Homeowners make the most of underutilized space during the pandemic

Seldom-used basements, forgotten loft spaces and even garages have become more valuable this year, thanks to COVID-19 and the desperate search for more work, study and living space within our homes.

Space is at a premium, but once that space is identified and put into use, ways to improve it and make it more comfortable and conducive to its new use are generally next on the "to do" list.

"People are literally trying to utilize every square inch of their home space these days," said Debora Watson, owner of Acanthus Design Group in Barrington ( Homeowners are taking second and third looks at their dusty basements, semi-empty lofts and even their garages (if they can find a way to heat them).

"People are staying home so much these days - to work, to educate and, also, to relax - that they have to figure out a new way to live within their walls. And since they aren't spending money on commuting or dining out and aren't expecting to entertain for the holidays, they have the money to spend on a new house or expanding, renovating or refurnishing their current home," she said.

Utilizing the space provided in your often unused and probably unfinished basement is a no-brainer. Homeowners are drywalling them and then painting them in light colors to brighten up the space, although some are also using a bit darker colors to add depth and keep the space cozy and warmer looking, according to Watson.

"There are more waterproof options for the floor today, beyond just tile. There is now wood-look tile and vinyl flooring and even waterproof engineered hardwood," Watson said.

Waterproof hardwood flooring typically looks identical to natural wood flooring but there is an added layer beneath which gives you the high-quality natural look you want with the durability of a waterproof material. When properly installed, many people can't tell the difference between waterproof hardwood materials and more traditional natural hardwood products.

Most waterproof hardwood manufacturers use a layer of real wood on top of a composite material comprised of stone or other ultra-hard polymers. Waterproof sealants and attached pads are also generally included.

Decorative area rugs, which can be rolled up quickly if flooding threatens, add a homey look to a basement family room, office or even a bedroom and can be readily found online at sites like And because basement humidity can be better controlled today than in the past, fabrics and rugs can be more readily used in such spaces.

"I have seen and worked on everything from high-end luxury basements with movie theatres, second kitchens, wine rooms and workout spaces to more moderately decorated basements with space for work, play and television viewing," Watson said. "I even have a friend who has a music corner in her basement where her husband can practice."

Unsightly basement window wells can be hidden (but remain usable for escape) with shutters, curtains or even waterproof window well mural scenes that show beautiful photos of streams, forests, sunsets and more and give the illusion that you are looking out a window at a lovely, natural scene instead of looking at a ribbed metal window well. They are available on Amazon and generally cost approximately $130.

When furnishing a basement, however, Michael Walsh, owner of O'Reilly's Furniture and Amish Gallery in Libertyville (, cautions homeowners to be careful about furniture sizes. The squeeze down basement staircases often doesn't easily accommodate large pieces of furniture.

"If you want to have a sectional, it better break into three or four pieces in order to be able to make the trip down the stairs and the back generally can't exceed 36 inches," he counseled.

And when you are buying furniture for work and study, remember that ergonomics is important, especially when you may be working/studying from there for months to come. Make sure your desk is at the right height to allow your feet to rest solidly on the floor and your back is supported. The same is true for a child. If you don't have a child-sized desk and chair, put a sturdy box or stool beneath the child's feet so they aren't swinging.

And each family must decide whether they want each individual to have their own work/study space or whether they want to work communally so that parents can keep tabs on their children's study progress. Stories also abound about families moving two children into the same bedroom so that the former bedroom of one child can be transformed into a communal study space. Once the pandemic is over, things can easily revert to normal.

When choosing a study space, remember that windows are a positive. A view of the outdoors can help people focus and boost moods.

That is why lofts can make excellent study/work rooms, too. They are generally well-lit and airy feeling, so they, too, help overcome the doldrums.

Finally, if you can install a safe heat source, you can also consider expanding into your garage. Get detailed advice online or take a trip to a local home improvement store to learn about the pros and cons of electric, gas and infrared garage heating sources on the market today.

Some can keep your garage at 70 degrees while you are working in it, but for safety reasons, should be turned off when you aren't working out there - and you probably want to bring that laptop inside with you when you finish working and turn off the heat.

A heater, like the one above the refrigerator in this garage, can expand the use of this area of the home. Courtesy of Acanthus Design Group
Unsightly window wells can be hidden from the inside so your basement room has more visual appeal. Courtesy of Acanthus Design Group
Larger sectionals are more difficult to move into a basement unless it breaks down into three or four sections. Courtesy of O'Reilly's Furniture and Amish Gallery
People are heating and putting televisions in their garage to make them more of a gathering place. Courtesy of Acanthus Design Group
There are a number of ways to dress up a basement window. Courtesy of Acanthus Design Group
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