Everyone wants more space in their home. The question is how much space do you need and what's the best solution to create that space. You can move, put an addition on your house or finish existing space in your basement or attic. So are you wondering how to finish an attic or garage? When you break things down into these simple steps, it will become manageable (here's a more comprehensive checklist for finishing you attic).
How to Finish an Attic: Steps to Follow
When remodeling, it's always exciting to focus on how you plan to finish the new space. But there are more important things to take care of first to insure your project is legal and safe.
With one attic done by my handyman business, we told the homeowner the builder's attic stairs didn't meet Stratham, NH's local building codes. He ignored our warning which wasn't part of our work scope. As we completed our work, the flooring company said the stairs didn't meet code. He got really upset because the stair modifications put him over budget, with too few choices left to reduce costs.
The lesson here – take more time planning your project to get the results you want, on time and within budget!
- Identify how you plan to use the space, and how much floor/storage space is needed.
- Check your local building codes to see what requirements they have for finishing attic (or basement) space.
- How to finish an attic needs to start with things outside your control. Look at where you can put stairs to the attic, where windows can go and attic space you can use for storage because it doesn't meet height restrictions.
- Design your attic space and strategy for heating, cooling and ventilation for the new living space.
- Get an engineering inspection to verify that your foundation, framing and other home systems will support it.
How to Finish an Attic: Key Decisions
This article looks at how to finish an attic, and we'll follow it with another article on how to finish your basement. Before we split these topics apart, let's look at the major difference between finishing an attic or basement.
- Access to your newly finished attic or basement – can be one of your biggest challenges. With attics that only have pull down stairs, you need to find space for new stairs. Spiral stairs is an option for some but before you finalize your plans, learn what is required to meet building codes, as modifying stairs later will add cost to your remodeling project.
- Egress to escape the finished space – is something most homeowners aren't aware of. In basements with a bedroom, you need two exits and no, a bulkhead door won't qualify as one of them. In attics, you need a window to get out in case of a fire or other emergency. These egress windows have minimum sizes and a maximum height from the ground, specified in your local building codes.
- Windows for natural sunlight – are important for many of the rooms you want to put into your attic or basement. This is where attics are easier than basements because you can install vertical windows or ones that follow the slope of the roof, and commonly known as skylights.
- Ceiling height for space being finished – can be tricky to measure. From the finished floor to the lowest project from the ceiling, the ceiling should be at least seven feet high. This applies to all habitable space including hallways and bathrooms. But we've all seen creative bathrooms where the bathtub is tucked under the stairs. This makes me wonder if we're seeing nine and ten foot ceilings in new construction, for flexibility in where ductwork drops down from the ceiling?
- Usable floor space – is different from the three items above which are dictated by building codes. In attics, there are many creative ways to use space that doesn't have the required ceiling height. Called kneewalls, you will often find open bookshelves, drawers for storage, beds and sometimes a bathtub tucked into attic space where the ceiling is lower than seven feet (find more attic space ideas on Pinterest).
Can You Make Your Attic Bigger?
We bought a house in Arizona two years ago and now split our time between New Hampshire, Florida (where my granddaughter lives) and Arizona. It's fascinating to see how different the houses are in each location. Florida and Arizona don't have the basements and attics you expect in every New England house. At it's peak, my Arizona attic (pictured above) is about four feet high, leaving enough space for insulation, plumbing and heating/cooling ductwork.
So yes, you can make your attic bigger to provide more living space. Here are photos of what these attic dormers look like outside, taken in Portland, Maine and Newburyport, Massachusetts. Dormers are common on older homes where attics were finished, and on newer homes they're found on the second floor.
Other creative ways that dormers have been used to add more living space include an extra room on the second floor shown below over the patio door. An even more creative design is the modern widows walk that was added on top of a house on Plum Island, Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Here are newer homes with different dormer styles showing how versatile they can be in expanding both living and storage space. The first house in Newburyport, MA shows both single and double window dormers jutting out from the roof but flush with the side of the house. The house below in Portland, ME shows matching dormers on each side of the house that provide architectural flair that gives the front of the house a strong personality.