Planning an Attic Remodel? What to Consider

Help for deciding whether to finish or renovate your attic space

By Jan Soults Walker

Your home could be harboring a secret: undisclosed living space! Here's how to determine if your attic is a candidate for remodeling so you can spread up—not out.

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Light Transitional Attic Office by Jessica Helgerson - HomePortfolio
Jessica Helgerson
It's more affordable to build up than to build on, according to a remodeler's axiom. If you find your home short on square feet, it's time to explore the attic. You may be able to finish this top-of-the-house space or a bonus room above the garage to gain a new master bedroom (a smart strategy for increasing the value of your home, says one study). Or create a guest suite, a children's playroom, family room, or home office—the sky's the limit in how to use your treetop retreat. Here's the lowdown on creating an upper-story aerie.

Truss Detective

You won't need an architect or engineer to do this initial scouting trip. Take a look in your attic and determine the configuration of the trusses first. If big W-shape trusses slice through the space, it won't be cost-effective to finish the attic and you may want to consider an addition instead. If you spy A-framed structures with at least 7 feet of headroom below the horizontal member of the "A," then your attic has passed the first test.

Code Criteria

Check with your local building department folks and ask them what the minimum space requirements are in your area for finishing an attic. Typically, you'll need at least 7 feet of headroom (once the drywall is installed) over 50 percent of the floor space—or 70 square feet of space with 7 feet of headroom. You may need a building inspector to evaluate headroom versus floor space.

Also discuss egress codes with the official; you may need to add windows. Keep in mind that strategic windows are beneficial for natural light and cross ventilation.

Get inspired by these good-looking windows:

Strength Test

You will need an engineer or architect to determine if your home's framing, attic floor joists, or foundation need beefing up to support the added load of new structural features (such as walls or dormers), finish materials, furnishings, and people.

Access Success

While you've got a professional in your home, ask for suggestions on locating and designing stairs to the attic. While a straight run requires less floor space, switchback stairs—which go up in one direction, open to a landing, and then continue in the opposite direction—are sometimes easier to fit into a floor plan.

Light and Space

Yet another attic aspect a good architect can tackle: options for increasing light and headroom in the attic. Skylights? Dormers? Chat about some solutions and potential costs.

Read Design Problem, Solved: How to Brighten Dark Rooms.

Utility Talk

Finally, if you plan to create a bath in the attic, what are challenges for running plumbing to this level? Discuss heating and cooling concerns as well.

Browse more bathroom advice:

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