How to Finish Basement Walls

By Amanda Lutz | May 13, 2024

Chic basement features a gray sectional facing a white built-in tv cabinet and wet bar mounted to a wall.

Finishing your basement walls can transform your home’s lower level from a bare-bones storage area to a cozy living space. In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to finish basement walls, including selecting the right tools and materials, making the finishing touches, and more.

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Preparations

The first step to finishing your basement is planning. You’ll need to decide what type of insulation and wall material to use, the ceiling and floor style, outlet placement, paint colors, and trim styles.

You should also research how much it costs to finish a basement, and set your budget. Be sure to factor in the square footage, the cost of materials, and any professional services you require, such as a plumber or electrician. 

Review state and local building codes, including permit and inspection requirements. Most municipalities require a permit for significant renovations, and finishing your basement typically falls into that category. The permit process may involve submitting detailed plans for your basement renovation—particularly any changes to your home’s structure or systems. Keep local building codes in mind as you finalize the details of your basement remodel.


Tools and Materials

You’ll need various tools and materials to safely and efficiently finish your basement walls. Make sure you have a set of basic hand tools available. You’ll also need a few power tools and some safety gear.

Here’s a complete list of everything you need (assuming you choose drywall for your project):

For the actual construction and finishing work, you’ll need the following materials:


Inspect and Repair

Before proceeding with your project, make sure your unfinished basement walls are secure and dry. Conduct a thorough visual inspection to identify any moisture problems or structural issues that could affect the finished space. Now is the time to identify and repair foundation cracks. Use a concrete sealant for small cracks and consult a professional about larger cracks or signs of structural damage.

Basement waterproofing is also key. Fixing a wet basement is much easier and less expensive while the foundation walls are still exposed, and it will help prevent mildew, mold, and structural weakening in the future. Waterproofing is particularly important if you live in an older home or an area with high groundwater levels.

Waterproofing typically involves sealing cracks and applying a coat of waterproof masonry cement to the interior of the wall. However, you can address moisture issues from the outside with exterior waterproofing, proper grading, or a new drainage system. Consider investing in a dehumidifier or sump pump if your basement has persistent moisture problems.


Framing

Proper framing—the process of constructing a sturdy skeletal structure for your finished basement walls—is necessary to meet local building codes and safety standards. It creates a hidden space for utility lines and insulation and provides support for drywall, trim, and hanging decor.

To ensure proper framing, follow these steps:

  1. Measure your basement: Note any unique features, such as irregular shapes, obstructions, and existing fixtures, that you’ll need to accommodate. Record your measurements on a notepad or note-taking app.
  2. Plan the layout: Determine the dimensions needed for the frame to fit perfectly within the space. If you plan to divide the space into multiple rooms, plot out the framing for interior walls and doorways.
  3. Gather the materials: You’ll need lumber for your studs, top plates, and bottom plates, plus nails or screws for assembly. Metal studs and plates are more durable and moisture-resistant but more difficult to handle without the know-how. Additionally, local building codes may prohibit using metal studs and plates in certain situations.
  4. Install the bottom plates: Lay out the bottom plates, also known as sills or sole plates, on the basement floor along the walls, according to your framing plan. Secure them to the concrete floor using a masonry drill and concrete nails, masonry screws, or anchors.
  5. Install the top plates: Install the top plates along the basement ceiling, parallel to the bottom plate. Mark your top and bottom plates at 16- or 24-inch intervals for stud placement. 
  6. Install vertical studs: Cut the boards for your vertical studs to size, and install them at regular intervals between the top and bottom plates. Use the marks you made earlier as a guide, aligning the center of the board with the mark. Nail the studs to the top and bottom plates by driving in nails at a 45- to 55-degree angle. Use three nails for each end: two from the right side and one from the left side.
  7. Frame around windows and doors: Install additional framing components, such as headers, sills, and king studs, to accommodate windows and doorways.

Framing affects everything that follows, so the measurements and alignment must be precise. The top and bottom plates should be perfectly level and square to avoid issues when attaching drywall to the stud walls. You can use shims to help level the plates as needed.

If you plan to install flooring and a drywall or drop ceiling to finish your basement space, you’ll need to take several additional steps. For instance, you’ll need to install ceiling joists for a drywall ceiling or purchase a drop ceiling installation kit. New flooring will require a subfloor and possibly floor joists.


Electrical and Plumbing

After framing the walls, turn your attention to your home’s electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems. Think through how you plan to use your basement. Do you want a bathroom or laundry room downstairs? What about a guest bedroom, home office, wet bar, or home theater? Once you have a firm idea of what you want, then map out the placement of electrical outlets, light switches, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, and air vents accordingly.

