Homeowner: Basements

Most houses in Ontario at least, if not much of Canada (and much of North America) seem to have basements, also called cellars. The basement is a room under the ground floor of your house, dug right into the earth.

Basements have good and bad points. In rural areas you should expect your basement to get flooded in the spring, when the snow melts. If you don't have a good sump pump to keep the water level down, you can get several inches or even a couple of feet of water, and there can be damage to appliances, heating or electrical systems, and even the walls. You can get a new sump pump at Canadian Tire or Home Hardware.

Most basments have rough hewn stone walls and a dirt or gravel floor. It can help to add more gravel: you want fairly large stones so that they don't wash into the sump hole.

The walls may well leak air above ground, which will cost you a lot of money with your heating. You can take the One Ton Challenge and have an inspector come to evaluate your heat and air losses (they can do this at any time of year), and they'll help you see where the basement leaks the most. You need to fix the leakage, of course, perhaps with more of the off-white lime whitewash goo they probably already used.

Don't be tempted to seal the basement walls on the inside to make them waterproof below the outside ground level! If you do that, the water will still get into the walls from the outside, and, with nowhere to go, it will sit there and rot the walls. Instead, if you want to make the basement dry, you need to dig down all the way round outside the house and seal the outside of the basement walls, and put drainage in place to take away the water.

Appliances need to be raised up off the ground, and you should also assume that the walls will get damp with condensation, and make sure storage isn't too close to them.

If you are looking to buy a house, do go down into the basement, and look for tide marks on the walls to show if it has flooded recently. Also look for a strong smell of mould [US: mold] (a bad sign), and piles of gold ingots (a good sign). Look also at the lighting, see where there are electrical outlets, and also look for a sink and plumbing, for example to help if you do laundry down there.

Watch that home insurance usually does not cover flooded basements!

We had to have our house jacked up a little, because older houses tend to sag in the middle where the basement doesn't support them. This generally means putting concrete footings into the floor of the basement and then having metal poles set into the concrete and going up to the beams. The result is that you get posts in the middle of your basement, so if you had planned to make a billiards room down there, you may need to reconsider.

The steps down to the basement can also be a pretty risky affair, and it might be difficult to get anyone to work on improving them if there isn't room to build the according to the Ontario Building Code. You may need to consider putting a corner in the stairs, but if you do that, remember that you might have to get washing machines, chest freezers and vampire coffins in and out of the basement. Oh, and wine barrels.

Finally, if it's of concern to you, a lot of basements have outside doors that don't lock, or windows that could be forced open, so you may want to make sure the door from the basement to the house can't easily be opened from the basement. Luckily, theft is much less common in Canada than anywhere else I have lived, and it doesn't seem to be an issue in practice.

[these pages are in preparation and not yet public]

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