A ’70s Basement Turns into a Happy Family Room

A New Jersey basement transforms into a spot for music, lounging, and laundry

In 2015, Cristiana and her husband fell in love with a beautiful old house in New Jersey’s Bergen County. Original details from 1918 had been preserved, and the space was just right for the family of four. While the above-grade spaces were solid and charming, the basement needed some serious TLC. It featured outdated finishes from the 1970s, low ceilings (a big problem for Cristiana’s tall husband!), and a damp, musty feel. Cristiana knew that the valuable square footage could be turned into a family room, with space left over for wine and pantry storage as well as an updated laundry room. They turned to Sweeten, a free service matching renovators with vetted general contractors, to convert an uninviting subterranean cave into a cozy and comfortable spot for the whole family.

renovation Essex County Guest post by Bergen County, New Jersey, homeowner Cristiana

Two years ago, we were moving from a 750-square-foot apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, which felt like it was bursting at the seams. When we purchased our early Craftsman Colonial home, we knew there would be lots of work to do. But it felt solid, had the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms and great, livable space. Plus, the original unpainted chestnut moldings and leaded glass built-ins throughout the new house made any renovations that we needed to do seem bearable.

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Before we were able to move in, we needed to completely rewire the entire house because it still had knob-and-tube wiring. This meant demolishing the ’70s-style finished basement. We weren’t that upset about losing the brown paneling, damp rug, and linoleum-tiled laundry room, and we were saving a lot of money by allowing the electrician free access to the walls and ceiling of the basement. The space had to be refurbished before it could be used for anything besides storage. After a couple of months of rewiring, patching, and painting, we temporarily relocated the toy storage and our TV to the enclosed front porch and began working with an architect to rethink the space. We came to Sweeten to find a contractor to execute our architect’s vision.

Our plans included moving the laundry room to free up the main living area for toys, creating a craft area, and carving out a wine room. An old phone booth left behind by the previous owners was relocated. We hoped to move as many pipes in the labyrinth hanging from the ceiling to provide more headroom for my 6’ 4” husband and our two future six-footers—our sons, currently ages six and eight. New windows were installed and additional waterproofing was added throughout the space.

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When we got started working with our Sweeten contractor, we tried to determine where waterproofing was necessary and figured out what pipes could be moved and what had to stay. We ran PEX pipes for water in the walls and were able to run all electricity through the ceiling. We had to leave our steam pipes for our original but completely functional heating system because it was cost-prohibitive to move them. Our contractor also created easy access points for a (hopefully not so distant) kitchen renovation. In the end, the ceiling in the basement was raised from under six-and-a-half feet to over eight feet tall—a huge improvement and a crucial part of the renovation.

Once the not-so-glamorous phases of waterproofing, plumbing, and electric were completed, we began to see the new rooms take shape. We were surprised by the space that needed to be left between the block walls and the drywall for fireproofing but decided to incorporate built-ins for board games as well as arts-and-crafts supplies. Our contractor also built a custom shelving unit under our TV to help prevent kids from walking into the corner of the TV when it was pulled out from the wall. The area under the stairs turned into a fort for the boys. For the walls, we chose a warm gray paired with a soft white trim. The floors are COREtec, which looks like walnut but is actually an engineered plank that’s perfect for below-grade spaces. This was one of our contractor’s best recommendations—a floating floor that is easily replaced if it gets wet, feels great underfoot, and looks amazing. We love it, and have gotten a ton of compliments on it!

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We installed IKEA kitchen cabinets and laminate countertops in our laundry room, which were big cost-savers and resulted in a sleek and lovely place to do laundry. A wall-mounted drying rack is one of my favorite features. My kids and husband have turned the storage room into a music room, but as long as they don’t mind playing next to our second freezer and extra Cheerios, it works for me!

That’s about it for the first phase of our basement renovation. Of course, there are still items on the to-do list. We are planning to turn the wooden phone booth at the bottom of the stairs into a fun space for the boysit has working electricity, so we are hoping to wire it with wifi or as a charging station. We will also either paint it red (Londonesque) or blue (Doctor Who!), and add a plaque on the top with our last name. Next to the phone booth is a door that leads to our unfinished wine room, another project for the future.

For now, though, we love spending time in our new basement—and getting dedicated storage for the toys, drums, and storage off the main floor! It’s become a great family room for us to hang out in, and for the boys to play with their friends. Working with our Sweeten contractor was an amazing experience. He was cooperative, made great suggestions, and brought the project in on budget.

Thank you, Cristiana, for showing us the fabulous transformation of an often-overlooked space! We can’t wait to see what you do next.

BASEMENT RESOURCES: Blackstone Oak COREtec flooring: COREtec. Laundry room cabinets and countertops: IKEA. Dolphin Fin wall paint: Behr. White Dove trim/ceiling paint: Benjamin Moore.

With extra square footage and some smart space planning, you can add a laundry room to your home.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.