Attic space conversions reach new heights in a down market

atticRunning out of space to expand and improve your home? Then look up.

Attic space is the newest frontier in home improvement, and according to a recent survey by the Home Improvement Research Institute, one in five respondents said they planned to finish an attic room in the next few months.
Taking your home's living space to new heights is a great way to improve home value during a down market, and just like the often-forgotten basement, attic space holds great possibilities for accommodating a returning family member, carving out quiet office space or designing an epic media haven.

However, just like that basement, your attic's structural and mechanical basics require some special planning and consideration before attic space conversion begins. Sure, you won't have to dig out a new foundation if you improve upward, and though a building permit is required, a million trips to local planning and zoning boards won't be. But all attics are not created equal, and they really weren't made to be living spaces in the first place.

So before you transform a rafter storage zone into a new kind of hideaway, consider the following fine points of attic structure.

Safe ceiling height
Even if your attic boasts plenty of square footage, chances are it's going to need a few adjustments overhead before you'll be completely at home in the space. It's all about the roofline, and if you have a roof with a low pitch between 3:12 and 6:12, you'll have a tough time getting enough stand-up space to make an attic room work.

In this scenario, you'll be facing a fair amount of reframing of the roof structure ─ a big boost to the project's price tag. A 12:12 roof with a 45-degree pitch will need some framing, too, but adding a dormer isn't nearly as expensive as completely replacing your roof.

Another critical point in attic structure is how the roof above has been framed. If your roof was framed with trusses, you'll have to pull your home improvement dreams out of the attic, because modification is not among the benefits of truss construction. In this situation, only a complete roof reconstruction can make an attic conversion possible.

Mechanical systems
The comforts and conveniences you enjoy elsewhere in your home will need help getting up to the attic. For one thing, your heating, and especially you cooling systems, probably won't be big enough to handle the additional needs of this new area, which wasn't originally intended to be a living space.

Cooling needs are particularly demanding in attics, so you'll likely need to install a separate cooling zone before you inhabit this level of the house. Electrical service will be easier to extend and shouldn't put too much strain on your existing system, but again, any electrical extras will depend on the specific use of your new attic space.

Flooring format
A safe, smooth floor is a must in any living space, and of course you'll want the same for your attic. Remember, though, that the structure underfoot is also holding up your roof! What's more, installing an attic floor can impact the energy efficiency of a home if it puts the squeeze on insulation, which is always thicker than ceiling joists or trusses.

An attic space conversion that goes beyond simple storage for a few random boxes and seasonal gear will require smart assessment of structure, insulation accommodation, and the selection of a flooring product that will work with both.

The top-of-mind message on attics is to be alert before you convert. An attic structure unsuited to more than a little light storage can turn into a major home reconstruction project if you insist upon using it, but if the conditions are right, you can make a cost-effective upgrade that expands both the living space and value of your home.

Tom Kraeutler delivers energy saving tips each week as host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. He is also AOL's Home Improvement Editor and author of "My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure."

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