Can You Convert Your Attic to Living Space?
March 12, 2019
A lot of older homes have giant attics where you can stand up in the middle. With square footage at a premium, it occurs to many people that maybe they could just finish that attic space into living space. So, is that feasible and something worth pursuing?
Nope. Probably not.
We get this question a lot. And giving the same unfortunate answer again and again stinks. (It is never fun to crush someone’s dream.) So, I thought I would document a bit about why converting your awesome giant attic into living space, more than likely, makes no sense. (There are, of course, exceptions to this but they are very rare).
Here are the reasons why you can’t, or shouldn’t, convert your attic to living space.
Chances are, your attic is composed of 2x4 rafters and floor joists. You may walk along a plywood pathway and feel a little bounce in the floor and think, “Hey, maybe that’s ok?” You may have plenty of head height up there in the middle and think it could work as a room — maybe a home office, with a desk and bookshelves where the ceiling gets too low.
The missing piece of information is those miserable little beasts called the building and energy codes. Once you convert attic space into living space you need to bring it up to the standards of modern building codes.
That means, you'll need 2x10 floor joists (or maybe 2x8 in rare circumstances), and, at least, 2x12 roof rafters. (Yes, there are options to insulate the roof from above, but it is often more complicated for a variety of other reasons and not the easy fix you think it might be.)
The 2x10s and 2x12s drastically eat up the space you think you have up there. Pretty much every attic space I’ve looked at when considering converting it to living space has been killed by this reality.
Construction of a remodel is like that old game, Operation. Remodeling is precise and tricky. And precise and tricky means higher labor costs. Even if you have enough height that the initial issue doesn’t trip you up, the reality is, it’ll be faster and cheaper just to rip your whole roof off and build something from scratch. There’s really no cheap way around that.
Converting an attic has house-wide structural implications. Turning that attic into living space is going to add some previously unaccounted for “load” upstairs. (Think of load as weight.) That additional load at the top of your house was not planned for (structurally) when your home was built.
A structural engineer will need to weigh in about where you’ll need to add plywood and a lot of nails to walls below, some new beams to beef up the structure, and likely some new posts and concrete footings all the way down in your basement. It is tricky, and it impacts your whole home.
You’ll have to build new stairs. The dream of keeping those old attic stairs just won’t work. Due to those new, beefier, floor joists, your existing attic stairs won’t reach all the way to the top of the new floor. You’ll need to replace your attic stairs with new ones, and the new stairs will have to be to code. That means they are (overwhelmingly likely) going to take up more space, and that will impact both the attic, and the spaces below that the stairs pass through.
In the end, pretty much every dream of attic conversion either ends up as a would-be project that just isn’t feasible, or it becomes a second story addition instead. It just always makes more sense. It isn’t cheap, but you get a far more cohesive project.
I also want to acknowledge that many homes in our area do have converted attics with steep stairs, floors that are probably built of 2x4s, and ceilings made of only 2x4 raters with not very much insulation. They exist, and they’re not really going anywhere. More than likely, they were grandfathered in, as they were built-out years before there was the thorough building code review we now have. You can’t do that and expect to get away with it anymore — at least not in the Seattle metro region.
Building and permit review adds costs, complications, and frustrations, but it also ensures we live in safe, well-built, and energy efficient homes, which is a great thing.
Now, some attics — and this is a big asterisk here — can be converted to sleeping lofts relatively reasonably. There isn’t a solid rule of thumb for how, but suffice it to say, it involves reviewing the specific structural realities of your home and a thorough review of the proposed size and applicable building codes.
All this said, each house is unique and we will always help you understand fairly quickly what you should do with your attic. In the meantime, however, hopefully, you’ve gone on to thinking of your attic as an awesome spot to store your holiday decorations and less as your secret weapon in the remodel wars.