Wed. May 29th, 2024

After investigating a kitchen renovation, we decided to renovate our basement first.

The most compelling case for the switch in scope was made by our real estate agent who reassured us that it adding another level to the house would increase its value immensely. That sounded pretty good. Only time will tell.

Our basement is currently 5’10”, so finishing the basement meant lowering the floor.

Lowering the floor is done via a method called underpinning. Underpinning is essentially extending the foundation depth so that we have more ceiling height. I’m still shaking my fists at the bozos who didn’t dig an extra couple of feet back in 1907 when they were building our house.

When we were first searching what underpinning was all about and what we’d need to do, we found this website really helpful.

Hiring an Architect

The first person we worked with was an architect. Because we had already met with three architects as part of our kitchen renovation work, we had a pool to choose from. We decided to work with the one that seemed the most flexible and willing to work with our DIY-style.

The architect’s scope included:

  • Programming of the basement in preparation for the underpinning and in anticipation of future phases of work
  • Site visit for site measurement of basement only, including stair from ground to basement
  • Review of the underpinning scope found in quotes.

The total cost for her work was around $1400.

Hiring an Underpinner

Next, we hired an underpinner.

When you’re talking about messing with the foundation in your house, it is extremely important to hire a trusted professional. It can be extremely dangerous and fatal if not done properly.

The City of Toronto requires permits and documentation to ensure that the work is being done properly and by professionals. They also require that a structural engineer sign off on the work.

We met with three different underpinners and their quotes were between $40k and $50k for basic underpinning and new drains. And all that gets you is an unfinished basement with a bit more height (and a nicer floor).

We didn’t go with the cheapest or the most expensive, but somewhere in the middle (~$45k). This is one time when cheapest isn’t always the best idea, especially given that you’re dealing with major foundation work.

Because we got three different quotes, we used those quotes to fully detail the quote from our underpinner. We made sure that everything we could think of was in the contract. It took a lot of back and forth, but being completely clear is important because any extras will cost more.

The scope included:

  • Removing and disposing of everything in the basement, as well as suspending the appliances (furnace, laundry, etc.);
  • Digging down and removing all the dirt and debris;
  • Digging underneath the footings and underpinning according to the engineered drawings
  • Installing new weeping tiles and a sump pump;
  • Installing new plumbing drains (including for a bathroom);
  • Installing new waterproofing membrane; and
  • Pouring a new concrete floor.

The contract was more detailed and included other things (like removing our plants before placing a bin on our lawn and protecting the floors with drop cloths).

Hiring a Structural Engineer

We also had to hire a structural engineer to produce drawings for our permit to confirm that the work was structurally sound. The structural engineer also checks that the underpinning is being carried out safely and correctly during construction.

We spoke with a couple of different structural engineers, but I was only happy with one of them. The others were barely able to carry a conversation and the idea of having to work with them was soul crushing.

We didn’t know this at the time, but all of the underpinners we met with would have provided this service. We probably would’ve saved some money, but we had already retained the engineer, so we made our peace with it.

The scope included:

  • Structural engineering design services, as required to meet the structural requirements of the 2012 Ontario Building Code for building permit submission purposes, which includes:
    • Structural analysis and design of the require structural elements to underpin the basement
    • Structural analysis and design to remove existing interior walls
  • Structural drawings indicating all the required structural information which are stamped for the structural content

The total cost for the structural elements alone (not the inspection or permit submission) was around $1800. We ended up adding another $200 to include drawings to remove the dining room wall for when we want to do that.

The drawings looked something like this:

Hiring a Carpenter

Since we’re lowering the basement, we have to extend the stairs in the basement. Given that we’re widening the stairs slightly, and our current stairs are in rough shape, we needed to hire a stair builder to build new stairs. We made sure to add the design of the stairs into our architect’s scope, but the construction was a whole different thing. She told us that it would be about a $10,000 expense. 

We met with a stair guy who came recommended by our real estate agent. He was great and quote us about $5,000 for new basement stairs, a railing on the first floor and a railing on the second floor. Not bad!

Because we were dishing out a lot of money for the underpinning work, we decided to hold off on the stairs until we had a bit more cash flow again. However, the City won’t close the permit until the stairs are done, so we will have to build temporary basement stairs that are to code.

Hiring a Hydronics Contractor

We decided to install radiant flooring in the basement because we wanted to leave a finished concrete floor but wanted it to be warm and cozy. Radiant heating is really efficient and is pretty standard in basement renovations.

We got a few quotes and they were pretty close in range.

But talking about radiant flooring gave us other ideas and this is where the biggest scope creep happened. We started thinking about our heating situation in general, and we decided to replace our forced air system with a boiler and rads. Fixing our duct work would have cost us quite a bit (especially since our furnace would need to replaced in a few years) so we decided to spend a bit more and just replace the entire system.

We went back to our hydronics guys and got new quotes for the entire work.

The scope included:

  • A new boiler and its installation;
  • Radiant flooring for the basement and its installation;
  • 9 rads (basically one for each room) and all the required valves, pipes, etc. and its installation; and
  • A hydronics panel and its installation.

The two quotes we got were pretty comparable. One was $24,600 and the other was $26,500 + HST. Considering that the basement heating alone (without the rad work) would be about $10k (because we still had to buy a boiler), adding the extra to have a fully functioning heating system seemed reasonable.

We decided to go with the hydronics guy with the slightly higher quote and were able to get him to bring his price down to just over $23k. Combined with some heavy negotiation to pay cash for a portion of the work, we were able to get the final price down to $25k all-in. Not cheap. But at least we’ll be warm when we’re poor.

Hiring a Concrete Polisher

The final work that needed to be done was polishing the final concrete floor. The first quote we got for polishing the floor was $5,000, which seemed crazy. We got another estimate from our underpinning contractor for around $3,000, which was at least lower. Once we’re closer to finishing the basement, we’ll get a few more quotes to see if we can lower it even more. I had originally budgeted around $1,000 so $3,000 is considerably higher.

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