Design Tips: Is It a Basement or a Lower Level?

Cindy Beyer Design Tips

This is a sponsored column by Cindy Beyer, a Reston-based interior designer and Reston Now Best Reston Business Award winner. Find her online at

Basements do not have to be scary. Bogeymen are finding other places to hang out, especially now that basements are becoming part of the living space.

Years ago, basements were only for storage, some such as a Michigan basement only had a ceiling height of 6-7 feet and a dirt floor. Today’s builders are including basements or lower levels as selling tools. However, keep in mind that the only square footage that can be counted in the total square footage must be above grade. A quick call to your zoning office can explain which rooms count.

When purchasing a house or building one, keep in mind the ability to build out your lower level for extra living space or entertainment space for family play, especially if you are land locked. When building your home, it is wise to instruct your builder to add the extra height to the basement walls. An extra two feet will allow your finished ceiling height to be a standard eight foot, hopefully more. It is also a good idea to pick a house and lot plan that will allow a walk out lower level with full access to you back yard.

Building out your lower level can be done while you are building your house if you are lucky, and the cost can sometimes be rolled into your mortgage. However, with most homeowners this is not the case. Some basements go unfinished for years.

For those of you who choose to build out your lower level, the possibilities of what to put in your space are endless. I have built out many lower levels for clients and strongly urge them to consider certain areas such as a kitchenette and bar area with a microwave; an under-counter refrigerator; a wine refrigerator; ice machine; dishwasher (yes a dishwasher, this saves one the trouble of lugging dirty dishes back up the stairs;  a sink and disposal; and ample storage for dishes, glasses, food and beverages.

Most clients opt for a bar with at least four barstools. I suggest the flooring for the kitchen and bar area to be a hard surface type of tile or laminate. The rest you can carpet or tile, depending on the activity.

Other important areas to consider are a full bathroom and a guest bedroom, preferably adjoining the bathroom.Keep in mind the bedroom must have outside access as per code.That way you can have a guest suite or a lower-level man cave for little Johnnie when he comes home from college. Just remember, if it is too nice, he won’t want to leave.

Depending on the support columns, it is a good idea to have one large area for pool playing and a good size sitting or conversation area. I would leave out the ping pong table and opt for foosball or pool for it takes less room. If putting in a pool table, be sure you have at least five feet around the entire perimeter of the pool table.

A sitting area is a good place to add a gas fireplace with a direct vent to the outside. Not only does this add a nice focal point to the room, it also keeps you toasty on those damp winter nights. Video rooms or entertainment rooms can be a luxurious as your purse strings will allow. No man cave is complete without a video room.

Other areas to consider are: workout rooms, dance rooms, cedar closets, craft rooms, another laundry room, a home office, etc.  Don’t forget to plan for ample storage space and if you have the room. More and more people are installing wine cellars. I tucked our wine cellar under the stairs. It has enough room to store 1,000 bottles of wine. However, we do have a hard time keeping it stocked.

By building out your lower level you can increase your living space while adding to the value of your home and transform your scary basement into a fantastic lower level.

If you would like advice or help with your lower level, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

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