Our Clean, Organized, and Practical Unfinished Basement

Now that you’ve read about our basement flood and the makeunder that predated it, it’s time for a full tour of this clean and organized workhorse. I’m most proud of two things here: it is super functional for our needs, and it is outfitted with storage solutions that were purchased used and/or cheap (or, even better, free). I’ll include links to things I bought as an FYI, but please know that I don’t think getting organized requires an expensive storage system or a full suite of matching bins.

I’ll start with these fisheye photos to give you an idea of the full space and then move around each area. All of the photos in this post are functional, not pretty – just like the space itself.

Basement Pano

You can see in these photos the one area of painted brick that’s flaked away because of efflorescence. Otherwise, our paint job has held up great for five years.

Basement Pano 2

During demo, we left some studs in place as well as the middle walls because they hold electrical conduit and they help demarcate zones.

Basement Pano 3

Basement Pano 4

Settle in – this is a long post!

Jarrod’s adventure zone

On the weekends, I usually work on the house and Jarrod goes on outdoor adventures in and around Chicago: biking, kayaking, birding, skiing, etc. This is his base camp.

Basement Adventure Station

Yes, those are roller skates on the shelf above; it’s the traditional gift for a man’s 40th birthday. Bench acquired for free from Northwestern University’s Surplus Property Exchange; tub below for shoes.

Shoe Bin

Jarrod’s bike is on a stand that holds it steady when he’s loading up his panniers (or “paninis” as I call them).

Basement Bike Station

I mounted a piece of scrap wood above the window to store his cross-country skis.

Ski Storage

Here’s the back door; I tore off some trim after we painted and haven’t gotten around to touching it up. Step ladder on a hook. I’m always a big proponent of keeping stuff off the ground wherever I can, and the basement flood reinforced that instinct.

Basement Door

Pencil sharpener and extension cord.

Pencil Sharpener

Laundry room

Not much to say here that wasn’t already covered in Basement Laundry Room Before and After. Fact: that project is one of my most visited and pinned posts, which is what encouraged me to share a full tour. I’m glad people appreciate practical content as much as picture-perfect content.

Basment Laundry Room 2

That rolling cart works as a folding station and a holding area for stuff I’m washing at the sink. Our sewer backup definitely did not abide by the posted “Do Not Pee Pee in Here” sign. Rude! (The explanation for the sign is in the laundry room post.)

Basement Bikes

Assorted less-used cleaning tools (link to similar rack) – our most frequently used cleaning gear is in the mudroom. My bike, Jarrod’s surplus bike, and the commercial-grade phone line hub installed by a previous owner for unknown reasons.

This area is on the other side of the furnace. Shelves purchased off Craigslist, tall trashcan to corral gangly things, and the dollhouse given to us by a college friend (hi, Jen!) – when someone offers you a dollhouse, you say yes.

Basement Storage Area

Just an old photo of Lola I like.


Back to the tour: I cannot stress enough the importance of corralling your stuff.

Paint Bins

Storage shelf zone

All of these shelving units were purchased off Craigslist, except the plastic one which was left here by the previous owner.

Basement Storage Room

Basement Shelves

I keep tools in plastic milk crates I’ve collected for free over the years – they’re nice and sturdy (link to similar crates). Baby gate left here by previous owner and saved by me in case, I dunno, we ever need to corral a dog or someone else’s child or something.

Basement Storage Shelves

Milk Crate Tool Storage 3

I stick BBQ skewers into partially-used caulk tubes.

Caulk Tub

Corral! Your! Stuff!

Project Supplies

Potting shelves = proof positive I’m turning into my mother (as I’ve mentioned before). Just looking at this collection of planting containers makes me happy.

Plant Potting Shelf

My work area

This giant work table is usually covered in some in-progress project. Long stretches of trim, lumber, etc. are stored below.

Basement Work Table

I built the table using these sawhorse brackets, an old door, and a sheet of plywood.

Sawhorse Storage

Potting soil in an IKEA SORTERA bin.

