Converting the Attic to Living Space

Author: Alecia Pirulis


Before putting your house on the market, are you considering an attic conversion? It’s a great way to increase your home’s living space without spending a lot of money or worrying about easement and zoning issues. Converting the attic will add value to your home and will attract more buyers. But first – you need to figure out if an attic conversion is even possible. And if it is, where should you begin and what should you include?

Several things need to be considered before starting a renovation project in your attic. First, is there proper access? Is there an existing staircase, and if not, is there space to build one? Are the ceilings in the attic high enough? There are codes regarding ceiling height that you’ll need to be aware of – usually, you’ll need around seven and a half feet of clearance. If you don’t have it, then an attic conversion can’t be done. Also, you have to have at least 70 square feet of floor space – anything less and you won’t be allowed to convert the attic.

Another item to consider is whether there’s enough support in your attic floor for a conversion. You’ll want to bring in a structural engineer to check your attic floor joists to make sure they are up to code and will be able to support the additional weight of the drywall, electrical, and other systems you’ll want to run into the attic space. Since the attic is the highest point of the house and therefore feels the most heat, you’ll want to add extra insulation and make sure the room has proper ventilation and air conditioning.

If you have trusses rather than rafters, an attic conversion is probably impossible. Trusses resemble triangles with smaller triangles on the inside, while rafters just resemble triangles. Trusses are better for framing a roof – unfortunately, they don’t allow for space. Therefore, you must have rafters if you want to convert your attic. Newer homes will often have trusses, while an older home is more likely to have rafters.

There are also codes for exit points – you’ll need a stairway, of course, and at least one window that opens to the outside. Consider adding a dormer to increase the space in the attic. There should be a clear escape route from the attic (since heat – and flames – rise quickly, this is a crucial point to your renovation). In addition to a window that opens, consider adding an escape ladder beneath the window.

If you think your attic is a good candidate for a conversion, ask an architect or other expert to come in and evaluate the space. It is a good idea to always consult a professional before making any structural changes to your house. They can tell you for sure if the space is acceptable for renovations and let you know what permits you’ll need.

Once you’ve consulted with an architect, it’s time to determine how you’ll use the space: Will it be a bedroom? A quiet office space? A media room for the kids? A craft room? Depending on how the space will be utilized, it might make sense to add a bathroom to the attic space. If you decide a bathroom will be part of the plan, consult a plumber about running plumbing lines into the attic. Also, consider the extra weight and double-check with your architect to make sure the floor is able to bear the weight of a bathroom.

Adding a stairway is the next consideration. You’ll want it to look organic to the house. You also have to have at least 6’8″ of headroom for the entire walking distance of the staircase. The staircase should be 36″ wide and have risers just over seven feet. The treads should be 10″ deep. This will likely cause major renovations to the living space on the floor below the attic, so consider the space available – you may lose part of a hallway, closet, or bedroom to install the staircase.

Need some inspiration? Take a look at these attic spaces for some ideas on what you can do. An attic conversion will be a major selling point for your home, so if the space meets all of the criteria necessary for a conversion, it should be well worth the investment.