Attic Bedroom – An Attractive Space Makes A Sound Investment

Attic Bedroom Returns Value
Attic Bedroom Returns Value

Last week I reported that adding an attic bedroom returned a higher value than almost any other remodeling investment.  I suspect that other functions in the attic are also sound investments such as an attic home office or playroom.  While some of my clients think about putting a home gym in the attic, I usually advice against it simply because heat rises and, for me, it would be too warm in an attic to exercise.
Here are some things to think about if you want to expand your living space into the attic.
1.    Structure: Most older homes – like the ones I work on – have an open “A-Frame” structure in the attic.  If the height is sufficient (see below), this I the right structure to start with.  If, instead, you see a network of W-shape trusses supporting your roof, don’t think about using this space – it would be cost prohibitive to open up this structure for living. You may also need to reinforce the floor joists to support living space in the attic.  A contractor or engineer can help you figure out whether the floor joists require reinforcement.

2.    Staircase: You’re going to need to comfortably and safely get up and down from  your new living space.  Most existing staircases into an attic won’t meet today’s code.  The tread depth needs to be at least 10”; the rise needs to be less than 7-3/4”; the width of the staircase needs to be at least 36”.  Enlarging an existing stairway or adding a new one will affect spaces below. A straight-run stair will consume 10 to 14 feet of floor space; a stair designed with an intermediate landing and two runs needs about 8 feet on the lower level. (This is based on the International Residential Code; check your local building codes to see if your jurisdiction requires something different.)

Attic Bedroom - 50% of Ceiling Area Must Be 7 Ft of Higher
Attic Bedroom – 50% of Ceiling Area Must Be 7 Ft of Higher

3.    Ceiling Height: For a habitable attic room with sloped ceilings at least 50% of the ceiling must be at 84” or higher (This is based on the International Residential Code; check your local building codes to see if your jurisdiction requires something different.)  Remember to calculate the thickness of the finish materials when you calculate headroom.  Notice how these different attic bedrooms use different strategies for handling the ceiling – from open collar ties to closed ceilings.

4.    Use windows, roof windows & skylights to achieve daylight and natural ventilation.  I find the slanted roof windows almost irresistible in an attic bedroom.  They provide a sense of coziness that can’t be replicated anywhere else.  The Washington DC area has hot summers so I avoid skylights on the southern and western roof exposures because they just bring in too much sun and heat.  On a northern and eastern roof exposures, they bring in soft, wonderful cool light.  A bedroom also needs a means of egress in case of fire or other emergency.  So work with your contractor or skylight supplier to make sure that whatever you install meets code for your area.

Attic Bedroom - Use Windows, Doors to Decks & Skylights
Attic Bedroom – Use Windows, Doors to Decks & Skylights for natural light and ventilation
Borrow Light From Stairway
In This Attic Office We Borrowed Light from the Stairway

Also consider borrowing light from adjacent areas.  We used French doors on this attic office space to borrow light from the large windows in the stairwell.

5.    Consider Adding One or More Dormers — these small additions that raise the roof over a portion of the attic will boost usable space and create the feeling of living in the treetops.

Attic Bedroom - Use Dormers for Added Ceiling Height & Living Space
Attic Bedroom – Use Dormers for Added Ceiling Height & Living Space

6.    Attic Bath – To keep costs in check, you’ll want to locate the toilet directly above a toilet on lower levels.  This will also put you above water supply lines.  You’ll have to work with your plumber to discuss how to get hot and cold water up and waste down without too much disruption on lower floors.

Attic Bedroom with Bath
An Attic Bedroom with Bath Adds Considerable Value

7.    Heating and Cooling Your Attic Bedroom. Remember that hot air rises.  This can make attics particularly hot in the summer (and delightfully warm in the winter).  For those of us who like to sleep in particularly cold room, an attic bedroom can pose challenges.  I sleep in an attic bedroom and put in a multi-zone furnace/air conditioning system that allows me to set the temperature as low as I want.  But since hot air rises, the only way I can keep the attic bedroom cool in the summer is to also have a physical barrier (a weather stripped door) that keeps the hot air from rising in my bedroom.  Consult a heating and air-conditioning contractor to evaluate the cost adjusting your system to accommodate living space in the attic.

8.    Be creative about storage. The space under the eaves that are too low to walk under are perfect places for built-in storage.

Attic Bedroom Storage
Attic Bedroom Storage Can Be Open or Closed or a Mix
Attic Bedroom Storage
Use the Space Under the Eaves for Storage
Please help us get out the word

11 thoughts on “Attic Bedroom – An Attractive Space Makes A Sound Investment”

  1. Ms. Braitman,
    I saw this artile online while reading up on attic conversions. Great discussion of key issues. We are in the process of purchasing a home in Washington DC. It currently has a finished attic room. However, access is thru dropdown attic stairs from the center hallway w/no other egress. There is a modest size skylight. We are tentatively looking at making it a useable bedroom for a 13year old boy. Would this size project be of interest to you? Thanks,


  2. I have a 4 unit appt bldg with about 4000 sq ft. Attic is super huge, and wanting to convert the apt into 2 story. Unfortunately, half of the attic has low eaves making it unusable for expansion according to a foreman, giving only 40% more space instead of 80%.
    I really like some of the ideas you have. I am based in northern cal and was wondering if you could do some consultation over the phone. Have some property in so cal as well. Really impressed with your articles. Thanks

  3. A.W. – Thanks for your confidence. I’ve done home improvement consulting long-distance on several occasions. It does, however, put a responsibility on you to provide pictures and information that I would normally get for myself if I was local. I’m also unfamiliar with California’s building codes and how they differ from the nationally accepted IRC codes.

    I’ll email directly and we can discuss it further.

  4. I just read this article and browsed your pictures – love your ideas! My mother lives in a ranch-style home in Silver Spring, MD. It’s way too much space for her, but her hair salon is on the side of the home, so she is tied to it. My husband and I were thinking of taking over the home and transforming the 2-car garage and above attic into an inlaw suite for her (bedroom up and living space downstairs). The structure is there, but it needs everything from plumbing, heating/cooling etc… Is this the type of project you would help with?

  5. Hello Ms. Braitman. I loved your article and ideas on attic remodeling. I find it difficult to find information on this topic. I remodeled the lower level of my 1953 bungalow home in Atlanta, GA 7 years ago. I’ve been considering the attic and had one contractor draw up a blueprint and another a paint rendering of what the outside would look like.

    I have an ‘A’ frame structure. The attic flooring was reinforced, and door and stairs put in for future attic renovation per advice of my former contractor. I’ve been advised it would be less cost to add dormers rather than ‘bump’ up the entire attic. I also was concerned about the aesthetic look of my roof line with dormers only.

    How much maxium space could I get with just dormers compared to a ‘bump’ up? The attic space would be used for additional living space comparable to a loft with a bathroom, sleeping, closet, and office/lounge space.

    Thanks in advance.

  6. I agree with using the spaces under eaves for storage purposes. Its a good way to reduce clutter especially when you’ve got plenty of stuff lying around your room.

  7. I blog frequently and I seriously appreciate your content. Your article has really peaked my
    interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new details about once per week.
    I subscribed to your Feed as well.

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