Soil Container

My miter saw is on a workbench I built using this Midwest Manufacturing Workmaster Workbench from Menards. I customized it in a few ways. If you’re logged into Instagram, I think this stories link will work. I made platforms for either side of the saw, and I built the bench so the saw section is portable.

Basement Saw Bench

Like so! Big fan of these Toughbilt foldable sawhorses, by the way.

Outdoor Saw

I mounted a power strip on the side for easy access to plugging stuff in, and my Ryobi battery charger on the front.

Workbench Power Strip

Stud Grabber Extension Cord

Laundry basket for wood scraps.

Spare Wood Laundry Basket

Bin for shop vacuum attachments.

Shop Vac Storage

What about that sweet metal hook? Glad you asked. It’s a Studgrabber and I love it. No tools required for installation – it just bites into the wood and can hold a lot of weight.

Stud Grabber

I take back what I said about not needing to buy things to get organized: everyone should buy Studgrabbers. Get them for your mom as a belated Mother’s Day gift; get them for your dad for Father’s Day; get them for your nieces’ and nephews’ Christmas stockings. There is no one in your life who would not appreciate grabbing a stud with these ingenious hooks. (My friend Ben makes fun of me because he says my blog is 70% about hooks. He’s not wrong. It me.)

IKEA STENSTORP island hack

I bought an IKEA STENSTORP island off Craigslist nearly 10 years ago for our previous apartment’s kitchen. (IKEA doesn’t sell this model anymore; link to the similar TORNVIKEN.) We don’t need it in our current kitchen, so I turned it into a workbench. (Yes, I have a lot of workbenches. I do a lot of work. This was my first one and I acquired the others later. Don’t you judge me!)

IKEA Tool Bench

I splurged on some matching clear storage boxes from The Container Store. I put the cart on these tri-wheel rolling dolly things and mounted a peg board to the back. I use the braces to hang long stuff like my level and yardstick.

IKEA Kitchen Island Pegboard

The pegboard keeps tools and supplies visible and accessible.

IKEA Kitchen Island Pegboard 2

I replace my utility knife blade religiously. I don’t want to throw the used blade directly into the trash, so I kept leaving them all over my project areas. Solution: I made a sharps disposal bin from an old Rubbermaid container.

Sharps Container

Okay, one final product recommendation: I far prefer this Bucket Boss over a tool box for lugging tools. I keep all of my MVPs in here and tote it around the house. Five stars; two thumbs up.

Bucket Boss

Phew, and that’s the end of this three-hour tour!

Long-term plan

As I mentioned in my House Goals for 2019 and Beyond post, I hope to finish half of the basement with a guest bedroom and bathroom. Currently, our house has two bedrooms and they share the upstairs bathroom. This works a-ok for us, but when we host guests it feels a little too close for comfort. It would also be good for our property value to add an additional bed and bath, and a den area would be fun for a cozy sofa and giant TV. Don’t worry, I will not pursue this plan if it does not also allow for plenty of project space as well: the unfinished half is just as important to me as the finished half.

Here’s an imaginary floor plan:


I plan to approach the basement renovation in two phases: 1) getting architectural drawings and installing a waterproofing system toward the end of 2020 or early 2021, and 2) finishing the space in 2022ish. I am super excited about hiring an architect to draw up plans – I’ve never worked with an architect before. I want to know the end goal before I proceed with having drain tile and a sump pump installed (like so).

Then, we’ll wait and watch for at least a year to make sure we don’t have any flooding or sewer backup issues. The worst case scenario would be to finish the space and then get water damage. That’s happened to several Chicagoans I know this spring, including Kim and Scott over at Yellow Brick Home. If we do see any signs of water, we’ll keep the basement entirely unfinished, which would be a-ok as well.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Unfinishing a Finished Basement

Last weekend, we had a sewer backup that spurred us to clean the heck out of our basement. I plan to share a tour of what the space looks like currently, but first I want to backtrack to 2015. When we bought our bungalow, half of the basement was finished and half was unfinished. I covered the unfinished half in my Basement Laundry Room Before and After post; this post is about the work we did to unfinish the finished side.



Our real estate listing said “nice basement with 1 bedroom in basement.” I think we can all agree that statement is 1) redundant and 2) overly generous. That is the soil stack in the middle of the room – our house’s main waste line.


