In Washington, DC, living in a basement apartment can almost be considered a right of passage. Usually attached to older homes, these apartments, sometimes referred to as English basements, often have lower rents, but at a cost of sunlight. Because flooding can be an issue in the district, basements cannot have hardwood floors, and it’s not easy to install enough windows to brighten up the space.
But basement apartments don’t have to be cold or uninviting. With a little creativity and some chunky blankets, you can liven up an English basement, making it suitable whether you’re a renter or landlord. Here’s how to do it.
Install a separate entrance
All basement apartment rentals need to have two exits, according to Washington, DC building codes. This is in case of a fire, tenants have more than one way out of the building.
In many English basements, the front entrance sits just below the main entrance to the home, which usually requires stairs to reach. Then a separate exit is installed at the back of the apartment, leading out to a patio or backyard. Choose sturdy doors with good locks to prevent thefts, and if needed, add a Ring video doorbell and security system to give renters a little peace of mind. Little upgrades like this can go a long way towards making renters feel safe in their new home.
Heighten the ceilings when possible
In Washington, DC, basement ceilings must be at least 7 feet tall in order to be rented to tenants. While there are some exceptions depending on what the space is used for, it’s a good rule of thumb to make sure all ceilings are at least 7 feet from the ground before renting out the space.
But nothing says you can’t go even a little bit higher. If you have the space, opening the ceiling can make the room feel bigger and roomier. Exposed pipes or beams can even add character to the space. If you do decide to expose pipes, make sure they’re not leaking and have been cleaned. It ruins the effect when the pipes are covered in cobwebs.
Paint the walls white
When painting the walls in your basement apartment, white will almost always be the perfect choice. From a design perspective, it allows tenants to style the room any way they’d like using any color combination they choose.
White walls also brighten spaces, which can be very important in a basement apartment when there are few windows to add light. The white paint will reflect the light off the walls and send it to darker corners. This isn’t a replacement for good lighting fixtures (we’ll get to that later), but it can help the space feel brighter in the daytime and more inviting to renters.
Don’t skimp on kitchen appliances
With basement apartment designs, you may feel inclined to put the smallest kitchen appliances you can find and hope the renter doesn’t need too much space to store pots and pans. A tiny kitchen, however, will be a big turn-off to tenants, so you need to find a good balance between fitting a kitchen into a potentially small space and making it functional.
Start with good kitchen appliances. You can find plenty of chic appliances that are also slim yet functional. If you really want to impress your potential tenants, don’t forget to install a dishwasher. While many tenants have accepted the fact that they may not have one in their rented basement apartment, it’s a major bonus when they find an English basement with its own dishwasher. Though it’s an extra expense, it may land you a higher paying tenant or one that’s happy to renew a lease.
Choose a kitchen island for seating
Basement apartment designs are usually open concept, meaning there’s nothing separating the kitchen and the living room. Although this is a popular design, especially for entertaining, it can limit the options for dinner tables, which will be tough to fit in a room that still needs to be walkable.
Don’t let tenants figure out what to do. Make it easier for them by installing a kitchen island with room for a breakfast bar. This provides additional space for meal preparation, and it also adds seating space for meals. Most breakfast bars are only meant for one or two people, but even that little bit of extra space will save renters the trouble trying to squeeze in a table.
Replace old, dated fixtures
Have a lighting fixture that looks like the bulb might explode at any second? Is the fixture so old that you can easily date it just by looking at it? Then it’s time to say, “Out with the old, in with the new.”
Pro tip: Opt for LED bulbs. They’ll save money on utility bills in the long run, and it’ll probably be another decade before you need to replace them.
Install built-in bookcases
One of the problems with English basement designs is that they lack storage space. When there’s nowhere for tenants to store their possessions, they have to buy more furniture themselves — and that can make for a cramped apartment.
Help them along by installing a built-in bookshelf on one wall of the basement apartment. You can keep it skinny, just wide enough for books, or build it out and add cabinets. Having the space to display books, photo frames and decor will make the English basement feel homier to your tenant.
Lay down area rugs in living rooms and runners in the hallway
Because basement apartments almost always have concrete floors (don’t choose carpet, it may be ruined if there’s a leak), and that can make the unit feel cold, especially during the wintertime.
Invest in lots of area rugs and spread them beyond the living room. Add runners to hallways and kitchens so feet never get cold while preparing breakfast. In the bedroom, an area rug or runner will make getting out of bed much more pleasant with a soft, warm surface underfoot.
Heat it up with heated floors
Want to really interest renters? Install heated floors in the basement apartment. It’s a little pricey, but it can make all the difference to renters.
You don’t have to cover the entire basement apartment floor, but you can be strategic about where you install the heated floor tiles. Contain them to small spaces, such as in the entryway, bathroom or laundry room.
Purchase space-saving furniture
Whether you’re a landlord furnishing the basement apartment or a renter doing it yourself, you can find great small-space furniture pieces that look stylish but perform several functions, helping you make the most out of the small space.
Choose furniture such as:
- An ottoman with a top that lifts up to provide extra storage;
- A dining table with leaves that fold down and can function as a side table when not in use, and;
- A fold-out sofa or chair as extra sleeping space if you have guests.
Add pendant lights and wall sconces instead of chandeliers
Chandeliers look beautiful, but they take up a lot of ceiling space if they’re too wide. You don’t want an apartment filled with boring flush mounts, so look for pendants and wall sconces.
Pendants are usually thin and hang down in a nice straight line. They provide plenty of light and style, but they don’t take up too much space. Many designers love to hang pendants over a kitchen island to brighten the space.
Wall sconces can be great for making use of blank walls. While some you will need an electrician to install, others you can hang on the wall and plug into an outlet. If ceiling space is limited for your basement apartment, plug-in wall sconces can be a great alternative whether you’re a renter or a landlord.
Install recessed lighting in kitchens
Need a good task light for the kitchen? Pendants just not enough? If you need more light to tenants can see the food while they prepare it, installed recessed (sometimes called canned) lighting in a line above the kitchen. This will provide additional lighting, and it won’t take up much-needed ceiling space.
Consider a stackable washer and dryer
If there’s one thing that all renters love and will gladly pay a little higher rent to have, it’s a washer and dryer in unit. But as a landlord, you might be thinking: where would I even put those appliances in my small basement apartment?
The answer? Opt for a stacked washer and dryer unit. You can install it near a kitchen with all the other appliances or place it in a small closet and add a door to tuck it away. Either option will be a major bonus to renters and with so many appliance options, you don’t have to break the bank.
Go for the shower/tub combo
Have a bathroom with just a shower? Or, even worse, just a tub? Having a shower/tub combo in the bathroom gives renters options. Showers are usually best for every-day use, but many renters will love having the option to soak in a warm bath at night or bathe children or pets if the space allows.
Upgrade the bathroom with heated towel racks
Want to really win the best-landlord-of-the-year award? Install heated towel racks in your bathroom. In the wintertime, tenants will love stepping out of a hot shower and into a warm towel. It’s an upgrade, certainly, but it’s one that will keep tenants renewing leases from year to year.
Need more ideas for designing your basement apartment? Contact Atlas Lane, and we’ll help you design a space functions for both landlords and renters.