Build that guest room in your basement

19 min read You may have a remodeling secret weapon beneath your mid-century home…your basement!

Basements are the best. Bonus space for creating cozy guest suites, great game rooms or awesome home offices without the expense of an addition right under your feet. So, if you’re lucky enough to have a basement go ahead and make the most of it!

And (of course) I can help. I get to explore options for mid-century basements all time as part of the design process. When design clients are hoping to accommodate occasional visitors, create an income suite, deck out a retro den or create a great teen space the basement is the first place to search for space.


In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Strategies for maximizing natural light, even if you don’t have a walkout. 
  • How to reimagine layout and flow down below. 
  • When a basement is like a bathtub. (And what to do if this is you!) 

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Putting useful living space and working space under your main floor will always be cheaper and often much easier than adding on or expanding upward which is not a great idea for a mid-century home.

Everyone’s basement baseline is going to be a little different. You may or may not have walkout access, or at least a slope site that allows for easy access to daylight. You may or may not have a good head height some basements were dug more deeply than others making it easier to run duct structures and other necessaries overhead without compromising the feeling of pleasant living space.

And you may or may not have to start with an easy to arrange flow of spaces where the basement stairs land and based on the location of the mechanical equipment.

When you have a social space in the basement, it makes sense to put in a bathroom down there. And while many mid-century homes often have some sort of simple plumbing in the basement to begin with, often it needs a tune up to become a really usable, pleasant space.

A few recommendations:

  • Even if you don’t add a bedroom, add egress windows to brighten up the space.
  • Insulate deeply by furring out the walls.
  • To address a bad layout, consider moving plumbing. It’s likely cheaper and easier than you think. 

There are circumstances that may keep you from improving and heavily using your basement space. The chance of water is a big one of these. If you live in an area with a high water table or at the bottom of a hill and have a basement, there may be good reason to keep avoid punching holes (like windows) through that space. Keep it zipped up tight and look for space elsewhere. 

Resources to set up basement guest room

Read the Full Episode Transcript

Okay, so it’s not exactly breaking news that your basement and your guest room can go together like peanut butter and jelly. But that’s what’s on my list to chat to you about today. So strap in. Also, look, the idea of basement guest room space comes up so frequently in our master plan clients that I bet you’ll find these design tips and factors I’ve got in mind useful, even if you don’t have a basement actually. So stay tuned. I mean that.

Hey there, welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is the show about updating mid-century homes, helping you match your mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann, architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, and you’re listening to Episode 1313.

Hey, before we get into today’s topic, which is incidentally, the last I have on deck for my so called Bed Bath and Beyond season, I wanted to take a moment to ask you if you’re still on the fence about joining us instead of ready to remodel right now. Just like planting trees, the right time to start master planning your home improvement that you’ve been dreaming of. Yeah, I see you. Why are you listening to this podcast?

Like I said the best time is a long time ago. And the next best time is today. But today is a really great time to jump in specifically because we’re about to kick off another mid mod remod squad. Normally I get to check in with the ready to remodel crew every first Monday of the month, I give a little pep talk share some great remodeling wins that the group has been having an answer questions on everything from whether a wall should or could come out of a living area to what tile to pick and why to how hard it is to operate a paint sprayer or whether it’s better to paint by hand.

But in September, we will be doing another Mod Squad. We’ll be doing five calls in a row and they kick off on Monday. So these remotes quiet moments are so much fun. I always invite all of our current existing ready to remodel homeowners to get the energy boost and join us too. If you’re listening. Yes, show up on Monday. And if you’re not ready to remodel yet, I wish you were I would love to be answering all of your built up pressing questions about your own remodel week by week through this entire month.

Look, you can take your remodel at any pace. And the masterplan method I teach inside of ready to remodel can be done quickly or slowly. But believe me when I say more time is always better. It always makes the process easier. It always deepens and enriches your thinking. And it always results in a remodel you love more. So why not start as soon as possible? Why not start now? Here in Wisconsin, the kids are headed back to school next week. 

So let’s get your design homework going to. Anyway, I asked if you were on the fence, are you? You don’t have to let this little pep talk persuade you. Ask me your questions. I’d love to chat you through it and let you know how it will work for you. And remind you that the 12 month payment plan starts at just $167. Yeah, this is absolutely the most affordable way to get an architect on call for your project.

