Torontonians Raise Home Values by Digging Down

A finished basement is now the must-have for a GTA home, whether for extra living space or a higher resale price
Kara Kuryllowicz
November 21, 2017

Toronto homeowners tend to dig down before they build up – or back, or to the side – because a finished basement delivers the usable space they want more quickly, simply and cost-effectively, say local renovators.

“We’ve always seen basement lowering projects in higher-end neighborhoods, but in the past five years, people all over Toronto are digging down to maximize their available square footage and get a seven-to eight-foot ceiling height with underpinning or benching,” says Erik Calhoun of Re:Placement Design Inc., Toronto. “A third floor or an addition will cost at least double, require a wait of six months or more to get a hearing with the Committee of Adjustment and it’s possible you’ll still need to strengthen the foundation to support any additional storeys.”

For decades, quality kitchens and bathrooms were a home’s key selling features, but because today’s consumers invariably expect and get outstanding kitchens and bathrooms, having below-grade space is now the key differentiator and helps mitigate the space shortage associated with Toronto living.

A finished basement really increases the appeal of a home, and adds tremendous value – if it’s done right. As Fatima Bregman, sales representative at RE/MAX Hallmark Realty in Toronto, points outs, the six-foot versus the seven-to-eight-foot ceiling is simply the difference between a good space and a truly great space.

Cost-effective space-enlarger

Both Calhoun and Bregman note that finished basements need a minimum ceiling height of seven feet, and ideally eight, to maximize usability and add 10-20% at resale. In Toronto’s older homes, underpinning and benching – which are comparably priced – are required to achieve those heights, with underpinning maximizing the floor space while also strengthening the foundation.

“Finishing a basement and digging down is generally far more practical and cost-effective than moving [house] to upgrade,” says Bregman. “Increasingly, listings break down above- and below-grade square footage because that basement space really matters to potential home owners.”

Homeowners should know that many contractors outsource the concrete and foundation work to specialists – and that quotes vary widely. However, typical costs are a minimum of $30,000 to $60,000 for the digging and foundation work alone. Be aware that demand and the perceived expertise required are such that pricing can be a little crazy, says Calhoun, although he adds that it is rare to see numbers like $80,000 to $100,000 for that part of the job.

“Finish that basement properly and you also address typical basement issues such as dampness, mechanicals, ducting and drains because you’re waterproofing inside and out, upgrading back-up and drainage systems, addressing ducting and mechanical issues and greatly improving the foundation,” says Calhoun, who suggests benching the common wall in a semi-detached home where there may be communication issues with the neighbours. Although underpinning is preferable, he says, it is not always possible.

Rental or guest-suite potential

New buyers most often want a rental suite to supplement their income in their first few years of home ownership and appreciate a basement that easily reverts to family space by opening or closing doors to the various rooms. Meanwhile, established families tend to want a nanny suite, TV and entertainment room, a guest room or bedroom for a teenager, a second or third bathroom and a larger, nicely finished laundry room with plenty of storage.

Architectural designers like Calhoun offer a range of ideas designed to help maximize livability and space while managing costs. For example, while most contractors will recommend underpinning or benching the entire basement, Calhoun notes you can do the majority of the basement but save a little by leaving the furnace, water heater and storage areas as they are. In addition, one might step the ceiling above just the tub/shower stall to get the height required.

“It can be surprisingly easy and affordable to create a spectacular basement,” adds Calhoun.


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Kara Kuryllowicz
Kara Kuryllowicz is a Toronto-based writer with 30 years of experience writing and editing for a wide range of magazines, websites and corporate clients. She has a long-term interest in real estate, as a journalist, homeowner and landlord with investment properties. She is fascinated by the Greater Toronto Area real estate market and is equally interested in how the Toronto market affects seasonal and second homes.