theater room. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Serradimigni / Develop Photography)

Remodeling Tips from the Pros

Contractor Mark Downing suggests finding a good general contractor you trust and working closely with him or her to develop the remodeling plans. “Projects like these require a lot of on-the-spot problem solving and creativity,” he says. Many contractors offer free estimates, and also provide 2-D or even 3-D design services. An interior designer can help design the layout and pick finishes.

“A good designer would be far more useful than a contractor as a first step toward helping people create the kind of space they would like to have,” Downing says. “Sometimes the designer and the contractor are the same person, sometimes not.”

To find the right remodeler, get several bids — and make sure they’re similar enough to compare fairly. Check that they include the cost of permits, address infrastructure and examine the space as a whole. It’s not worth spending $50,000 on an attic bedroom if your roof’s failing.

Check out contractor references and go look at their previous projects. Also verify that the specialty subcontractors, such as plumbers and electricians, hold a valid trade license. The general contractor may require a state or city license as well. Ask for proof of liability and workers’ compensation insurance, and bonding.

As a homeowner, consider the added maintenance the new space will require and the cost of future repairs or improvements. Phasing the project can help ease budget constraints.

Above all, understand an extensive remodel takes time and endurance. Enjoy the creative process and stay patient. “Know that the project will take on a life of its own,” member Judith Crop says. “Rather than get frustrated, enjoy the evolution.”

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