Our inspector’s moisture meter told us the drywall was damp, and our eyeballs told us the space was finished poorly. It was a wet mess. (Let’s all start using “wet mess” instead of “hot mess.”)

Basement Inspection

Our inspector recommended we gut the perimeter walls, which we tackled the week we moved in. (The image above is from our inspection report, by the way; I don’t think I could ever write the phrase “Much moisture at several areas.”) We hired out for the first phase of demo in the interest of getting the wet mess hauled away as quickly as possible.

Basement Wall

The plastic vapor barrier behind the drywall created a waterlogged insulation situation. “Nice basement”!

Waterlogged Insulation

The contractor took care of removing the drywall, insulation, and carpet. It cost around $500 – definitely worth it.

Truck Haul

This poor dummy broke his elbow in a self-caused solo bike crash – sweeping left-handed added insult to injury, given how proud he is of his usual floor cleanup game.


Over the following two months, we worked to make the basement as clean and bright as possible. We removed the studs around the bedroom and the perimeter of the basement.

Stud Saw

Usually I’m the one operating the power tools, but Jarrod’s baldness came in handy for using a potentially hair-singeing rotary tool to grind the nails out of the concrete floor.

Nail Removal

The walls were filthy.


SO filthy.


There were several rounds of wall and floor washing with bleach, TSP, and Simple Green. I don’t know what in the hell this Babadook situation was.


Basement Demo

Basement Brick Wall Before

After the walls were scraped and scrubbed, we did two coats of primer and two coats of paint to get us to a nice, clean blank slate.

Basement Brick Painted

Basement Progress

Thanks for walking down memory lane with me – it was a pretty gross stroll. Next up: the current state of our clean, organized basement.

ORC Week 3: Basement Flood

This week’s post is not what I had planned because of an unexpected Hauslermo catastrophe. Those of you who follow me on Instagram already know this story, but I wanted to document here for posterity.

First, some background: when we bought our house, we learned our connection to the city’s sewer system was blocked by tree roots. We have a mature tree in our front parkway, and it had invaded the sewer line. The sewer line isn’t a continuous stretch of pipe – it’s clay/terra cotta sections pieced together (like this), which provides easy entry points for roots.

In August 2015, I paid ASAP Plumbing $2,400 to have something called a “cleanout station” installed. A cleanout station (AKA clean-out pipe) gives plumbers easier access to your home’s main sewage line, so they can rod it out – e.g. run a machine down there to remove obstructions in the clay pipe.

Cleanout Station

I do not like the term “adulting” but if I were ever to use it, it would be in this situation. Paying over two thousand dollars for sewer line rodding is some real adult bullshit. Here’s a photo from our plumber’s Yelp profile because Jack C. did a better job of documenting this work than I did.

Cleanout Station 4

Jumping from August 2015 to May 2020: I took last Friday off work so I could go to a nursery on an off-peak day. Illinois recently allowed garden centers to reopen for business, and they’ve been really busy.


If you’re based in Chicagoland, Urhausen Greenhouses in Lincolnwood is a hidden gem. The plants they sell have been grown on-site in their two-acre greenhouse. They don’t have shrubs and trees, but they have lots of specialty plants I don’t see elsewhere, like native plants.


The prices are a little high, but it’s worth it to support a local place – especially since it’s so pleasing to explore a giant greenhouse.


Here’s my haul:


Back at home, I was excited to spend the afternoon planting.


I went down to the basement to get a hanging planter and…. discovered a pond.


There was 3+ inches of standing water throughout the entire space.


Chicago received a biblical amount of rain this month – especially the night of  May 17 – and the sewer system overflowed. For reference: we have a river dock a few blocks away where Jarrod puts in his kayak. This is what it usually looks like:


And this is what it looked like last weekend:


We’ve always had a small amount of seepage around our foundation, but this sewer backup was an entirely different situation. We frantically Googled for an hour and learned 1) we should not wade into the water in case it was electrified, and 2) there was nothing we could do without a plumber. Tom arrived first thing Saturday morning.