And the best way to get a hold of me to ask questions about it directly is to send a DM to the Instagram account. That’s always me on the other side. So find me there @midmodmidwest and find the show notes with links to the things I’m going to talk about today and some pictures of other basement updates and layouts. Plus the transcript of the whole episode at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1313 Or just go join us inside of ready to remodel right now you can do that at mid mod dash midwest.com/summer.

Alright, basement guest rooms. I’ve said it before. And I’ll say it again. If you are lucky enough to have a basement under your home, this is your remodel secret weapon. Putting useful living space and working space under your main floor will always be cheaper and often much easier than adding on or expanding upward which is not a great idea for a mid-century home.

Now, if you happen to live in California, or an area of the country with a very high water table, or very shallow frost line where basements are less common. You’re out of luck with some of this, but I will be talking about the design features of some of the types of spaces we typically in the Midwest put in a basement in the East Coast across the Northwest. So think about the design topics that I’m talking about a day and you’ll still find plenty that’s useful for you.

For the rest of us, this area has the power to do the most. If you plan it right now. Everyone’s basement baseline is going to be a little different. You may or may not have walkout access, or at least a slope site that allows for easy access to daylight. You may or may not have a good head height some basements were dug more deeply than others making it easier to run duct structures and other necessaries overhead without compromising the feeling of pleasant living space.

And you may or may not have to start with an easy to arrange flow of spaces where the basement stairs land and based on the location of the mechanical equipment. Now I’ll talk a little more about each of those situations in a moment. But I want you to know I have worked up masterplans for homes that were a dream to tweak into a living space, and I have strategized to improve some really torturously awkward spaces.

And either way, I’m thinking of the same design principles and I’m often fitting in the same list of desired space uses. Look, nearly everyone who wants to improve their basement needs to add some of the above usually all of it some separated secondary living or social space a den.

Sometimes a TV area sometimes a video game or a game playing area, sometimes a craft room, a place for kids or teens to be louder or messier than its pleasant upstairs, a place for adults in the house to do the same. Now often we’re carving out space for an office as part of the downstairs area that’s sometimes part of the den or separated from it. These office areas are ideal for folks who work from home part time, or who just want some physical distance between where they eat, sleep and play and where they sit at a desk for a day at a time.

Sometimes just walking down the stairs is enough to create that psychological separation. Or we often are putting offices into basements for two halves of a couple that both work from home. In that case, it can be really useful to get those working spaces, those taking meeting spaces, those focus areas a little more separate from each other than two sides of the same room or two rooms next to each other.

When you have a social space in the basement, it also just makes sense to put in a bathroom down there. And while many mid-century homes often have some sort of simple plumbing in the basement to begin with, it can use a tune up to become a really usable, pleasant space. Now raise your hand I’ll just know if you are if you have an odd toilet and possibly an odd open shower stall tucked into the mechanical or utility area of your basement near the laundry machines. I had one of these when I moved in. A toilet stall tucked around the corner from the door to the unfinished basement but facing directly out to the laundry units 13 feet away, with a simple 70s plastic shower surround also facing bare concrete floor in front of both. Ick. 

Now over the years I’ve collected a number of explanations from this from older folks and inspectors and contractors. Some people say it’s an easy cheap plumbing fixture that a plumbing could use to challenge a system. Some people say it’s a diaper toilet that parents could use to rent out dirty cloth diapers before laundering them.

I’ve heard other things, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is bathrooms like that don’t work as they are. It’s not the sort of place you want to invite guests to head over for movie night to wash up or use the facilities. So this leads directly into the common necessity of a basement.

There’s a lot of plumbing and mechanical equipment kind of scattered around a house for a Midwestern house anyway, in places like Florida and Texas, our clients have water piping that runs through the attic and laundries located in the garage. But in a place with an active freeze thaw cycle, that is madness.

