A basement can make up around one third of the floorspace in a home. The cost of finishing a basement can be half the cost of putting an addition (of smaller space) on the house, and can provide a greater raise on the resale value. A finished basement can be more than just semi-trustworthy storage space and a storm refuge. It can be a play room, a game room, a gym, a family room, a home theater, a full apartment or a home office. It can be anything any room can be, perhaps even an entire floor of rooms, the basic structure of which is already built. Just looking at the pros, it seems strange that unfinished basements would be so common. The problem is not that the cons are insurmountable, just that they are daunting enough to feel insurmountable, or at least not worth the trouble. But look what you get! So we’re going to help you get started with what we think might be the most difficult part of the process, finding the right kind of flooring for your basement.
The two main issues, in reverse order of importance, are the coldness of the slab of cement which makes up the bottom of your basement, and the inevitable moisture issues which come with basements. When around the installation of flooring, you will hear talk of “the subfloor”. Usually this is the structural part of your house to which the flooring you want to walk on will be attached. In your basement, that’s probably going to be a big slab of poured concrete, underneath which is the Earth itself. In some climates, for some of the year, it will be cooler than some bare feet like to walk on. If you have radiant floor heating, then this is a non-issue, otherwise the best way to handle the temperature, if even it is a concern, is to add another subfloor to the top of the concrete. We’ll call it a super-subfloor to distinguish the two (that’s super as in “above”, and this is definitely not an industry term, so don’t quote us hoping to sound informed). Not only the material itself, but any air space it creates between itself and the concrete, to say nothing of insulation which might fill that space, will help your top flooring stay warm. Now this super-subfloor will be subject to the same moisture issues as your regular flooring.
We can’t say enough about the issue of moisture. If you think your basement is waterproof and dry year round, even during record-breaking storms, you should still have it professionally tested before proceeding as such. Then, even if you get the thumbs up, you should still act with caution, assuming that everything going into your basement needs to be able to handle moisture and water. You see, with a basement we don’t only concern ourselves with moisture drifting in through the concrete from outside. We have to prepare for condensation from general temperature differences and water heaters, also leaks from dish or clothes washers, defrosting refrigerators, iceboxes left cracked open and installed sinks or tubs. Then there are plumbing leaks, to say nothing of burst pipes, and any flooding issue upstairs affecting the downstairs. It is almost best to assume that some day your basement will be wet, or at least very moist.
What this means is that in general we want to keep away from flooring made of organic material. Anything organic will be a source of food for mold and similar allergens that can get a start with moisture. If we follow this advice, we rule out anything made of wood, including most laminates and Oriented Strand Board (called “OSB”, used for subfloors), any organic carpeting and some padding. We should also not install a super-subfloor that sits directly on the concrete, face to face. This can trap moisture. We will need a moisture barrier between any super-subfloor and your concrete.
Our recommendations will be for an imagined basement where the surface temperature, if an issue, will be taken care of, but moisture will remain a threat.
The Best Options
(and related products like Vinyl Composite Tile [VCT], linoleum and marmoleum)
Vinyl flooring is relatively inexpensive, and basically made of plastic, so most of it is 100% waterproof. If you want to see a demonstration, check out our Aquarium Test video.
Our highest recommendation goes to Vinyl Plank Flooring, which has advanced to have amazing wood looks. Vinyl plank flooring can be click-together, just like laminate, which makes installation easy, and repair or plank replacement equally easy. Vinyl tiles have the same waterproof properties, but must be glued to your super-subfloor, which makes future repairs a little more involving than the planks. These would also require a super-subfloor, because we don’t want to attach anything face to face with the concrete, so if coldness isn’t an issue and you don’t want to mess with the additional work, planks are better.
Vinyl is also available in rolls, the first form in which it was sold, also requiring adhesion to an additional subfloor, and slightly more difficult to repair (to say nothing of replace) than the tiles. Since it is a printed floor, the look can be anything from wood to stone to checkerboard – anything that can be photographed (and marketable).
These are as beautiful as they are expensive. Being made of stone, they are almost as water resistant as vinyl, and the tiles can be replaced individually, easing repair. Using larger tiles can make a smaller area look more roomy. Installation is very time intensive, and will get messy. There must be no cracks in the concrete, and it must be perfectly level, or your top flooring will crack. Its one moisture issue comes with the grout. Moisture can seep, and mold can grow, in grout lines. If you’ve raised a super-subfloor above your concrete with a moisture barrier to reduce coldness underfoot, this shouldn’t ever become a problem.
Directly Coating the Cement
This is the cheapest option, and leaves you with nothing to be affected by moisture, no flooring to warp or rot, you can have any color you want, and it’s easy to apply. Can you paint a wall? Then you can paint a floor. Staining concrete is a touch more difficult, but allows more creativity via acid-etching. You can put some elaborate designs on your floor if you go the staining route.
With stain, make sure the sealant applied on top can cope with the “hydrostatic pressure” from rising water beneath the concrete or it will loosen and peel. With paint peeling (and chipping) may just be inevitable over the years, depending on the traffic, requiring touch ups and repainting. There are also refinishing epoxies, sometimes called garage coatings, which are troweled onto a floor. The downsides to these are that installation is going to be a messy affair, the floor will be the temperature of the concrete, and in the case of staining there is a waiting period while it cures.
These are also sold for garages, but can work in a basement as well. They lock together and lay on the floor. If you don’t put down a moisture barrier, water may collect underneath, but the tiles are non-organic, so you don’t have as much risk of mold. You would just have to take them up occasionally, let the floor and tiles dry, and lay them back down. Rubber tiles are squashy, so they will add a tremendous amount of comfort to your walk.
In the next post, we’ll go over the less recommended options. Some can be done in certain circumstances and with special care, and some should just be avoided. We’ll tell you why we think what we think in What are the Worst Floors for a Basement?.
As this is the blog of Floors To Your Home, not Walls To Your Home or Armoires To Your Home, we must limit our advice to our special area. So where do you go for tips and information about walls, counters, lighting, all the other things a room needs to be complete? Who’s the best in those areas?
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W. David Lichty is the Content Guy at Floors To Your Home (.com). In my spare time I shoot and edit video, explore film history, mix music (as in ‘play with Beatles multi-tracks’) and write non-fiction for my friends. Connect with me on Google+