They rodded out our sewer connection via the front yard cleanout station.


I went to the basement and heard the water rushing down our floor drains. It was like someone pulled the plug on a giant bathtub. It took less than 2 minutes for all the water to recede. Turn up volume in this video – others have described it as “something from Stranger Things” and “the sound of my depression.”

We were lucky: our basement is unfinished (technically, it had been finished, but we gutted it – something I’ll get into another post) and most of our things are up on shelves. The stuff we had to toss wasn’t special or expensive…


… except for this customized Caboodles case: it was special and expensive for this 1980s pre-teen.



We emptied out the basement onto our lawn.


And then we dragged our hose into the basement and hosed down this floor.


One of Jarrod’s work-study jobs at Grinnell College was mopping the dining hall. He’s pretty cocksure about his mopping skills. THIS WAS HIS MOMENT TO SHINE. We bought him an industrial mop bucket as a special treat. You know what’s hard to find in a global pandemic? Disinfectant. We were lucky to get one of the last bottles of bleach on the shelf at Home Depot.


The cleanout station I mentioned earlier? We definitely should have had that serviced at least once since we had it installed. I am usually on top of home maintenance, but I dropped the ball on this one. Please let my tale of woe be a cautionary tale for you, dear reader.


All in all, this ended up being a best-case worst-case scenario. It cost us a sleepless night spent worrying, a $150 plumber visit, and a hard day’s work. Now we have a very clean basement with less junk in it. I plan to write a Part 2 post tomorrow to show off the very clean basement that most likely no one cares about but me. Get excited!

You can check out all the other guest participants on the ORC website.

Basement Laundry Room Before and After

When we bought our house, the basement laundry room area was thoroughly gross and rather dangerous. It is significantly less gross and dangerous now! Here’s all the unglamorous work that went into that.

First step: making sure the water heater doesn’t kill us.

During our home inspection, our inspector pointed out that the melted plastic on the top of our water heater indicated our flue was blocked. This meant dangerous fumes were not venting out of the basement like they should. He suggested we remove the vent to see if we could find the cause.

Such a happy new homeowner! About to find something awesomely morbid.

Basement Flue.JPG

Yep: that’s a fully cooked bird. Poor little guy. We removed his bones, which solved the problem.

Basement Bird Flue.JPG

Up next: so much cleaning.

Our house was purchased as-is, which meant that the previous owners were not legally obligated to clean it out before closing day. They took full advantage of that fact and left a lot of crap in the basement.

Basement Before.JPG

We’re lucky to have helpful friends. Thanks, friends!

Basement Cleaning.JPG

Our favorite feature in the basement was this open drain.

Basement Drain.JPG

That paint tray kept the flow of water from the kitchen sink and the laundry tub directed into the hole. (We had this fixed shortly thereafter.)

Basement Sign.JPG

The sign next to the open drain reminded you of your manners: it says “Do not pee pee in here.” Our friend Kimberly said we should assume that any area without a sign had been peed on. She’s probably right.

Once all the junk was gone, Jarrod and I started cleaning. I scraped flaking paint off the walls. There was several rounds of wall and floor washing with bleach, TSP, and Simple Green. It took weeks. It was equal parts loathsome and satisfying. I cannot overstate just how gross this basement was. I’m going to make you look at several photos so you’ll believe me.

Basement Before3.JPG

Basement Before9.JPG

Basement Wall Before.JPG

Basement Mold.JPG

Yep, that’s mold. The bleach killed it, and a dehumidifier has stopped it from returning. Initially alarming but ultimately not a big deal!

Another thing: making sure the dryer doesn’t kill us.

Lint is super flammable, which is why you’re supposed to keep your dryer vent clean and unobstructed. Our dryer vent set up was remarkably terrible. (The previous owners wrote on that board, by the way, not me.)

Dryer Vent Before.JPG

They had the dryer venting into an old window, which would have been fine except 1) they didn’t remove the window screen, and 2) that window is under our back porch/mudroom (outside our kitchen, glimpsed here, and one of my current big projects). So, they were pumping hot, damp air into a semi-enclosed space. This is what I discovered when I crawled back there:

Dryer Vent2.JPG

The window screen essentially served as a secondary dryer lint collector, which is far more gross than that dead bird and nearly as dangerous.

