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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Finished Basements: What Could Go Wrong?

If you have spent some time looking at homes for sale around here, you have probably noticed that finished basements are frequently used as a major selling point, with some listings even counting a finished basement in the advertised total square footage of a home. However, as an article in today's Seattle P-I points out, finished spaces are not all created equal.

These days, children play, parents work and mothers-in-law sleep in basements. Homeowners move in big-screen televisions and overstuffed chairs with cup holders to create basement theaters.

But many never consider how they would get out of the basement if there were a fire, earthquake or torrential storm.

"I hadn't even thought about that. Now that we spend so much time down there, we should probably think of an escape plan," said Mike Kimelberg, whose bedroom is in the basement of his new Montlake house.
However, for decades now, Seattle codes have required emergency escape windows or doors from bedrooms in new or remodeled basements.

And, for about 15 years, Seattle codes have required new or remodeled basements to have a door leading outside. Regulations also mandate a window with a sill less than 44 inches from the floor and a clear 2-by-3-foot opening so people can climb out easily, said Rick Lupton, engineering and technical codes manager for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

But those rules rarely are enforced unless a permit is sought or there is a complaint.

"We have no way of enforcing it unless someone complains," Lupton said. "The rule applies more to rentals than private homes. If the tenant calls us, we will go look at it."

Realtor Jane Orvis, of ReMax Northwest Realtors, said she has seen illegal basement bedrooms used as a selling point, either included in a house's bedroom count or acknowledged with phrases such as "2+ bedrooms."

"It's kind of weird to go into a house and see a bedroom with no windows or a tiny, little window," she said. "There's nobody policing sales of houses that are not to code."

Orvis said she'll talk with buyers about any such issues if they're serious about a house, but largely relies on inspectors to point out code issues.
With so many homes out there being remodeled "under the table," improperly finished basements aren't the only issue. It's not uncommon for homeowners (or real estate "investors") to cut corners when DIY'ing their remodel work, and once the pretty trim and the granite countertops are down, a potential buyer has no easy way of knowing if the work was done to code.

Of course, all that really matters to most buyers is the wow factor. People will continue to merrily jump into the largest purchase of their life, largely blind to potentially expensive pitfalls that may await them down the line.

(Kathy Mulady & Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 01.02.2007)


wreckingbull said...

There is probably nowhere this is more prevalent than Ballard. Many a shack has been doubled in size by adding pergo and drywall to a 6-foot high hole under the house.

I am waiting for 3-foot crawlspaces to be deemed living space, ala Being John Malkovich

MisterBubble said...

This crap is everywhere in Seattle -- especially when people think they can rent their basement to pay down the mortgage.

In fact, I've never seen as many obvious code violations as I have in Seattle rentals: exposed wiring, uninsulated walls, windowless basement apartments, water damage, mold infestations, and so on. It makes me wonder what would happen to the housing market if people could no longer rent their basements without having to invest in code compliance.

Could people afford that $600,000 mortgage if they couldn't rent their "daylight basement" apartments without $50,000 in upgrades?

B said...

I once walked through a house in Beacon Hill that had several grafted-on remodels, that made Tara Reid's boob job look like fine art.

The best part was when I got taken into the basement with "remodel potential". The ceilings were like 5'11", exposed floor joists, concrete floors. I thought he was making a joke when he talked about turning them into bedrooms... what a nightmare. To his credit, he did say that they weren't up to code, and that would be "a different thing to look into"

I didn't walk away, I *ran* away. I didn't even take the business card out of the used-house-salesperson's hand.

Gwen said...

"especially when people think they can rent their basement to pay down the mortgage."

Well, I do rent my (main floor) to pay my mortgage. I live in the (remodeled, to-code, daylight) basement.

My renters pay my mortgage. I pay the HELOC that paid for the gutting and rebuilding (and earthquake-retrofitting) of the basement. The HELOC would be much less if I had done the remodel on the cheap, but... eek. Isn't that just an invitation to massive rework if you keep the place, and massive lawsuit liability if you sell?

charlesjohn said...

Also many people dont look at mold, and rot issues in conventionally finished basements, a good alternative to wood studding and drywall (which is a food for mold and rot) is total basement solutions.