There are some downsides to living in a basement (who knew?!). These are amplified when it’s an old basement with brick walls, and even more when said walls have problems with moisture. We’re tackling the drainage project to hopefully address the biggest problem, which is water coming in. However, that isn’t going to solve everything. Because the roof, gutters, and siding are all problematic, water is coming into the brick wall above grade. Worse, the outside of the above-grade brick is parged in concrete, so the water has nowhere to go but inside. The result is humidity, mold, bugs, and brick efflorescence. None of these things is particularly pleasant to live with and none of them are solved by the drainage project. We plan to fix the roof, gutters, and siding, but there are a bunch of dependencies we have to do first, and that’s going to take some time.



We’re running a dehumidifier most of the time, as well as open windows and fans. We put a retractable screen door on the back door so we can improve the air flow there as well, but that doesn’t help when it’s muggy and rainy outside. We also picked up a used portable air conditioner from Craigslist on the cheap, but it’s missing some parts and we still have to get it hooked up. Hopefully between the two we can keep humidity under control. On top of that, we have good quality air filters running. We’ve sprayed for bugs a couple of times and picked up some stronger stuff to try on the centipedes. If it doesn’t improve, we’ll call in an exterminator.

We looked into painting the rest of the walls with Drylok, but that would actually make things worse. For one, Drylok is a water barrier, not a vapor barrier, so the moisture would still be coming through, which means it wouldn’t actually stop the efflorescence or humidity. On top of that, Drylok can actually host mold and make that problem worse. The only thing it might help with is closing up the hidey holes the bugs are living in and stop some of the fine brick dust from raining down on the curb.

We could remove the parging on the outside, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t put up on a great-looking brick wall in the first place, not to mention the damage the parging has done to it since. Removing the parging would mean re-pointing (and replacing) a lot of brick. On top of that, we discovered the color of the face bricks on the front of the house is a rather, um, strong red, and we’re not big fans of it. That means the face brick would either have to be painted (and re-painted every 3-5 years), or replaced, both of which are pretty unappealing. In short, it’s an expensive project that probably wouldn’t actually solve the problem, because the underlying cause is the roof, gutters, and siding.

Since that’s not possible immediately, we’ll need to spray a mold remover/mildewstat/fungicide periodically and try to keep the efflorescence under control by cleaning it and spraying a water/muriatic acid solution. We put some of our wire shelving up against the outside wall, and at a minimum we’ll need to pull it back an inch or two, since as it is the efflorescence is snowing on our food (yuck). We discussed putting something between the brick and the shelf, but we’re concerned about anything that would reduce air flow across the brick and potentially make it easier for mold to grow.

All of that means that, in the end, we’re just living with these problems for the time being. Until we can stop the water from coming in, the basement is going to be somewhat unpleasant. That may rearrange some of the priorities on our project to speed up the outside, but it doesn’t change our immediate next steps: the drainage project and the second floor demo.

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We’re slowly getting settled into the basement. Even after a few weeks, we still have a lot of stuff strewn about upstairs that we’re working on moving, putting into boxes, or outright getting rid of. Sarah’s been on an IKEA kick, loading up our humble abode with storage, since we’re completely lacking in the closet department. It’s starting to feel like home, though it definitely feels like a basement. Meanwhile, we’re thinking about next steps. After all, the whole point of moving into the basement is to get the rest of the project done. The next major step is second floor demo. We want to get that done before winter hits, mostly so that we can work inside all winter. However, we have to finish the aforementioned moving and clearing before that happens. We’ve also decided we need to make our drainage project happen sooner rather than later.

The drainage project was something we were planning to do in the landscaping phase, but the rainy weather has underscored that we need to control the flow of water into our basement. Essentially, it’s a just-below-grade weeping system that will wrap around the front and side of our house. The reason this was slated for the landscaping phase is that the goal is to drain this into a rain garden/water feature in the back yard. However, right now our back yard is mostly patio and we plan to keep it that way so we can bring in the parade of dumpsters and trucks that will get this project done. Instead, we’ll drain into our canceled catch basin for the time being and redirect it later. Our catch basin is filled with gravel, but it can still hold a couple-few hundred gallons of water, keep it away from the house, and drain into subsoil, all of which are critical to our basement staying dry.

