Find some forgotten square footage in the basement

Rooms for Improvement

Sometimes, when faced with what we shall euphemistically describe as a basement with issues, a real estate agent's natural inclination might be just to shut the door quietly and tiptoe away, hoping that a buyer will fall in love with the rest of the house.

But in space-crazed Manhattan, every inch counts -- even a lower level that's so paint-splattered that it might have caused artist Jackson Pollock to recoil.

"It's a 1,600-square-foot duplex, a unique property, with the main living area and bedrooms on the street level," explained Kathryn Swift, an agent with Sotheby's International Realty in New York.

"Downstairs, there's a 400-square-foot recreation room, plus a separate media room or home office and a half bath."

Except that this homeowner wasn't using all of that valuable lower-level square footage -- about 800 square feet, total -- for any of those rather traditional purposes. This was a studio for a painter, one whose canvases were not filled with delicately daubed idyllic landscapes.

"His paint was a mixture of glue and acrylic and shellac and all sorts of things -- it was incredibly sticky," Swift said. "It was even all over the powder room, because that was where he cleaned his brushes."

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This lower-level space, which was used as an artist's studio, presents a serious challenge for the seller. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Swift.

Swift, who also does home staging, convinced the seller that the lower level had to be portrayed as "livable" and that would-be buyers needed to be able to realize how they might use the space.

To save costs, the homeowner installed sheet-vinyl flooring over the existing paint extravaganza in the would-be recreation room.

"It's not the most high-end flooring, but it looked so much better," she said. "Four hundred square feet doesn't seem like a lot, but to have a bonus room in New York -- that's pretty nice. You could have two work stations there, or a recording studio."

The hard work came at the hands of a painter who laboriously scraped the paint splatters that covered every wall surface in the 800-square-foot space, then applied a neutral color. Two couches that seemed to be too big in their existing spots upstairs came down to help create the "recreation room" feeling.

Sheet-vinyl flooring, some wall-scraping and a fresh coat of paint creates livable space from this space's previous use as an artist's studio. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Swift.

The bigger lesson, she said, is that home sellers mustn't squander a home feature -- in this case clean, usable square footage -- in a market that is hot for that one feature.

"If it's a ranch-style house where your living is all one level and you have a sprawling, unfinished basement, you may be able to overlook what's down there," she said. "But this apartment was 800 square feet on the main floor and 800 on the lower level -- half the entire space."

After the makeover, the owner opted, instead, to rent out the unit, and found a tenant easily -- one who was attracted, no doubt, by the possibilities of that lower-level space.

And he's no longer indulging his artistic inclinations in his own residence.

"Oh, he has a separate studio now," she said. "That certainly has changed."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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