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Basements can be valuable bargains for alert homebuyers

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, 6:51 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Kelly Compeau, 39 of Lawrenceville, shows off his finished basement at his home in Lawrenceville, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.

Brian Carothers sees great wisdom when he meets a “yinzer basement visionary.”

Those adept buyers can look at an unfinished area beneath a house and see things to come. Plans generally involve “pictures of Pittsburgh athletes; IC Light cans commemorating a Super Bowl win; and a piece of carpeting that doesn't quite fit but sort of makes it look like a room,” he says with a laugh.

It is space that, when unfinished, isn't counted in the square footage of a home, so is basically free, say building and taxing officials. Architect Ben Maguire and builder Stephen A. Catarinella call it “bonus space.”

Although the space has “untapped potential,” as Lawrenceville homeowner Kelly Compeau says, it sometimes is overlooked in discussion of a home.

Catarinella says he always tries to make basement possibilities a “part of the conversation” when starting a house project. Even if the client doesn't want to do anything with the space when the home is being put together, he tries to make sure they can see what they could do down the road, says the owner of Steve Catranel Construction Co. in Wilkins.

Maguire says he, too, tries to make sure even empty basements are ready for the future by making sure that elements such as electrical wiring or plumbing are available.

Basements, though, still can be a problem with some homes.

“Some people look at the bad reputations of basements and leave them unfinished,” says Maguire, owner of Emerge Real Estate, a firm that has been creating and redoing homes in Lawrenceville and other parts of the city.

Others, like Kelly Compeau and his wife, Alisa, see basement work as a way to add to their house. He says they wanted an informal gathering spot they didn't think the first floor would provide.

They had Maguire's builders turn an end-to-end basement-level garage into a family room and a workout room — the latter of which still is served by the garage door and has a little patio on its end.

“One of the criteria was a room like this,” Compeau says.

Builder Josh Adamek and Greensburg architect Lee Calisti, say basements are almost demanded in Western Pennsylvania construction, even if the use is undefined and often ignored as a feature in the marketing of the homes.

That expectation is the great difference between clients from Western Pennsylvania and those from elsewhere, Carothers says.

“You get somebody from someplace else and they say: ‘What am I looking at?' ” he says.

Catarinella and Calisti say the topography of the area makes basements almost expected. Most properties are graded enough that a slab to hold a home will need a wall of some kind at least at one end, making the excavation for the rest of the basement no big deal, they say.

Catarinella says because of the topography of the area “98 percent of the people here have lived in a house with a basement.”

Calisti says he encounters interest in a basement “almost every time” he begins plans. From there, the options are many — if they are recognized.

Maguire says many clients don't want to add on the expense of finishing a basement to the cost of a new home. Most often they are looking for a “customizeable” space they might want to get to later.

That decision also can lessen taxes.

Jim Davis, a manager of property evaluation for Allegheny County, says unfinished space is not added to square footage, so it doesn't increase the taxation on a home.

Slightly improved space would be taxed at a lesser rate, he says, while a basement turned into another kitchen or bedroom would draw a full assessment.

Even though basement space generally isn't a big part of a home's sales pitch, it usually is wanted — even in older home, says Adamek, one of the owners of Synergy Capital, a Ross firm that renovates and resells older homes.

His company will try to clean up and make usable basement space even in older, city homes that have very little to begin with. Basements in those home often included tight space used as coal cellars.

But he knows clients who have turned such areas into wine cellars or workout rooms.

The demand for basement space tends to be strong, he says.

“We had houses in Upper St. Clair and Franklin Park (without basements), and we must've had 50 people through them and couldn't sell them,” he says. “When we finally did, we probably could have sold them for $40,000 more with a basement.”

Generally, he says, it is wise to add a basement, although sometimes it is just impractical. A new project that Synergy Capital is doing on 44th Street in Lawrenceville will not have a basement because it is a flat lot where digging down would be too costly.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7852 or bkarlovits@tribweb.com.

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