The plan is to dig up the cracked and crumbling sidewalk along the side of the house, dig a trench that slopes to the center about a foot deep, and put down a plastic landscaping barrier that’s caulked to both our house and the neighbors. We’ll put perforated pipe in the bottom and backfill with stone. Lastly we’ll put in paver step stones in place of the sidewalk. As I said, the pipe will drain to the catch basin in the back yard for the time being and eventually drain to a water feature. We’ll put in connections so that when we redo the roof and gutters, the downspouts can drain into the system as well.

The drainage will eventually continue across the front of the house, minus the pavers, since we’re putting a new front porch over it. Ideally we’d have a proper exterior weeping system, which is a drainage pipe around the outside of the foundation at the bottom of the basement wall. Unfortunately, we’re very close to our neighbors. The North side of our house literally sits on the property line and both sides are between 3-4 feet away from the houses next door. Excavating down to the bottom of the 120-year-old brick wall risks not only our own structure, but the neighbors as well. The drainage project we’re doing is basically a compromise because the pipe won’t be below the frost line. If it got cold enough, especially after a snowmelt or heavy rain, it’s possible for the whole thing to freeze up. That said we believe it will keep the vast majority of water away from our foundation and out of our basement.

The dumpster is on order, and the project kicks off in a couple days. We need to get everything dug out in a week so that the dumpster can go back on time, but after the basement dig out, I’m not too worried about that. Once that’s done we need to get the barrier and pipe installed, then get some pea gravel delivered. Finally, we need to pick out some pavers. That’s the fun part.

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We’ve been busy in the basement! So busy, in fact, that I haven’t been doing a good job of posting about it, nor even taking all the photos that keep the posts from simply being my long-winded explanations of why everything takes so damn long. So, in the interest of getting everyone caught up to where things are, I’m doing a catch-all post on the flurry of basement activity. My last update was August 5th, but the work it described took place in mid-July, so we’re actually a quite a bit behind. Let me jump to current though, and say we met our deadline of August 20th, and we are living in the basement. I’m actually typing this while sitting in the living room of the basement at an actual desk.

So, a lot has happened since we mudded the permanent basement walls. We got the permanent walls painted, the tub tiled, grouted, and caulked, and the bathroom and kitchen cabinets installed. That let us call back our plumbers, who got the finish plumbing done and reconnected the water heater in the basement. With that goal met, we framed and drywalled the temporary walls. These walls create bedrooms in the basement while we’re living down here, but once the rest of the house is done we can take them down and the main area of the basement can be finished as an entertaining space. We didn’t bother mudding this drywall, but we did paint it. I installed the interior doors, which included three doors in the permanent walls (bathroom, mechanical room, and between the front and back rooms), and two bedroom doors in the temporary walls. We cased the doors as well as the window in the kitchen.

I installed the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, along with the additional bathroom lighting. When we tiled, we installed a metal track at the top of the tub wall and ran a strip of adhesive LEDs along it. These are connected to an additional strip above the mirror and hooked up to a power supply inside the top of the medicine cabinet, which is switched on the same circuit as the overhead light. The tracks are covered by a snap on plastic diffuser. We’re pretty pleased with how this turned out. All of it is either waterproof or wet-rated, so the shower shouldn’t cause any issues.

In the kitchen we installed a butcher block counter with a single basin sink (Amazon literally sold us the kitchen sink). The sink was originally going to be under-mounted, but there wasn’t enough room for the clips inside the base cabinet. Since the sink can be mounted either way, I opted for top mount, but routed the top of the counter so that it sits flush, making it easier to wipe the counter into the sink. My measurements didn’t properly account for the curb when I bought the cabinets, so we built a wooden frame for them to sit on top off. This puts them about 4″ taller than typical, but we’re tall and it works for us. I also didn’t properly account for the dishwasher height being greater than the cabinets minus their feet, and had to retrofit the frame with reciprocating saw, oscillating tool, planer, socket wrenches, and additional 2x6s. The dishwasher is installed, and I never want to think about it again.