So we have substantial furnace units, mechanical units, water heaters, and softeners. In a poorly laid out basement, those little dots of mechanical equipment can pop up all over the place, making it a little hard to fit in a practical and pleasant room with easy access to the stairs down. So we’ll talk about more or less luck in those departments. Oh, one last thing nearly everyone wants to add to their basement, the basement guest room.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the upside down living putting all your bedrooms or at least your primary bedroom into the basement. And why that’s nice. The short short version, I mean, you can just go listen to that episode. But it’s great because you gain space without the cost of an addition. Depending on how you allocate the space, you can really spread out and get more floor area bedroom storage and a more generous bathroom, then you can by rearranging space on the main floor.

Basement spaces also offer a measure of greater privacy than the main level suite. That’s nice for an owner suite. But it’s also nice for a guest suite. Basements are often cooler and quieter than upstairs floors, which makes them an ideal location for a peaceful retreat. Those go just the same for guest suites as they go for owner suites, you’ve got a lot more flexible space layout and multiple uses, you’ve got more privacy for that house separation.

The classic solution for a home where not all the main floor bedrooms are slept in by the household members is to put an extra bed in that empty bedroom and designate it the guest room. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes a basement guest suite can go a lot farther. You’re not inviting your guests to use your own bathroom. You’re not inviting them to live right across the bedroom wall from your own nighttime activities or perhaps a noisy kid.

When I’m talking to my master plan clients, I also want to know who the guest room is for this makes a difference. For example, if you’re having the occasional couple friends crash for a night or two as they pass through your city or stay for a weekend a few times a year, you might not need much more out of a guest room than a mid-quality bed and a door that closes or a pullout sofa to be honest.

But if you plan to have regular and longer term guests, family from out of town who stay a week, the possibility of a friend or family member visiting long term that means a different kind of hosting. If you have friends who come as a family with multiple kids or teens in their group, they may want a slightly more flexible array of spaces to keep their family together that would benefit from more ability to spread out. Longer term guests appreciate having their own bathroom space as well as an area to sit down on a chair or sofa outside of the room where their bed is for a few minutes or a few hours at the start or end of their day, particularly if their schedule doesn’t align perfectly to yours.

And for people who expect to help out a parent needing longer term care to welcome back an adult child during gas between there launched independence, or with expatriate or international friends and family who may stay for longer. All of those cases really benefit from more of a private guest suite. Where can that go downstairs, giving that space, its own access to the house, and even their own mini kitchen setup. At least room to make coffee and breakfast can be super helpful too.

And to be frank, once you’ve gone that far, you might as well be talking about a space that’s worth listing on Airbnb, which could justify the expense to make a few further adjustments and separations beyond a room that opens to a bath. We’ve done this for clients before. And if I was going to do more on this, I could do an entire episode on how to create an Airbnb in your basement. But let’s suffice it to say that once you have outside access a generous bedroom with daylight and egress, a small living area room for at least a tiny kitchenette, and a good way to close off that space securely from interior access to your own home, you’re pretty close.

And remember, all of those things are mutually beneficial for you when you don’t have guests. If you ever spend time in your basement, you’ll want to have a bathroom down there. And if you live in a particularly modest version of the mid-century home, like mine, that might be the difference between one bathroom and to having an extra bathroom in the house is just handy. Even for people who live alone when they have guests.

There’s always a reason why one bathroom might be in use or out of commission temporarily. This by the way is also really helpful. I have many clients who go through the process of wanting to take their remodel and stages. And often you can finish a new bathroom into the basement before you remodel upstairs. So you’re not decommissioning the only bathroom in the house and trying to live in it. While that happens. porta potties are not great long term home bathroom solutions, just some free advice.

Similarly, the safety features required of a basement bedroom. Yeah, even if guests are gonna stay there will make your daily life living in the basement better egress windows are one of my favorite things. And expending just a little effort to make sure that yours is set up to be not just a safety feature, but a visually aesthetically satisfying one is worth it at nearly any cost.

I brought this up and my recent episode on owner suites and basements but do pay close attention to the requirements for egress. And also for light and vent for basements in your municipality. You will not only need to account for a window opening large enough for an adult human to escape through. That’s the egress part. But you also need adequate light and ventilation for both bedrooms and sometimes living areas or any quote unquote habitable areas of the house even if they’re below grade. So check your local code.

