How To Finish a Basement Wall

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How To Finish a Basement Wall (2024 Guide)

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Default Author Icon Written by Angela Bunt Updated 04/25/2024

Finished basement walls not only look good, they also come with a number of practical benefits. They help insulate the basement, dampen sound, and add a level of safety by hiding and protecting electrical outlets and wires. They may also increase your home’s market value. Find out how to prepare for finishing your basement walls, what steps it takes to complete the job, and how to decide whether it should be done by a professional.

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Before You Begin: Address Moisture Issues

It’s not unusual to find moisture on your basement walls on a hot, humid day. However, if your basement regularly has pools of standing water on the concrete floor or visibly damp masonry year round, then it is critical to prevent water problems. Moisture issues are costly and possibly create mold and mildew—which can lead to allergic symptoms and other health issues.

In the video below, This Old House general contractor Tom Silva solves a wet basement problems and shows host Kevin O’Connor how to waterproof a basement.

Common preventative solutions for basement waterproofing include:

  • Installing gutters and extending gutter downspouts
  • Improving the grading around your house so water flows away from it
  • Applying a waterproof vapor barrier on foundation walls
  • Installing drain tiles and french drains around the home’s exterior
  • Installing a sump pump to move water away
  • Sealing cracks with epoxy resin

To determine with more certainty whether you have serious enough water issues to warrant installing and applying moisture-resistant materials, try this simple test. On a cool, dry day, tape a 1-square-foot sheet of plastic onto the basement’s concrete wall. Make sure the tape covers the plastic’s perimeter and wait 24 hours. If there’s visible water seepage after 24 hours, you have work to do. Research how to seal basement walls and consider hiring a contractor if it seems like the job is too big or involved to handle yourself.

Components of a Finished Basement Wall

First, let’s define integral basement parts and finished basement walls:
2-by-4-inch stud wall: Wall framing attached to a concrete wall built of 2-inch-by-4-inch studs made of wood or metal. The wall panels or drywall are then secured to it. 
Concrete slab: Basement floor that the stud wall will be secured to
Drywall: Construction material used to create indoor walls that do not require the application of plaster
Egress: Opening to the outside—a basement may have both window and door egresses.
Insulation: A thermal barrier applied directly to the concrete wall after sealing that helps the basement stay dry and keeps its temperature even
Floor joists: Horizontal beams of wood used for framing—you need access to your basement ceiling’s joists to install a wood frame
Top plate and bottom plates: Top and bottom horizontal stud wall
Vapor barrier: Material that prevents the flow of moisture to exterior walls 
Waterproof paint: Sealant applied to the basement’s interior concrete wall

Step 1: Apply for Permits (If Applicable)

When planning a finished basement, you’ll need to consider permits, even if you’re just focusing on the walls. You won’t need a special permit to simply waterproof your basement, but if you plan to build partition walls or install new plumbing or electrical wiring, then you must contact your local housing department. The cost to finish a basement can be greatly impacted by building permits—homeowners spend between $1,000 and $2,000* for permits on average, with the national average being ​​$1,602.

You must comply with local permit laws to avoid unnecessary costs later. According to Angi, these are some of the complications you could run into if you don’t have the proper permits in place:

  • Incurring fees or fines
  • Having your project shut down
  • Hosting an unsafe environment for workers
  • Losing your homeowners insurance coverage
  • Jeopardizing your ability to sell the home in the future

* Costs according to Angi

Step 2: Gather Necessary Tools and Materials

To finish basement walls, you’ll use an assortment of hand tools to remove obstructions and possibly work around ductwork you may encounter. Before you begin, you may need to waterproof everything. If you don’t have experience, consider hiring a local contractor. Either way, be conservative when you estimate the cost to finish a basement to ensure the project stays within budget.

The materials you may need for this do-it-yourself (DIY) home improvement project are:

Step 3: Waterproof Walls

Waterproofing walls requires you to work on your home’s grading and exterior. Using the tools you gathered in Step 2, take the appropriate steps to waterproofing the basement walls.

  1. Plug up holes with hydraulic cement.
  2. Recaulk exterior basement windows or doors.
  3. Apply waterproof coating to the basement walls.
  4. Install gutters and downspout extenders if needed.
  5. Install a sump pump if you live in an area with a high water table.
  6. Improve your home’s grading to improve water flow away from the house. 
  7. Install French drains where appropriate. 