We painted the curb and the bottom foot of the wall with Drylok waterproofing paint. I’ve read a lot about building science and don’t want to seal brick, but despite our exterior water management efforts and interior weeping system, we’re still getting water coming through the walls on heavy rain. By only painting the concrete and the brick below the frost line, my hope is that water will be forced down into the weeping system, but won’t freeze within the brick and damage it. Having a radiant-heated slab should also prevent freezing. It’s been raining enough that the Drylok wasn’t able to dry fully. I bought some additional waterproofing putty for active leaks that I still need to install.

I put up privacy film on the window along our neighbors walkway, put pipe insulation on the incoming water line to prevent condensation, added a light switch in the mechanical room, ran a gas line for the stove, put up shelves, moved the phone line for our Internet connection, put up a shower curtain rod, swapped our mud rings for metal electrical box covers, painted the old part of the gas line before the meter and mounted it to the wall. Sarah hung shades, scrubbed, mopped, and scraped the floor, and watched our two rambunctious children while I spent countless nights either in the basement or running to Home Depot and Menards. Sarah’s parents, her brother-in-law, and her brother all pitched in with assistance on trim, painting, the cabinets, the door handles, and brushing down the walls. My mom came up multiple times to watch the kids so Sarah and I could both do tiling and painting. Dean and Matt B came to help us move last weekend, and while there’s still a ton of stuff upstairs to be sorted and packed into storage, we’re moved. We couldn’t have made the deadline without all their help and we’re very grateful for it. Without the deadline fixed in our minds, this easily would have taken an additional month or two, and I’m so glad it didn’t. We lived in the second floor for five years (exactly). Considering we wanted this to be a five-year project, considering we shifted to the basement plan in November of 2014 (21 months ago) and planned for it to take about a year, and especially considering how very far we still have to go to finish this crazy house, I’m relieved.

Living room, before furniture

Living room, before furniture

We’re planning to relax a bit, but we still have a lot to do, just to get the basement situated (and not leaking) and to get the second floor ready to demo. The next couple weekends are relaxing (going to the beach and going camping), but hopefully after that we can get settled and start on the next exciting, exhausting, and endless phase of this project.

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Dean came back to help me start mudding and taping the drywall on the permanent basement walls. We did some drywall patching with joint compound when we bought the house and I attempted to drywall my basement rec room years ago when I owned a duplex and helped a friend drywall an attic before that, but I’ve never made a properly smooth wall and I needed some help. Dean’s done a number of small drywall projects over the last few years and had acquired some skills at it.

I tried to soak up the lessons and the end product is vastly better than my previous attempts. We mixed up not-lightweight compound for the first coat since it cures fast and it’s harder, and then used pre-mixed lightweight for the later coats since it’s easier to sand. Once that’s dried you can run your hand over the wall to feel out any imperfections and just sand them down or add some compound to build it up. We had one wall with a butt-joint where there was only one tapered edge, as well as above the doors where we used pieces rather than whole sheets. Getting those flat was challenging, since you have to feather it carefully. What I didn’t like was finding spots later that I missed, and there’s at least a few of them.

We wound up not drywalling the interior of the mechanical room for the time being. I want to test the tub surround for leaks, add some cabling for the wall that will eventually have a TV on it, and add a light switch instead of the current pull chain. We’ll circle back and do that later.

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We’re planning to tile the tub surround in the basement bathroom. The first step was to install Hardibacker board to the studs (with the correct special screws). I’ve read a variety of methods for configuring the backer board and the flange of the tub, and ultimately I just screwed the board to the studs and left a small gap above the flange. I believe the idea is that by leaving a gap, there’s enough thinset to hold together and not crumble. I put fiberglass mesh tape on all the board seams, including across the gap above the flange, figuring it would also help hold it together. Then I thinset over the seams, the screws, and the flange completely, to make a nice even substrate for the tile.

I didn’t put any vapor barrier behind the board. Instead, after the thinset cured, I applied two coats of RedGard over the board to create a waterproof surround. In theory, the water should never get into the wall system this way, but if it does it should still be able to dry. I haven’t drywalled the inside of the mechanical room yet. My intention is to thoroughly test the shower for leaks before we insulate and drywall the other side of that wall. I highly recommend the plastic sheeting over the tub; it caught more than a couple drops. The next step for the tub is tiling, but before that I need to finish mudding the drywall.

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