If you plan to have your home improvements inspected and you should really you must, the inspector will ask for this and will require it and you don’t want to find out too late once the excavation and a new window is installed, that you’re not in compliance and you have to make the rooms smaller. The thing to remember is that you’ll need 8% of the room floor areas in daylight, providing glass and half of that as operable ventilation area. Those are common rules of thumb again, check your code for specifics. But that means if you want to have a bedroom, knock off an open plan den area, you’ll have to have a much more significant amount of light and vent for all of it.

In some states, you’ll be required or recommended to provide proportional light and vent for any finished basement spaces, even if they are not a bedroom. Wow. Okay. I’m so deep into the heartstopper world right now. I’ve just finished it twice in a row thinking are they not a girl? Is immediately what comes up to mind when I think are they not a bedroom. All right, anyway, moving on.

What I want you to internalize here is that this is a good thing and worth it more windows in your basement. When you roll these into a project. We did this just this summer, there was already a generous garden window and a steel exit door in the space. By replacing some of the panels that window with operable ones and putting in a full light glass door, we were able to get pretty close to enough area to account for a more than generous bedroom.

But by proposing to dig that window just a little deeper, we were able to treat an interesting odd shaped sunken basement space and underneath the entire sunken living room area as a cohesive studio apartment suitable for long term tenancy or a returning college students which they have to stay for a few months while everyone still has plenty of personal space result is a glorious daylight space in a basement. So, so worth it.

Now, this is true even if you don’t have a basement, you still want to think about how you can orient things for privacy. For example, we did a master plan for a single level California ranch last year, in which we squeezed a new three quarter bath into what had been a truly useless wide hallway between a kitchen and a backyard facing bonus room on the social not the bedroom side of the house. Now that bonus room will be used mostly as an office and house already has four bedrooms due to a previous edition.

But giving that space a bathroom of its own. Even a tiny one really gives the family a chance to use that as a guest room and if do, to get a little more crucial distance for medium or long term guests who stay there, they’re not one wall away, they’re on opposite sides of the house. So think about whenever you’re creating a guest space, a bonus room where you’re thinking on of adding on can you put in a bedroom and a functional at least three quarters, bathrooms somewhere that’s not near your own bedroom spaces that will also serve your own use as you go through your day to day life.

Let’s get into the design factors of what makes a basement remodel work well, there are a few things. One, you want to finish it like the rest of the house. Probably, you certainly want to meet the standard of the rest of the house. Basements shouldn’t be dingy or more cheaply finished or less comfortable with finished.

You might however choose to make your basement a little more of a time capsule I’ve had several clients love the idea of making the first one called it a James Bond bar basement. The next couple that asked her something similar, really wanted to create like a jazz groove room where they could really do wood paneled walls and record player and drinks around a fire and a built in bar.

It’s really fun to create that slightly more specific vibe for a basement space. So go crazy with that but do treat the basement as seriously as you treat the upstairs spaces if you want it to be living space as pleasant as those spaces.

To that end. You also want to insulate the heck out of your basement. You want to have a warm floor if possible. And insulating our comfortable foot friendly surface. I love cork for this and you might think about putting in in floor heat while you’re doing the remodel.

For a standard Midwestern basement, I also love to insulate in deeply from the walls first check to see that you’re well water sealed or make that happen. And then adhere an inch of rigid insulation right to the unfinished concrete. Leave an inch of air gap and build out a furred out two by four wall inset from those two inches that you can fill with batt insulation, plus plumbing pipes, electrical runs, etc. And then finish it with drywall. That does cost you six inches of basement on every wall but it is so worth it to truly feel warm and cozy in your basement.

Now, one of the things your basement may or may not have come with is walkout access and really great windows. But if you don’t have those, you can add them consider digging out larger windows. Even if you have small window wells consider digging in a door and a basement stair that leads to some part of your side or backyard. The only exception to that will be if you have a known repeating water infiltration problem. And or you live at the bottom of a large hill which leads to a known repeating water infiltration problem. In that case, you want to treat your basement like a tub and keep it as well sealed as possible.

Now, you may or may not also have been gifted good head height. If you have a lot of headroom in the basement. Great. If you don’t keep the following tips and tricks in mind, you can always trick your eye with lower furniture, a lot of vintage mid-century furniture is lower because it makes the ceiling feel higher. So you could also think about building the layout around disguising the lowest ceiling elements. Think about the major dividing wall that runs in line with the center beam often the lowest point.