Step 4: Install Insulation

Since there are various ways to insulate your basement, you’ll need to choose the best option for your home, particularly if you have water issues. This scenario may require a few more steps. Consider hiring a professional for the insulation portion of the wood framing step.

Common basement insulation methods are:

Bubble foil: Attached to basement walls using a simple adhesive
Fiberglass insulation: Installed with a simple adhesive
Foam board: Made from polystyrene, this is cut using a utility knife and secured with masonry screws
Sprayed foam: Simple spray-on application

Step 5: Assemble and Install Framing

The wall frame, or 2-by-4 stud wall, is what the drywall is attached to. Here we outline the proper steps involved to construct a solid skeleton structure for your walls: 

  1. Install blocking between joists using straight, treated lumber.
  2. Snap a chalk line on the floor for the stud wall’s bottom plate.
  3. Build the stud wall on the floor, keeping the bottom plate closest to the concrete wall. Build the stud wall a minimum of 1/4 inch from the ceiling. If there’s already a drop ceiling, keep the stud wall beneath it. Build around window build-outs, wires, and pipes.
  4. Secure the bottom plate to the floor using construction adhesive and concrete screws.
  5. Secure the top plate to every joist and use shims where needed.
  6. Important: If the floor is uneven, you may need to build from the bottom plate up instead of using the tip-up method. 

Step 6: Install Drywall

The next step is to measure and cut drywall to fit each wall’s section. Use a level to mark straight lines and account for any obstructions you must cut around such as electrical boxes. Next, use drywall adhesive on the studs and firmly press a piece of drywall board for one to two seconds. Use drywall screws to attach the drywall boards to the studs underneath. Continue across the room in sections until your framing is covered.

In some cases, you may opt to finish your basement walls with an alternative material. For example, cement board resists mold and rot if you have moisture issues.

Step 7: Finish and Paint

You are almost there! The final step to finishing your basement walls is to prepare them for painting. Spackle and sand over the screw holes to create a smooth surface. Then you’re ready to paint. If your basement gets damp, consider using latex paint. It’s waterproof and won’t crack. It’s also low-odor, which is ideal if you don’t have strong basement ventilation. You could also opt for mildew-killing paint, which prevents new mold growth.

Remember to use basement-compliant GFCI outlets. They will shut off whenever an electricity surge occurs, reducing the risk of electric shock if the basement floods.

Professional vs. DIY

You’ll likely spend between $500 or upwards of $5,600* for professional drywall installation, depending on factors like the type, thickness, and finish of the drywall being used. Yet if you’re attempting a DIY install and your project is relatively simple, you’ll only pay for tools and materials. 

Constructing a 2-by-4 stud wall may be quick and doable for many homeowners, but waterproofing can be difficult. If your home has or has had water issues, it may be wise to hire a contractor. A reliable contractor will do it correctly the first time, complying closely with all local building codes and regulations.  

Our Conclusion

Finished walls improve your basement’s aesthetic and are an easy first step in a long-term upgrade. In additional, they help cover any potentially dangerous exposed wires and keep the area warmer in cold months, which could reduce your utility bill.

If you have experience using hand tools and building, finishing your basement walls may be a money-saving option. If you lack experience, we recommend hiring a local contractor who can handle the installation, permits, and building codes. 

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FAQ About Finishing a Basement Wall

Should I use a modular basement wall system or traditional basement wall finishing?

You should use traditional basement wall finishing if your aim is to save money. While there are many benefits to a modular basement wall system, even a basic setup can be costly.

What is the least expensive way to finish basement walls?

The least expensive way to finish basement walls, aside from simply painting what you have, is to install drywall. Paneling is another option, but it requires more work and money to install.

How do you make unfinished basement walls look nice?

To make unfinished basement walls look nice, waterproof what you have. Next, install a 2-by-4 stud wall, apply insulation, and secure drywall to the 2-by-4 wall frame.

What type of paint do you use on basement walls?

The type of paint to use on basement walls depends on the wall material. If it’s concrete, you will want to apply waterproof paint. 

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