Local authorities will likely need to inspect your plumbing and electrical systems post-installation to ensure code compliance. With that in mind, hiring a licensed electrician, plumber, and HVAC technician is crucial. These professionals can ensure that all work adheres to local building codes and meets all relevant safety standards. They can even offer guidance on the layout and placement of electrical wiring, pipes, and ductwork.


Insulation

Insulation helps maintain a more comfortable temperature in your newly finished basement. You can choose from several types of insulation, each with its own advantages. Options include blown or loose-fill insulation, fiberglass batts, insulation blankets, spray foam, or rigid polystyrene boards. As you shop around, three key factors to weigh are the R-value, moisture resistance, and cost. Higher R-values equate to less heat transfer and better energy efficiency.

In some cases, you may need to install a vapor barrier to prevent warm, humid air from penetrating the insulation. When, how, and what type to install depends on the climate, the type of insulation used, and basement exposure. However, a vapor barrier is usually plastic sheeting that goes directly over the insulation before drywall installation.


Drywall

Drywall provides a smooth, paintable surface for your new basement living area. As with insulation, you have multiple options. Standard gypsum drywall strikes an appealing balance between cost and performance. However, moisture-resistant paperless drywall, purple drywall, or greenboard can be a wise investment for basements. Other options include fire-resistant Type X drywall, soundproof drywall, or blueboard for veneer plastering.

Once you’ve selected your drywall, follow these steps to install it:

  1. Measure, mark, and cut: Measure the area you plan to cover and mark the drywall accordingly. For straight lines, score the front side with a utility knife, then snap the drywall along the line and cut the paper back on the other side. Use a drywall saw for cutouts.
  2. Position the drywall: Use a drywall jack to hold the drywall sheet in place, or enlist the help of another person. Hang the sheets vertically to reduce the number of seams and align the drywall edges with the center of the studs.
  3. Secure the drywall to the studs: Attach the drywall to the framing studs using drywall screws. The screws should be 16 inches apart, and you should sink them just below the surface without breaking the paper. Leave a gap between the drywall and the floor to prevent moisture issues and accommodate floor movement.

If you’re also installing a drywall ceiling, it’s best to tackle that before hanging the wall panels.


Mudding and Taping

After hanging the drywall, apply a layer of joint compound (also known as drywall mud) over each seam to fill any gaps and create a level surface. Use a wide drywall knife to spread the compound evenly. While the joint compound is still wet, place drywall tape over the seams to reinforce the joint. 

Press the tape into the compound using the drywall knife, smoothing out air bubbles and wrinkles as you go. Then, apply a second, wider layer of joint compound over the tape. Feather the edges so they blend seamlessly with the rest of the wall. Wait for the mud to dry completely, then sand the area with a fine-grit sandpaper.


Painting

Once you mud and sand the drywall, it’s ready to paint. We recommend starting with a high-quality primer to seal the surface, improve paint adhesion, and cover minor imperfections. After the primer dries, apply your paint using a roller for large areas and a brush for corners and edges. For a seamless finish, start at the top and work your way down, applying paint in a W pattern before smoothing it out. Apply a second coat for better coverage and color.


Finishing Touches

The last step is adding a few finishing touches, such as outlet covers and light switch plates. Baseboards and trim provide a polished look, concealing any gaps or irregularities where the walls meet the floor or ceiling. These elements can be chosen to match the overall aesthetic of your new basement living area. You can find plenty of trendy basement ideas on our website if you need inspiration.

Lastly, schedule a final inspection if required by your local building department to ensure that your basement makeover meets all safety and code requirements.


Our Recommendation

Finishing your basement can transform an underused space into a vibrant area that increases your home’s value and square footage. This home improvement project requires careful planning and precision, but it’s worth the effort. Remember to prioritize safety and code compliance, enlisting professional help for electrical, plumbing, and HVAC work.

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Finishing Basement Walls FAQ

What do you put on basement walls to finish them?

Finishing basement walls typically involves putting up wooden studs, insulation, and drywall. In some cases, you may need to install a moisture barrier.

What is the most cost-effective way to finish basement walls?

The most cost-effective way to finish basement walls is to do it yourself using basic drywall and inexpensive fiberglass batts or foam board. Alternatively, you can make the concrete walls more attractive by painting them or furring them with wood strips to install paneling.

What color should you paint basement walls?

You should paint basement walls light, neutral shades such as white, cream, beige, light gray, greige, or soft blue. These colors will make the space feel bright and more open, which is especially beneficial if your basement has no windows.

How do you finish a concrete basement wall?

You finish a concrete basement wall by repairing cracks and addressing any moisture issues, framing the wall with wooden studs, installing insulation, and attaching drywall to the studs. Smooth the drywall seams with joint compound and tape before sanding and painting the walls. Add baseboards and trim for a more polished look.