Now it doesn’t have to be completely continuous. But if you think about a basement in its most simple form as being a rectangle that we might call roughly two units deep and three units wide, it’s probably better to create your largest basement room in a one by two quantity of space that runs in the same direction as the house rather than one that’s perpendicular across one end of the basement. That way it won’t have a big sharp low line through the middle of the ceiling.

But you also don’t have to let that ceiling beam set your room dimensions completely borrow space under the beam for your larger room by adding in built ins that take from space they’re tucking in a built in ceiling a built in sofa with an intentionally lowered ceiling change the ceiling material in that space build in a screen wall that picks up that line and runs with it. Remember that you can always disguise things like low beams and ducts by wrapping them in a continuous drywall soffit that goes beyond what’s absolutely required to hit some particular endpoint that feels more meaningful or to wrap around the entire space.

You can also turn a soffit and bend it down to become a divider wall or an element that feels intentional rather than clearly being and here is where the duck work is wrapped in drywall. I’ll show some examples of how that might work in a few recent projects in the show notes post. Now, if you’re going for a more lightly finished basement look, you can also keep all the overhead structure exposed but perhaps neatly painted white. This lets you see the theoretical headroom between the joists and can make a small space feel bigger. In extreme cases, you can even remove the existing basement slab and dig out the entire basement by a few inches up to a foot to create necessary headroom. Now finally

You may or may not be gifted with good flow of spaces. Some basements were well planned by the original contractor, and they took all the mechanical or utility areas away on one end, then land the stair perfectly into a large rectangular open space near walkout windows. Some don’t. This is where you get out your floor plan and start to get creative. You can conceal standalone items like an errand clean out pipe or water softener into small closets. Don’t be afraid to run a diagonal hallway from the foot of the stair to the best corner.

And here’s where the master plan comes in. When you’re thinking about the big picture the lifespan of what you’re going to do in your house. Look for those opportunities to pare unnecessary boring upgrades to mechanical or plumbing systems with reassessing your layout. This might be your one opportunity to change where the furnace is located. And if you walk down the stairs and straight into the furnace, this could be a way to completely transform the way that your basement works.

What makes projects easier and cheaper or much more complex and expensive, is sometimes a matter of what all needs to happen at the same time. So while it’s a great idea to work around your existing mechanical systems, or to line up basement bathrooms with existing plumbing upstairs, I also recommend you don’t worry about that too hard because it’s particularly easy to move plumbing in a concrete pour.

Counterintuitively, you can jackhammer up that slab and move the plumbing somewhere else if you need to more easily than you can necessarily move plumbing around upstairs, especially over an already finished basement. 

Hopefully this has got your creative juices flowing. I would love to hear you say that you are getting excited about making some changes to your basement.

And remember, you can always find your appropriate level you can start with some things think about the general layout you’ll be working with choose some furniture that will work in your future layout and start living down in parts of your basement right now. You can always start with a paint the joists white finish and come back around to building cleverly created soffits that disguise everything that’s happening above head height at a later time. You can always start by making a basement den and know where the egress window will go and put that bedroom in later. So think about this as a way to work yourself up to other projects.

Basements can also be good DIY projects, especially if you’re not living in the basement right now. There’s not necessarily any rush. So this is something that can last you through the winter that you can experiment on, but you can start your project management skills with and then come upstairs to a more complicated or personally very important or keeping up with the Joneses with aspect of the house like a kitchen remodel.

For example, if you’re going to go ahead and put in a basement bar saying and a new basement bathroom, you will have done all the necessary skills of a future larger project. Don’t forget to go check out the show notes page for some examples from projects we’ve worked on some great basement upgrades that have actually become not just better, but some of the coolest spaces in the house once completed.

I want the best for your basement and a basement guest room might be exactly what the best is for you. And remember, I would love to see you inside of ready to remodel. If you have any questions, I can answer about it. Go ahead and send me a DM or drop an email to our email account. We would love to be talking about your basement, your basement guest room or any part of your home improvement project goals inside of ready to remodel week by week all the way through September. Hope I see you there.