Q: We plan to move in six to eight months and are looking at older houses in a town where many of the houses are two stories and built into a hillside.

The first story is often a garage-basement with the back half or third of the space open to the dirt hillside under the house. One home we liked had two bedrooms, and I thought of making a third bedroom in the basement area.

When we seriously start looking, is it reasonable or possible to make a third bedroom out of this type of space?

I believe there would still be enough room to have the garage — can we just wall off the rest of the basement area for a bedroom?

A: When we began writing “Sweat Equity” more than three years ago, our goal was to pass on some of the tips we’ve learned about home renovation over the years and to encourage homeowners to get their hands dirty and improve their homes without relying on expensive professionals every step of the way.

Nothing has changed. While it’s true that some jobs are better left to the pros, virtually any home-improvement project can be done by a determined amateur who is willing to invest a little money for materials and proper tools and take the time to learn how to do the job right. Certainly, an amateur will make a mistake or two (as do the pros), but nearly any faux pas can be remedied.

Over the years we have bought, renovated and sold a number of homes. They’ve ranged from the Victorian to the modern, but the common thread among the properties was that we’ve poured a little money and a lot of labor into improving them. In each case, we reaped substantial profits, but more important, we gained the satisfaction of knowing that we improved the homes and we did it ourselves.

Our experience tells us there are two surefire ways to add value. The first is to refresh a tired, outdated property and turn it into a clean and bright updated version of its former self. Paint, new lighting, new plumbing fixtures and even new kitchen cabinets and countertops can transform a tired old dog into a desirable “new” home.

The second way to add value is to add space. So you want to know if you should buy a two-bedroom home with the potential to add a third bedroom. That’s a no-brainer. The answer is: absolutely.

There are several questions you must answer to see if the plan is feasible. The first is size. Would you have a large enough garage and a large enough third bedroom without excavating any of the soil under the house? Garages should be a minimum of 20 feet deep to accommodate today’s vehicles.

Next, can you provide sufficient window egress to meet the building code? Do not even think about sidestepping this issue. In a fire or other emergency, whoever is occupying that room needs to be able to get out.

Also compare costs of the homes carefully. We suspect that you’ll find that an older two-bedroom house is less expensive than a three-bedroom house of the same vintage.

If you don’t have to excavate, the cost of building a nonbearing partition wall, wallboard, a little electrical, paint and carpet is not much — especially if you tackle it yourself.

If you do a good job on the new bedroom and do some painting and fixture upgrades in the rest of the house, you’ll be handsomely paid for your labor.

We have one word of caution, however. Make sure that the garage-basement is dry during the rainy season. Putting a drainage system around a house built into a hill can be an expensive proposition and a deal-killer. The last thing you’ll want or need is to have water in your new bedroom.

If you must excavate, make sure the foundation is in good enough shape to accept the soil removal. This may require the opinion of a soils engineer, but the cost for his or her insight is well worth it.

If everything checks out, and if you like the house and the price is right, we say go for it.


What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to opinion@inman.com.

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