Attic conversions: where to splurge, where to save

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | March 30, 2015

Increasing your home's livable square footage when you need a bedroom addition can pay off in added comfort. But adding to your home's footprint can be costly, and you can't always recoup the expense when you sell.

If you're a homeowner with an unfinished or partially finished attic, however, you can save money by not having to build out. You may be able to remodel within the confines of your home's existing attic area to increase your living space and even get a decent return on investment.

Your attic bedroom conversion: added space, added value

The ROI for an attic bedroom conversion priced at $51,696, according to Remodeling 2015 Cost vs. Value Report (www.costvsvalue.com), averages 77.2 percent nationwide -- still one of the best remodeling ROIs for resale purposes. By comparison, a mid-range master bedroom addition at a cost of $111,245 returns only 61.7 percent. In the Pacific states the ROI is almost 92 percent for an attic bedroom, and in New England, attic conversions are also a top home improvement for ROI, returning nearly 80 percent of the investment. Clearly, if you need another bedroom, especially a master, converting your attic to usable space makes serious dollars and sense.

Don't skimp on these attic bedroom conversion essentials

When it comes to an attic bedroom addition there are required costs you can't avoid and should not skimp on because they can come back to bite you:

  • Permits. Especially if you need to do any electrical wiring, consult with a licensed electrician and submit plans to a building inspector to obtain the proper permitting. You not only want the electricity to work in your new bedroom, but you also want it to be safe.
  • Exit window. You probably want to add some energy efficient windows, skylights, or dormers to provide light in your new bedroom. Windows with a view of the sky and treetops can be one of the best things about an attic conversion. Keep in mind that fire codes typically require you include at least one window large enough from which occupants of the bedroom can escape. Fire can quickly engulf your attic staircase from the lower part of the house, making that egress window the only way out. Position a ladder nearby or provide another means to reach the ground without jumping from a dangerous height.
  • Heating and cooling. Enough insulation -- and the right type; proper ventilation; reflective roofing; and an HVAC system that is adequate for heating and cooling the increased living space are all potential expenses that can make or break the comfort factor for your new bedroom. Here is where consulting with a few knowledgeable professionals can help you choose where to spend your remodeling dollars best to achieve the right balance of these components for your home's particular needs. Why get more insulation or a different type if yours is already sufficient? What you might need are new white reflective shingles to keep your home cooler in summer; a more efficient furnace; or just a whole-house fan. Spend as much as you need to on the best solution without over-investing in those that can't add to your comfort or your home's energy efficiency.
  • Floor support. If your unfinished attic even has a floor, it was probably not intended for foot traffic -- just for storing a few boxes of old files and forgotten treasures. Spend to add extra support to the joists holding up the subfloor so a foot doesn't come through the bedrooms below.
  • Built in storage. Attic space can be tight. Avoid taking up valuable real estate with wardrobes and dressers. If you have the budget, build storage cabinets under the eaves.

Where you can save on your attic bedroom addition

You may need to spend a little more for safety and comfort, but there are also a number of ways you can cut expenses on an attic remodel:

  • Spiral staircase. Building codes typically require you install a permanent staircase. The most efficient use of space and often the least expensive solution is to install a spiral staircase.
  • Bathroom. If an en suite is a must for your bedroom addition in the attic, locating it directly above the bathroom on the floor below can save on plumbing costs. Take advantage of the roof's pitch by putting a bathtub under the eaves where you won't need as much headroom as a shower requires. Be sure to put in waterproof flooring such as ceramic tile in the bathing area.
  • Oil-filled, portable radiators. Turn up the heat in colder months with these portable space heaters that use radiant heat from oil that is fully enclosed in the metal coils of the unit. Whether you use them exclusively to heat the attic or just as supplemental heat on really frigid nights, these heaters can make a small enclosed space toasty in no time, yet don't get hot enough to pose a hazard. For extra peace of mind, however, many come with a tip-over safety switch that will turn the unit off.

Not all attics are suitable for remodeling. Some may not have enough square footage or headroom to meet code. Roofs constructed with trusses are not candidates for conversion. If you are one of the lucky homeowners who has an attic that qualifies, spend your remodeling dollars sensibly on a safe and comfortable bedroom with all of the necessities. Over time, you can add extra touches to enhance and personalize what can be a very solid remodeling investment.

Photo credit to Kevin Irby

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.