The Sky's the Limit for a Habitable Attic

Many home owners with an unfinished attic have a viable option when they want more living space. Remodeling this topmost area may be more cost-effective and easier than excavating a dark, damp basement or building out new square footage.

November 19, 2015

Attic conversions conjure the image of a romantic escape. In fiction, Jo March wrote to her heart’s content in her garret hideaway in the novel Little Women. In real life, attics can become a choice place for numerous activities.

Los Angeles–based designer Sarah Barnard finished one attic as a guest room and another as an entertainment room with pool and ping-pong tables. Orren Pickell Group, a design-to-build company located outside Chicago, has made attics into wide-open sleeping “dorms” for younger family members who don’t mind the climb. Millbrook, N.Y., architect Jim Crisp decided the attic in a lakefront Connecticut home could become a gathering perch with great views of the site.

Before home owners proceed, remind them to check municipal and state building codes regarding what they can and can’t do. For example, the town of Milo, N.Y., requires that the attic’s habitable space have at least 70 square feet of floor area. It’s also important they know what the expansion might do to a home’s appraised value, real estate taxes, and resale value. Here are five of the most important considerations:

  1. Bottom-line cost comparisons. Attic remodeling costs vary greatly. Before proceeding, home owners should examine comparisons for alternative living space, such as reworking existing layouts, converting a basement, or constructing an addition. Basement conversions offer the perk of more stable temperatures and less HVAC expense than most attic redos, says Eric Pickell, project manager at Orren Pickell Group. But the cost of fixing up the lower level rises when it’s below ground, when it’s shallow enough to require excavation, or when the area has water problems, says Chicago architect Allan J. Grant. If the surrounding property is large enough for an addition, that solution provides the plus of more grade-level space, but a downside can be higher appraised value and real estate taxes, Grant says. No matter the solution to the space constraints, home owners should review their insurance policy, Wade says.
  2. Roofline. The slant of the roofline is one factor that will determine whether the attic can go from storage to livable space. Building codes dictate how much headroom a finished attic must provide once framed in with insulation and drywall — typically at least 7 feet, though some areas may permit as little as 6 feet 8 inches, says Grant. Some house styles, such as bungalows and ranches may permit raising the roof, but that will increase construction costs. Care should also be taken to ensure that exterior changes will maintain the integrity and proportions of the home’s architectural style. While a sloped ceiling and supporting columns and beams may add interior charm, they also remove walkable headroom and places to set furniture, says Chip Wade, a remodeling expert for HGTV and consultant for Liberty Mutual Insurance. Smaller, more carved-up areas with low ceiling sections areas can serve other functions such as a reading nook or location to conceal HVAC equipment, Crisp says. But the guiding mantra should be to provide enough finished square footage for the new room’s intended purpose, Grant says.
  3. Livability. Making an attic habitable requires important building choices that require the skills of a registered design professional. Many municipalities require installing a sprinkler system in inhabited attic spaces. These systems may cost between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on room size and labor costs, says Crisp. Putting in a new HVAC system or beefing up the home’s furnace and air conditioning units to adequately heat and cool the new space is essential, given the temperature extremes often experienced in such spaces. Adequate electricity needs to be available to illuminate the room too, especially if it has few windows. Adding dormers or skylights will help, though those choices may prove costly. Feinmann Inc., a design-and-build firm in Lexington, Mass., introduced a series of domed skylights to the flat portion of a Georgian home’s roof to turn a dark, claustrophobic attic into a sun-filled meditation studio, but the change required a new structural support system. If the converted space includes a bathroom, a plumber can determine if existing waste lines can be brought up and vent to the exterior, or if new lines must be added, which may affect square footage below, Wade says. A septic system may have to be increased since some codes specify its size by a home’s number of bedrooms. Most important, the finished space must be structurally sound to support a heavier load, particularly with items such as gym equipment or pool and ping-pong tables. That could require improving existing floor and ceiling joists, Crisp says.
  4. Access and egress. How accessible the converted attic is will play a part in how much it’s used and its safety. Most municipalities set guidelines for stairs such as a minimal 36-inch width, which also makes bringing up furniture easier, Barnard says. Some codes also specify how many steps can be in a run before a break for a landing, Grant says. Attic bedrooms require an operable emergency escape. “A fire department has to be able to get in in an emergency, and home owners need to get out,” Feinmann says.
  5. Current use and resale. While home owners’ enjoyment should be the prime deciding factor, how much future buyers may value an attic addition should also be weighed. A couple with teenagers may think they’ve hit the jackpot by gaining a “bonus” space above the house or a garage. But a boomer couple with aging knees may not care about a converted attic. Sales professional Barb St. Amant, ABR, with Harry Norman, REALTORS®, in Atlanta, says clients in her area often value finished attics when their home doesn’t have a basement or their location makes expansion impossible. But in more suburban or rural sites that may not be true, says broker Jim Ettenson of J. Ettenson Realty in upstate New York. “It’s generally viewed as an improvement, but home owners still shouldn’t expect a significant payback,” he says. Yet, the good news is that any functional, finished space usually helps resale, says sales associate Pauli Wade of Keller Williams Realty Atlanta Partners. Advise home owners that finished square footage that’s less than 350 square feet probably doesn’t make sense due to the expense and work. If the finished attic includes a bathroom, that number increases to around 500 square feet, Wade says. When less in either case, he recommends home owners keep their attic as it was originally intended: a great storage space.
Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Cavetto is a concave molding that is a quarter-round. It is used for crown molding as a transition from wall to ceiling planes.