How to Clean Up Your Basement (or Die Trying)

By: Bruno Feb 09, 2012

There is a secret I've been hiding. It is large, and it is dirty, and might even be in violation of a few state and federal laws. But hiding it doesn't make it any less real, so I've decided to just come out with it:

This is my basement.

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And before you get any weird ideas; no, it's not full of dead bodies (dead mice, maybe). When I said state and federal laws I meant city and county building codes. But just because your basement isn't as bad as a murderer's doesn't mean it isn't really, really bad. Anyway, if that's the standard you're holding yourself to, you have bigger problems to deal with.

Our basement has a sad history. When we bought the house it was empty and untended. Walls were starting to crack and flake in places. The floors (which had probably never been even) were cracking too, and certain spots sounded 'hollow' when you walked over them. Like any basement in Minnesota, it clearly had issues with water, but we didn't know how much, or how recently.

Then there were the weird things, like a jury-rigged shower so gross-looking it made you wonder, 'what kind of person would actually take their clothes off down here'? Or the clothes-lines strung across the ceiling, presumably for drying clothes in your basement, which is a great idea if you want your clothes to smell like a basement and your basement to develop mold from the high moisture.

Before long, the basement became a dumping ground for things that had no other place in the world. If you never wanted to find something again, putting it on a shelf in the basement was a pretty reliable strategy. 

Sure, we did laundry down there, picking out a path to the washer and dryer like gazelles to a watering hole. But woe unto him that should let fall a sock from the laundry basket, for the scum piles devour all that is given them, and return nothing from their bellies! 

Sorry.

Point being, it's easy to develop blind spots. You stop seeing the shoulder-high mountains of clutter. You forget that those little brown turds in the corner might, in fact, be little brown turds. You close yourself off from the horror of it, like cauterizing a wound. If it doesn't touch me, I won't touch it.

Well, this had to end. This winter I pledged to end it. And I'm very proud to say ... we've made some progress.

Alicia and I started by sending Ayla to her grandparents for the weekend, getting a Bagster (TM) and filling it up with crap we should have just thrown out in the first place. I tore out that stupid shower with my bare hands. And we spent hours vacuuming up debris with our new DeWalt portable Wet/Dry vacuum that we got from Amazon.com.

I added some new fluorescent light strips, and updated a few of the electrical boxes. After that, I dug out several patches of floor that were deteriorated beyond repair, and went to work filling them back in with concrete (first time using concrete for anything; I love it!).

Next up, I need to scrape off all the loose piece of foundation wall that are threatening to crumble, and set them right using quick-setting cement. 

As you can see, I've gotten started on that; I've fixed up a few spots that were really bad and applied an initial coat of water-proof sealer. But what you can't see in the photo is how much more work I still have to do. Seriously; about 45% of the foundation walls need some amount of scraping/patching/water-proofing. 

So, since blogging is more fun but less effective than actual working, I'm going to leave you there. I wish I had a better 'after' to reveal, but this project has taken on a life of its own, and I have miles to go before I sleep. I'll check back in next week with an update on my progress (and, hopefully, completion). 

Until then, watch out for those little brown things on your way to the laundry machine.

 

Disclosure: Amazon.com provided me with products for review in this post, but I wasn't compensated for using them. All opinions are my own.

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Comments

@diane - yes! We did move! You can read about the whole process we went through of remodelling our new house in the Curbly House Section

Haven't seen a newer post since 2012. Did you give up and move? (That's what I am thinking of doing.)

Okay I typed in "how to tidy up a basement on a budget". Never did I expect to find a site that has given me hope. I am determined. I am going to be heartless and pitch 45 years of "stuff". Thanks for the inspiration. Keep up the great work.

Just started cleaning my basement and your blog made me laugh when I wanted to cry!  It's a daunting job...even without water damage.  I'm downsizing and I'm probably the only person who does NOT want a lot of storage space---I know I will just use as dumping ground.  Would you mind if I shared your graphic in an e-mail?

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I've lived in my house for 40 years, so the build-up of junk is incredible. Flooding has never been an issue, but an incontinent elderly cat was. My objective is to deal with 1% of it every day, and eventually it will be presentable. I use the same four sorting categories as others: garbage, recycle, charity, keep.

@Leslie: There is no way you'll be able to put a bedroom and bathroom in your basement if the ceilings are less than 6 ft high. If you're going to use your basement as habitable space, the ceilings have to be at least 7 feet high (usually 7'6" if it's going to be up to code). This means you'd have to excavate the floor and dig down to make the ceiling higher - this is very expensive to do. If you're going to put a bedroom down there, you'll also have to have an egress window (also required for safety reasons). You'd have to have one cut into the foundation. 

I have a shelf basement with low ceilings about 5'8".  I want to put a bathroom and bedroom down there.  Obviously there can't be a shower, but a bath could work - could it?

This post inspired me to work on my basement this weekend. It feels so daunting, but SO WORTH IT! Thank you! http://dirtymessyhouse.blogspot.com/2012/02/basement-project-p1.html

Geez.  And here I've been missing having a basement.  :-)

I feel like we share sibling homes. Mine is nearly identical in issues but the walls are aqua instead of yellow. Mine is still my dirty little secret but maybe I'll let it out as I follow your progress.

I love the feature image! Haha. Nicely done so far, Bruno!

Yes, it probably will kill me when the time finally comes. ;)

@naoimi hah! No offense taken. If I can do it, anyone can. Keep in mind my basement's unfinished, so I don't really care about the finish (smoothness, etc.). If you want a really smooth, professional finish, it might be a lot more difficult. But for just patching up some nasty spots, it's easy (if tedious).

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Wow, the similarities between our basements are spooky...maybe even as spooky as whatever is lurking in the corners of mine. I am waiting for the weather to improve (way below zero right now) so I can pull everything out into the backyard and do a real tidy (this seems to be an annual event). What might be different this year is the concrete patching! I've always assumed that was out of my skill range and now (with all due respect to what I'm sure are your renovating, tool using, handy-person superpowers) it looks like I might give it a go. Wish me luck!

Good for you!  I did the same to my basement 2 years ago converting it into an apartment for my daughter.  Then the floods came and woe befell what was once cute and turned it mildewy.  The daughter moved to Brooklyn and I'm left with a basement that makes me want to cry sometimes but I can do it!  You've inspired me to tackle one corner at a time.  Thanks!

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