Dryer Vent Screen.JPG

I threw away the screen, put up a board, learned a lot of about dryer vents, and installed a new one that ran all the way to the exterior wall. Exciting times, guys.

Dryer Vent.JPG

It would be nice if this duct were in a less visible place, but this is the best option for the current configuration.

Dryer Vent6.JPG

Dryer Vent3.JPG

Dryer Vent5.JPG

Dryer Vent4.JPG

Finally: paint it white.

So much painting. Two coats of primer on the brick/concrete walls, one coat of primer on the rest of the walls, followed by two coats of paint.

Before:Basement Before4.JPG

After:Basement Bikes.jpg

I realize my “after” photos could very well be someone else’s “before” photos (and they’ll eventually be our before photos when we do a full basement remodel), but I’m still proud of the progress I’ve made with not much money and one thousand hours of hard work. It went from feeling like a place where you might get killed to being a pleasant area to do laundry.

Before:Basement Before8.JPG


Before:Basement Before3.JPG

After:Basement Wall After.JPG

I was so excited to buy a new utility sink to celebrate the culmination of this project.

Basement Sinks.JPG

Isn’t that the the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? I bought the Mustee Utilatub (such a name!) at Home Depot, and the American Standard Colony Soft Double-Handle Laundry Faucet from Amazon. I removed the old sink and installed the new one myself. It was my very first plumbing project.

Before:Basement Sink Before.JPG

After:Basement Sink After.jpg

I built a simple wood shelf to hide the crumbling concrete of the window ledge. That black hose is from our washer – not pretty, but necessary.

Basement Sink.jpg

To commemorate the previous owners, I framed the sign and a water color painting they left tacked to the bathroom wall. Don’t even think about peeing in here.


Chicagoans: Sign Up for a Water Meter!

If you own a house in Chicago and don’t have a pool or an indoor water park: GET A METER. I am very grateful my coworker happened to mention MeterSave to me (thanks, Curt!), so now I am mentioning it here. If you don’t own a house in Chicago, tell your friends and loved ones who do.

When we bought our house, I had no idea how Chicago’s water service worked because I never had to deal with it as a renter. I was surprised to learn that the city estimates water usage based on the size of your house, or the number of faucets, or the cut of your jib. Chicago is moving to a metered system so that they can measure actual usage instead of guessing. Make sense. Having a meter installed will be a requirement in the future, but for now they’re trying to lure people to sign up via their fancy website (“Version 1.0 Copyright 2009”) and dreamy headshots.


The meter and installation are free: absolutely no cost to you. The installers need access to your main water valve. That was easy for us, as we had recently gutted the basement. They installed the meter here:

Chicago Water Meter.jpg

They also installed a small radio instrument to the front of our house. It’s currently the most attractive thing happening in that area.

Front of House.jpg

With only two people living in our house, I knew we’d use less water than the city’s estimate, but I was still surprised by just how dramatically cheaper our water bill is now. Without a water meter, the City of Chicago would have charged us $560 every six months — nearly $100/month, making it our most expensive utility on average. With the water meter, we’re averaging $18 a month. If the price and our usage remains about the same, the water meter will save us around $900 a year. 

Before:Chicago Water Bill Before.jpg

After:Chicago Water Bill After.jpg

If you know your water account number, proceed straight to www.metersave.org and sign up for an appointment. Note: the online form suggests that you’re scheduling an exact time, but when you get appointment reminder it’s revealed that you signed up for a two-hour window.

If you don’t know your water account number, call 312-744-4420 to ask for it! Don’t wait until you get your first six month bill to find out your number, or you’ll have wasted money. They prorate your bill from the time of installation, so the sooner the better. (That “CR” in the statement above is a credit — our non-metered water payment is paying it forward.)

April 22 is both Earth Day and my husband’s birthday. Jarrod is my most enthusiastic and supportive reader, and he’s a pretty great teammate for life. So, this proselytizing post is in his honor. HBD, JMR!