The Basement

Archived Responses: 

Converting basement into second unit

Nov 2007

I have a very large basement which I would like to convert into a separate space that I can rent out...but I am unsure as how to go about this.

What kinds of permits do I need? Do they take forever to get? The house was built in the 1960's - if I convert it, does it need to be up to current code (what is ''current code'' anyways)? Can I just rent it out as is, or are there legal ramifications of not going through the city's various approval processes, etc?

If you have already gone through this process, I would love to hear about remodelers/contracters you used, or if you have any advice in general. Thanks!

The first thing you need to do is talk to the city to find out if a second unit is possible in your zoning area (or have your architect/contractor make this inquiry). They will then be able to tell you what type of permits you will need to get. It varies in each city but typically a planning and building permit are needed. The time varies greatly depending on the type of work you are doing and the city itself. The house itself does not need to be brought up to current code but all NEW work will need to be done to code. That said, if a contractor opens up your walls and finds defective work (not work that doesn't comply but work that was initially done incorrectly), he/she will need to bring that up to current code. I usually tell my clients to save at least 10% in their budget for these unexpected upgrades. In regard to what current codes are, there are too many to go through here. But the one that stands out to me in a basement remodel is egress codes. All bedrooms need a window to the outside that you can use in case of a fire. The city can tell you the minimum sizes and height off of finish floor (or you can look it up in the Uniform Building Code). Also, there are probably a lot of illegal second units in this area but if you decide to go this route, if you get caught you might be required to tear out any changes you've made and/or pay fines (and aquire a permit). It all might sound a bit daunting but it's worth a visit to your city's building department anyway! Good Luck! Lori
I have a great contractor to recommend for your job. You definitely should contact Mircea Ilie Construction about your project. Mircea & his crew completed a fantastic full basement remodel at my Berkeley home last year. The end result surpassed my expectations & the whole process was faster & more reasonably priced than I anticipated going into it. The work included installing 2 bathrooms (amazing tilework with real skill), upgrading plumbing & electrical, foundation & drainage work etc. Mircea & his crew are skilled at every level from structural work to providing fine,detailed finishwork. They are craftsmen. I found them to be helpful, friendly and highly skilled every step of the way. You should call Mircea directly (510-575-5434) to have him come to give you an estimate. He is also helpful with aiding you in thinking through the project and can talk about permits, codes etc. Re. your other questions...more and more now it seems that getting permits is the sensible thing to do. In the past lots of work was done without permits in the Bay area and the real estate market paid no mind...nowadays it does seem to matter more and more though it really comes down to what you are comfortable with. You can get a sense of what permits you need by going to the local planning/zoning office (look it up online) & talk with the staff there about your proposed project. Then I think you weigh the timeline & cost of permits etc. against any possible risk of not following the ''rules.'' Good luck! Call Mircea Ilie at 510-575-5434 Marie

Excavating basement for office/rumpus room

Dec 2006

I am interested to hear anyone's experience in excavating under their house to create a useable space, such as a recreation room or office. We have a very unfinished basement with dirt floors and only about 2 feet to 6 feet of height (our house is on a slope). Is is a pipe dream that somehow we could excavate, add electricity and heat, maybe even pop out a window, to make this dark cave of spiderwebs into a pleasant retreat? Any insight would be appreciated. Eliza

It can certainly be done, but it will probably be much more expensive than you imagine. You will likely have to excavate below the bottom of the existing foundation to get the headroom you want. This would destabilize the dirt the foundation is sitting on and you really don't want that. It is possible to do the excavation and install retaining walls to support what the foundation is sitting on (this was done with our under-house garage).

We recently replaced our foundation, and in the process, we had them excavate out the entire area below the house. The new foundation went all the way down to the floor of the new basement. If you need a new foundation, doing the two things at the same time is great. But hugely expensive, with the foundation being the vast majority of the cost.

Bottom line: it messes with your foundation, and will therefore involve much more work and cost than expected. Do not cut corners, or you will destabilize your house. Carrie