The Home Buyer's Korner

Information presented should be used for educational purposes only.

July 7th, 2015

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The Home Buyer’s Korner

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Attic Renovations

attic 12For many, the attic is an unclaimed portion of their home ready to be converted to bedrooms, baths or even rec rooms and much more than meets the eye. While it may appear that this transformation would involve no more than some flooring, insulation and drywall, attic remodels aren’t for the weekend handyman and fairly complex. There are a number of factors that can affect the headroom of the new living space including new floor systems, insulation and rafter size. While a professional renovation expert should inspect your attic’s potential, a good rule of thumb is if the existing distance between your attic floor and ridge (peak) is less than 8’6” increasing the roof height will most likely be required. The minimum finished ceiling height of living space varies from city to city, but often falls between 6’ 8” and 7’6”.

More times than not, the floor structure of an existing attic is actually a ceiling joist. Typically, ceiling joists are 2×6 or 2×8 beams and designed to carry only the weight of the drywall or plaster depending on the age of your home. Once you inspect to make the attic livable space, the existing ceiling joists will likely be in need of replacement since they probably will not meet the structural requirement for a floor. There are many factors that will determine what kind of new flooring system will best fit your home’s existing structure, while making your floor code compliant. One that we’ll discuss in this post is Sistering. Sistering is installing new larger joists next to the existing ones and one way to bring your attic floor up to code. Positioning the new joist adjacent to the existing preserves precious ceiling, but it does come with some potential complications. Often, existing joist bays are filled with electrical and heating ducts that will need to be relocated. The other alternative is engineered floor joints, which provide increased structural reliability and aren’t susceptible to crowning, bowing, or shrinkage that is sometimes associated with dimensional lumber (2x10s, 2x12s etc).

With the improved performance and reliability, engineered joists sit atop your existing ceiling joist and often span from one outside wall to the other. They typically allows existing mechanicals to remain and don’t put any increased burden on existing load bearing walls or basement beams. An added benefit to the engineered joist is that it allows for complete flexibility in bath and mechanical design as the joist can be engineered to allow for new plumbing and mechanical runs so you aren’t forced to stack a new baths directly over an existing one.

While each flooring system has advantages and disadvantages there are other factors that may play into which system is the best fit for your home.

Once your renovation expert has determines the best approach to securely construct the attic floor, it is important to determine how you will access the new space. In older homes, the attic stair is often narrow and steep which will no longer comply with today’s codes. In the event where the new attic floor requires increased structure, an existing attic stair will no longer land at the floor level as the new joist will be taller than the existing stair well. In the majority of cases a new stair and structural opening will be required. Determining the stair’s pitch, structure and location is fairly complex, so consulting a qualified design build firm is paramount.

attic 3Next you need to consider how a space that reaches 150 degrees in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter transform to your new living space? It not too complicated to figure out. Insulation, insulation and more insulation. Over the past several years there has been an increased focus on making insulation codes more stringent. Current insulation code requires R-49 insulation in the ceiling. When using fiberglass insulation (the pink stuff) the attic roof rafter will need to be at least 16” deep. In an older home, a typical roof rafter can range between 2×4’s to 2×8’s. In order to create a deeper cavity for the insulation it will be necessary to attach wood framing to the existing rafters through a process called “furring”. In addition to some of the structural considerations mentioned earlier furring can further reduce your existing attics head room. Spray insulation, while costly, can achieve increased R values in smaller cavities and therefore can occasionally avoid the need for furring.

The one thing you never want to do is improve without a permit. Every municipality has a set of guidelines that regulates the shape, size and position of your home. It is essential to check with your municipality to determine that the newly habitable area will fall within the established zoning code. Beyond potentially maxing out the allowable square footage (often called FAR or Floor Area Ratio) in some cities, if the attic is a third floor two sets of stairs is often required. And keep this in mind if you’re thinking about bypassing getting a permit. When it comes time to sell your home and the day will most likely come the appraisers will check for permits and if they don’t see any were pulled it’s going to seriously diminish your home value! So, don’t try to be a slick Willy and save a few bucks, only to find out you’ve lost 10’s of thousands of dollar in improved equity down the road.

As I mentioned earlier, attic space is susceptible to extreme temperatures. Existing HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning), systems are sized for the existing home; therefore creating new space into the existing system is often not possible. While a new HVAC system can be an unanticipated cost, there are added benefits including simplified duct runs and the ability to independently control the temperature. Beyond HVAC, it is also important to determine that your home’s existing plumbing and electrical can withstand the additional outlets, lighting, and bath fixtures.

attic 4Don’t forget to let the light in. Every room in a home, whether it’s a bedroom or living room, has a stated light and ventilation requirement. The required amount of light and ventilation varies by the room type (for example, bedrooms require more than dining rooms). Light and vent requirements are met by adjusting the amount and size of the windows. Often, the amount of exterior wall space in an existing attic is scarce. Therefore, locating windows and determining room layout becomes a delicate balance. Additionally, it is important to research your municipality’s egress requirements as certain rooms such as bedrooms will require windows to meet certain minimum clearances.

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