14 Tips for Converting an Attic Into a Living Space

C.E. Larusso
Written by C.E. Larusso
Updated November 16, 2021
Renovated attic office and living space
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Whether your growing family is testing the limits of your available space or you just want to take advantage of the killer view from your uppermost room, remodeling an attic is a great way to reclaim space without building a new addition onto your home. 

Attic conversions require a lot of forethought and effort to achieve your desired space within the constraints posed by the structural factors, odd configurations, and building code requirements associated with the room. You can overcome most of these obstacles by planning ahead and consulting local experts. Use the following tips as a how-to guide to converting your attic into an additional living space.

1. Get Your Attic In Tip-Top Shape

If your attic is currently a place you’re more likely to avoid than seek out, take some time to get to know the space and take care of any issues that could pose a problem for the upcoming conversion. When inspecting your attic, look for evidence of rodents, water leakage, or mold. Make sure your chimney and vents don’t require additional attention. 

2. Confirm You Have the Necessary Space

The most crucial questions to answer involve the extent and dimensions of the available space to ensure you’re complying with building codes. While there is a lot of variation between county-level regulations, most building codes will require the following: 

  • 70 square feet of floor space

  • At least 7 feet of floor space in each direction, so the attic must be at least 7 feet by 10 feet in dimension. These regulations help homeowners avoid the kind of unusual layouts that can be hazardous.

  • At least half of the available floor space must clear a ceiling height of 7-and-a-half feet. Regulators will decline plans to create living spaces that prevent occupants from standing up.

If your attic ceiling isn’t high enough, it is possible to raise the roofline of your home or add a dormer window for additional height. If you plan to install a dormer during your attic conversion, this will automatically cover the egress requirement, as most dormers include a window.

In addition to the standards imposed by national safety regulations, the building codes in your county will likely include area-specific stipulations that will affect your conversion options. An attic conversion will also usually involve the kind of work for which you have to secure permits. If you’re working with a local contractor, they will likely be responsible for obtaining the proper permits.  

3. Figure Out If You Have Roof Rafters or Trusses

Exposed attic rafters
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The way your roof is framed will also play a role in determining whether or not your attic conversion is viable. Rafters are long pieces of lumber—typically 2 feet by 10 feet or 2 feet by 12 inches long—that slope down on each side from the peak of the roof. Along the apex and between each set of rafters is a wooden board called the ridge beam, which extends across the entire length of the roof. 

Though rafters leave more space between the floor and the ceiling of an attic, roof trusses have become more popular in recent years due to their higher versatility and lower price point. While rafters are usually constructed on-site, a roof truss is a prefabricated framework made of smaller boards that are joined together with cords and webbing. 

Because they typically decrease an attic’s ceiling height, the presence of trusses will likely make it very difficult to convert your attic into a code-compliant living space.

4. Make Sure the Attic is Accessible

What kind of stairwell leads to your attic? While many attics feature pull-down ladders or steep and narrow stairways, you must satisfy a different set of accessibility standards to convert the attic into a living space. To meet safety requirements, attic access must:

  • Provide a minimum of 6-feet-8-inches of headroom along the entire walking length of the stairs

  • Be at least 36 inches wide

  • Have treads of at least 10 inches deep

  • Include risers that are at least 7.25 inches high

5. Consult a Structural Engineer

Any alterations that you make to the attic will affect the whole house, which requires complex engineering considerations. While a contractor can help you locate the load-bearing walls in the attic to ensure that the proposed changes don’t bring down the roof, you should also consult a local structural engineer. This type of expert can determine the implications of your dream conversion for the rest of the home. 

6. Check Your Floors

Instead of finished flooring, many attics feature exposed floor joists bridged by 2-by-4 rafters (if not totally uncovered insulation), designed to support dead loads (objects that do not move of their own accord), not people or pets. While you can always sister the joists and add the subflooring that can safely support people, doing so will add additional height to the floor. In many cases, that will cut into the ceiling height and necessitate the construction of a new set of stairs. 

Every house is different, though, and it’s not certain that enhancing the flooring will prove to be a deal-breaker. Additionally, if your home is a newer build, the attic could have been constructed with finished flooring designed to support a conversion, which has become increasingly common. 

7. Determine Your Budget

Finishing an attic is an expensive project with the potential for lots of unanticipated costs to emerge along the way. Typically, homeowners pay $200 per square foot to convert an unfinished attic into a code-compliant living space. The cost to convert an attic into a bedroom falls between $8,000 and $30,000, but the cost is significantly lower for converting the attic into a home office. 

8. Add Insulation

Professional installing insulation in attic
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The typical attic is designed for storage, with builders foregoing the temperature control measures they would take in a living space. Your unfinished attic will likely require additional insulation to help occupants keep cool in the summer and stay warm in the winter. If you’re not sure what you’ll need to do to keep your conversion comfortable throughout the year, contact a company that specializes in attic insulation

9. Ensure Proper Ventilation and Temperature Control

To create a comfort level in the attic that’s on par with the other rooms in the house, you’ll have to find a way to stop heat loss in the winter and keep it cool in the summer. For proper attic ventilation, keep at least 1 inch of air space between the insulation and the roof’s underlayment. Otherwise, heat build-up can occur, causing roof damage.

Since your attic is the highest room in your house, it collects all the heat that rises from the lower levels, making effective air conditioning a must for most conversions. Make sure your HVAC can handle the load of another room, especially one at the top of your house. Plus, you may have to add vents if the attic was originally built as a storage-only space.

In the long run, you’ll save money by taking these steps before starting the rest of your conversion since it will be significantly more complicated to achieve comfortable temperature control after everything else is built out. 

10. Get Creative

The spatial and structural constraints of an attic mean that successful conversations usually involve some outside-the-box problem solving. If you are working around angled walls and other design oddities, get creative! Take advantage of the attic’s unique design by using knee walls for built-in furniture or storage, shelving, or adding a desk under the slope of a slanted ceiling. 

11. Understand the Energy Implications of Your Roofing

The nature of your roofing will play a role in the temperature control of the attic. If you can, consider using light-colored roof shingles that reflect sunlight. Dark-colored shingles absorb heat from the sun, increasing both the temperature of the attic and the cost of cooling it.

12. Consider Aging in Place

When planning an extensive remodel, it’s always a good idea to consider aging in place and the kind of accommodations you’ll need to live out your entire life in your home. Renovating with an eye toward the features that will support more limited mobility down the road—an accessible loft conversion, for example—could save you the additional costs and hassle of doing it later.

13. Don’t Forget Soundproofing

If you’re not used to having people walk around your attic, it can be easy to forget some of the potential side effects of turning the space into well-used living quarters. If the rooms beneath the attic floor include bedrooms, a home office, or any area where someone might expect peace and quiet, you may need to take extra steps to ensure adequate soundproofing. 

As anyone who has ever had upstairs neighbors can tell you, even the lightest footsteps can sound very loud in the rooms below. Carpeting, thick floor joists, and dense-pack insulation can go a long way toward tamping down unwanted noise. 

14. Develop a Lighting Strategy

One of the trickier aspects of designing an attic conversion is finding ways to effectively illuminate the room without using too many lamps or fixtures that will take away precious space. Wherever possible, windows and skylights can do a lot of the work for you, drawing in lots of natural light. For nighttime lighting or attics without windows, consider a scheme that efficiently integrates strip lighting into your rafters.

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