Three Basement Finishing Systems: An Introduction

Picture of Benefits of Finishing a Basement

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For many years, finishing a basement to create functional living space was a traditional construction project built from scratch, using lumber and drywall. Whether or not they were DIY affairs or built by a contractor, these finished basements were largely custom-built and required special techniques to limit the moisture in the basement, since the building materials did not hold up well against water. Custom-built basements are still a viable option, now there are also prefabricated designer systems available to make basement conversions easier. These ease of installation, of course, comes at a price.

Features and Issues with Basement Finishing Systems

Basement finishing systems place emphasis on the "system" part. They employ building materials specially designed for basements to resist moisture. Little or nothing about these finishing systems is from scratch; almost everything is pre-designed and in some cases is even pre-cut. Different systems are available, but they all share certain features and issues you need to keep in mind:

  • They don't use drywall. The Wall panels are made of non-organic materials that will dry out quickly in the event of flooding and resist even normal basement moisture. This avoids a major issue with drywall, which used organic paper as a facing material, which can easily develop mold. 
  • They provide wall insulationBuilt-from-scratch drywall finished basement walls have no insulation unless they are framed with sleeper studs and insulation is installed beneath them. Since basements are either completely or partially underground, temperature control is of major concern, and the wall panels used by basement systems have built-in insulating properties. 
  • No DIY installation is possible. All these companies make their money through the installation, not the materials, so it is virtually impossible for a DIYer to buy the materials themselves to install. 
  • Suspended ceiling are the norm.  A suspended ceiling is the most expedient way of adding a ceiling to your basement while preserving access to services located near the joists (wiring, etc.).
  • Flooring is not included.  Do not assume that flooring comes with the basement finishing system. Their main product is the wall paneling, not the floor or ceiling. 
  • The cost is high. Basement finishing systems are far more expensive that a DIY- or even contractor-built standard basement finishing job. So, depending on the size of your basement, these can run $30,000 and upward.
  • The businesses are franchised. Not all franchises are equal in customer service or quality, so it is wise to do your research. While the materials themselves may come from highly reputable and respectable manufacturers, you may be unlucky enough to come upon a franchise that is incompetent or dishonest. 
  • Salesmen can be aggressive. Be prepared. Basement finishing systems fall into that shadowy world of replacement windows, sunrooms and bathtub refinishing. Be certain of one thing. The salesperson will push hard, but do not be afraid to push back. Hard.

The high cost and aggressive sales practices seen in much of this industry raise the question in some minds about whether basement finishing systems are legitimate at all or fall into the category of a scam. This is something only you can judge. Budget-conscious consumers should be especially careful here; but for others, the turn-key approach--simply having a company arrive and finish the installation without dealing with carpenters and contractors--may be worth the cost. 

Owens Corning Basement Finishing System

The big daddy of all basement finishing systems, your first introduction to the Owens Corning™ Basement Finishing System™, may be at kiosks at shopping malls, farmer's markets, home-and-garden consumer shows, or sale literature slid underneath your door. Not only is Owens Corning the most prominent, but it's the only finishing system that comes with such a recognizable brand name attached to it.

  • Name: Owens Corning™ Basement Finishing System™.
  • Franchised?: Yes.
  • Cost: $50-$70 per square foot, though that is a very raw estimate. See our focus piece on the Owens Corning™ Basement Finishing System™ to get a better idea of how it's possible for even two similarly sized spaces to produce different estimates.
  • Completion time: About two weeks.
  • Ceiling included?: Yes. Choice of two types of suspended ceiling.
  • Flooring available?: No.
  • Insulating value of wall panels: R-11.
  • Typical praise: Fast, clean (no drywall dust), and looks good.
  • Typical complaints: Aggressive salespeople; high cost.
basement finishing system
The Owens Corning Basement Finishing System Owens Corning

Total Basement Finishing

Connecticut-based Total Basement Finishing (TBF) has been in the basement business for a long time, primarily through its parent company, Basement Systems Inc. Even though Total Basement Finishing does not waterproof basements (no basement finishing companies do), with its association with Basement Systems, Inc., waterproofing services are available.

  • Name: Total Basement Finishing, Inc.
  • Franchised?: Yes.
  • Cost: Not known.
  • Completion time: About two weeks.
  • Ceiling included?: Yes, available.
  • Flooring available?: Yes.
  • Insulating value of wall panels: R-13.
  • Typical praise: Not known.
  • Typical complaints: Not known.
finished basement living room
A Finished Basement from Total Basement Finishing Total Basement Finishing, Inc.

Wahoo Walls: A Do-It-Yourself Option

Is it possible to buy DIY basement finishing systems--complete with those waterproof, mildew-proof, paintable closed-cell polystyrene wall panels that the big finishing companies use?

Remember, those big basement finishing system companies make lots of money by selling the complete package--materials and labor. In fact, it is impossible to even get them to itemize the costs of labor vs. materials. One company, though, Wahoo Walls, will sell consumers the basic materials for doing the job yourself. 

Wahoo Walls' pricing is transparent. For example, its Smooth Tape Edge Perimeter Wall Panel (4' x 8' x 4") is listed as $159, as of July 2016, and they give you lots of DIY design suggestions.

The downside with any big remodeling materials ordered online: freight costs. Unfortunately, online estimation of freight costs is not yet available at Wahoo Walls. Owner Anne Wheatley Parker tells us that she plans to eventually put this in place, but in the meantime, make sure to ask about shipping costs and figure this into your cost calculations. 

Do It Yourself Basement Finishing System
Do It Yourself Basement Finishing System Wahoo Composites