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Brighten Your Basement: Tips to Maximize Your Underground Apartment

Guest January 21, 2013 Renter Resources 1 Comment

Laverne's & Shirley's basement apartment

If you have ever watched a television show devoted to improving property for rental purposes, you are no doubt aware of the growing popularity of renovating basement apartments. Gone are the days of dungeon-dwelling in a dark, depressing basement because there are more ways than ever to sweep the gloom out of those underground rooms. Fortunately, a few simple tricks are all it takes.

Don’t be afraid of color.

There is a persistent misconception that painting a room white will automatically make it appear bigger and brighter. On the contrary, a dullish white in a flat finish screams “institutional” and “confined”- think of all the places where this is true: hospitals, government buildings, prisons, etc. Yikes. Not the image of comfort that you want in an apartment, least of all in a basement where you might feel secluded enough as it is.

If you do want to use white paint somewhere, open up the room by applying a fresh coat of white on the ceiling. There are great, DIY-friendly ceiling paints available at your local home improvement store ñ and  painting all the trim in the same white, but in a high gloss finish. Otherwise, there are so many other, better options at your disposal!

For the walls, go with lighter shades of primary and warm colors or stick with pastels. Be sure to use a Satin finish on the wall paint: the subtle sheen bounces what light you do have in the room and creates a more open and light feel throughout. They’re also much easier to clean when it comes time to move out.

If you start with a subdued shade on the walls, you can introduce pops of color using accessories like pillows, rugs and wall art without going overboard.

Let there be Light.

It may go without saying that the most common downside to renting a basement apartment is the lack of natural lighting. When you are dealing with few to zero windows, pot lights are a great way to spread out overhead lighting throughout a room without taking up any precious ceiling space (perfect for those lower ceilings). When these are not an option, liberally place table and floor lamps around the room to evenly distribute the light. Pay attention to the corners because you get twice as much light with lamps when they have two walls off of which to reflect.

At the same time, too much light can be just as bad as too little. Keep in mind this is your home, not an office building: be aware of how much overhead fluorescent lighting you have in a room and monitor how often you use it. One solution to combat the artificial feel is to use “Daylight” bulbs, also available at your local home improvement store, which can help mimic the look of sunlight to an otherwise dreary space.

Keep “Space” in the Space.

The simple fact is that overfilling a room can create a sense of claustrophobia. Of course, this may be unavoidable if you are bringing everything you own in the world with you, which is often the case in apartment-dwelling (you’re lucky if your unit comes with a garage or extra storage!). Wherever possible, try to bring into a space only what you need and use on a daily, or semi-regular, basis.

Additionally, many basements have lower ceilings than other apartments and nothing will make a room feel cramped faster than having furniture that is scraping the ceiling. Keeping space in between the top of your furniture and the ceiling creates an illusion for the eye and tricks it into thinking the ceiling is higher than it actually is. The same is true for wall hangings: hang them no higher than eye level to maintain proper perspective from floor to ceiling.

Go with the Flow.

Continuing with the furniture for one more moment, one trick to making any room feel larger is to arrange the furnishings in such a way as to facilitate open and free movement. While you do not necessarily want to line everything up in a row or push things against every spare inch of the wall, you also don’t want to stop the flow of traffic by putting tables and chairs in front of doors and hallways.

If you have one large space and you want to separate your dining area from your living room, do so without interrupting the flow of the room too much. For instance, when you have an armchair and a large couch, use the armchair to divide the room and keep the couch along the wall and out of the center of the space. Try to employ an open concept when arranging your furniture and maximize the basement space you have to create a living environment that will work for you and not against you.

Communicate with your Landlord.

The most important thing to keep in mind while you are brightening up the place is that it is someone else’s place. For any permanent changes you want to make, you will have to get your landlord’s approval and you may even be able to get his or her help.

Create a cohesive design and present it to her as an investment opportunity in her property. After all, you will not be in the basement forever and this is a way for you to leave the place in better condition (and potential for higher rent) for the next tenant.

Wherever you can, try to get the landlord to pay for the upgrades. In the event she resists, one negotiation strategy you might employ is to offer a compromise. For example, if she pays for the paint and painting supplies, you’ll do the work yourself, using a color upon which you have mutually agreed: win-win.

Jay Harris has been helping customers as a Home Depot store associate in the Chicago area since 2005. Jay is a contributor to Home Depot’s Home Decorators.com website. His home-décor interests range from wall shelves to patio furniture.



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  • lia

    If you are renting YOU CAN’T DO MANY OF THESE THINGS! Landlords don’t care! If you try to change the lighting or paint the walls – they will sue you. Sorry but as a tenant i’m forced to live in basements because i don’t have family kind enough to live with or help me buy my first house, or inheritance to get one and probably never will. I am a female and have to work for low wages and put up with dark basements that either smell of gas, or musty. yeah….so there….sad but true. I live in darkness.