There’s room overhead – in the attic

There’s room overhead – in the attic

“I love my attic home office,” declares REALTOR® Kelly Ceppa, an Associate Broker with Nest Realty. “It’s a quiet place where no one just comes walking through.  And so, no one sees the messes I make there sometimes either.” Back when an addition was added to the house, she explains, the attic space was finished. She later created her office there.  “The best thing though is the great view I get from this high vantage point,” she adds. “I have an unexpectedly good view of Monticello and Carter’s Mountain that makes my office time very pleasant.”

When people like Ceppa want to expand their home, there is often an overlooked space right overhead. The attic. Although it may lack windows and headroom, the basic structure is in place. While the roofline may impose restraints, there are strategies for making the most of this space in a wonderful way without increasing your home’s “footprint.”

“There are some creative finished bedrooms, fitness areas, and bathrooms showing up on the top levels of homes these days,” says REALTOR® Sara Greenfield, Principal Broker with Charlottesville Fine Homes and Properties. “Even fireplaces, kitchens, and more can show up, often because homeowners have cleared out the clutter, cleaned out the storage, and remodeled an existing attic. This improves a home’s functionality and value, too.”

Making Plans

Before you even start planning, be sure you have enough room in the attic area.  Typical building codes require include at least 70 square feet of floor space with at least 7 feet in one direction.  In other words, to have the minimum floor space, the converted area would have to be at least 7 x 10 feet.  In addition, at least half of those 70 square feet must have a ceiling height of at least 7 ½ feet.

Next be sure that the Homeowner Association, neighborhood, or historic district rules permit attic rooms. There may be limitations such as window placement that will put the kibosh on your plans.

Finally, Greenfield cautions, it’s essential that your remodel meet local building codes regarding the strength of the structure. “Check with a structural engineer on load-bearing walls and the parameters required for window and dormer placement. For example, walls must have a height clearance for windows that open to be approved by code to fit.”

A not-uncommon limitation is that standard attic joists meet code for “dead-load” storage of 10 pounds per square foot, but not a “live-load” function, which must support at least 40 pounds per square foot. This can usually be solved by “sistering” the joists by adding additional support nailed to the existing joists or adding joists to lessen the distance between the existing joists.

The type of attic you have is also significant. “Truss attics and conventional attics with rafters are structurally very different in what building codes will allow,” Greenfield continues. Rafters are those beams supporting the roof from the eaves up to the peak and generally leave a central open space that is easy to work with. Trusses, on the other hand, employ W-shaped framing to support the roof. This often requires major modifications of those supports and may not be practical.

Consulting with builders at an early stage is another excellent strategy. Especially with homes built on slabs, there may be attic heat ducts, pipes for plumbing, or electrical wiring to work around. You may get clever ideas on how to proceed and information about what’s possible and practical, ideas for reducing cost and increasing useable space, and other tips based on their experience. Their reports should include limitations to build around, and a general idea of the cost. It’s also a way to evaluate a potential contractor since your interaction can help you decide whether you’d feel comfortable working with that person or business.

Generally, the most expensive part of an attic remodel is the addition of a bathroom because of the required plumbing. The expense can reduced somewhat by situating the new bathroom above a kitchen, bathroom, or laundry where there is already plumbing. Double-check with a structural engineer before installing any sort of large tub, especially a hot tub, which will add considerable weight when filled with water. And be certain that the bathroom area has a well-installed floor drain and waterproof flooring to protect the house below.

Installing heating ducts might be an additional complication, but in most cases extra heating isn’t required because heat will rise from the rest of the home. Baseboard heating can usually supply extra heat and a stand-alone unit can provide air conditioning.

Other critical considerations are fitting in stairs, adding windows for light, and ceiling clearance.

Stairs are a key element

It may be you will use your converted attic for a fitness room, children’s playroom, or like REALTOR® Ceppa, a home office. However, if you are creating a bedroom, building codes generally require two exits for fire safety. One may be a window that opens wide enough for an adult to exit via an escape ladder.

The other escape route must usually be an up-to-code staircase—not just a ladder. In a multi-level house, there may be room for stairs above an existing staircase, however in single-level homes, basic attic access is often pull-down stairs in a garage or in the house itself. This can be a real challenge because most codes require stairs to be at least 3 feet wide with treads at least 10 inches deep and risers at least 7 inches high with a minimum of 6 feet, 8 inches of headroom above the entire staircase.

A major consideration is that a code-compliant staircase takes up an area of the floor below. Straight-run stairs are the easiest to install, but require the most room, generally an area about 4 x 10 feet which is quite a bite out of any lower-level floor space. Stairs with an intermediate landing require less space on the floor below. Some people even find room for stairs by converting an existing closet.

Spiral stairs are more expensive, but require less floor space—usually an absolute minimum of 5 x 5 feet. They can be less safe and present a problem when moving furniture. In some cases, external staircases can be constructed, but local zoning offices often view outside stairs as a sign of a separate living area creating a

multi-unit building.

Placing windows and maximizing small spaces

Rooflines dictate a great deal when it comes to planning windows and building codes generally require a certain minimum square footage of window area related to floor space. Dormers are a particularly good way to add both height and windows.

Skylights are also an effective way to admit light and some have built-in shades that can be lowered with handles or small motors for privacy. In addition, skylights offer a few extra inches of clearance, since they are installed at roof level rather than ceiling level. Recessed lighting fixtures are another way to avoid limiting headspace.

It’s likely that the existing roofline will limit usable floor space, so consider every single nook and cranny and make the most of every inch. If you put up walls, make them walls of shelves. Built-ins can be great problems solvers, too. Instead of a fancy bedstead, consider a platform bed with storage drawers below. Closets don’t need a lot of headroom, so can be placed under lower ceiling areas.

Another great strategy is to construct a knee wall, so called because it’s about knee height, although it can be higher. This is a vertical wall enclosing the triangular area closest to the eaves, creating an area well suited for storage. (Don’t forget to insulate these areas.) This space can be made more useful by installing drawers of varying depths depending on how close they are to the roofline.

The higher the wall is, of course, the farther from the eaves it will be and the more it will reduce floor space. However this floor space isn’t usually useful unless you need it to meet the 70-square-foot floor requirement mentioned early in this story.

Since your newly remodeled attic space is going to be right over someone’s head, a “quiet” floor is a must. You may want to add some noise insulation between the ceiling below and the attic floor and augment it with a substantial, well-padded carpet.

How much would an attic remodeling project cost?

Estimates vary greatly, of course, depending on any number of situations. These days, many new homes are built with the capability of finishing overhead space above garages, for example, with an existing floor sturdy enough to support the required “live-load” burden and up-to-code stairs for access. An older home may have a stairway that is too narrow, floors only strong enough for storage.

Still it’s a good way to add space without adding to a home’s footprint, which would be a considerably larger investment. Remodeling magazine publishes an annual report on “Cost versus Value” and pegs the 2014 cost of an average bedroom remodel in the southern Atlantic region at around $46,000. (This is for a 15’ x 15’ bedroom with a 5’ x 7’ bathroom.) The average return is about 88 percent of the original cost. Central Virginia figures may differ, of course, even from one county to the next.

So the next time you venture into your attic, look around with a fresh eye. It just may be your key to living larger in your existing home.


Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville with a generous attic area should they decide to add to their square footage if only they could figure out where to put the stairs.

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