Expert advice, ideas, and considerations for turning an unfinished attic into living space.

An attic with headroom, access from below, and an adequately strong floor can provide additional living space when finished.
An attic with headroom, access from below, and an adequately strong floor can provide additional living space when finished. R.S. Jegg / Shutterstock.com

Does your home have a large, undeveloped attic just waiting to become living space? Many houses do. Key ingredients are ample headroom and the ability to install stairs for access.

Custom shelving and storage area doors make the most of this compact attic space. ©Don Vandervort, HomeTips

Of course, many improvements are necessary to make an attic livable, such as strengthening the floor, moving heating or air-conditioning equipment, installing insulation, bringing in natural light, finishing the surfaces, and providing power, heat, and—often—cooling.

Be sure to check local codes and apply for a building permit before beginning an attic conversion project. You’ll have to pay particular attention to rules about structural loads, minimum headroom, stair access, and emergency escape routes. For example, because the ceiling typically slopes in an attic, codes often call for 7 1/2 feet of clearance across at least half of the floor area.

This attic office space is given natural light and a view through generous skylights.
This attic office space is given natural light and a view through generous operable skylights. Medium-high cabinets and a desktop take advantage of the areas with minimal head height along knee walls. Dmitry Pistrov / Shutterstock.com

Also, because the floor joists in an attic are intended for light-duty use (holding the ceiling below), they frequently need reinforcement. In planning any structural work, including removing crossbeams or other roof supports, be sure to get the advice of a structural engineer.

Because most attics don’t have windows, introducing natural light is often a challenge. Gable-end windows and operable skylights are excellent solutions.

Though building a dormer calls for major roof reconstruction work, this is a project that will greatly improve both attic headroom and natural light.

Railings fold out when this set of three large specialty roof windows opens, creating an exterior balcony.
Railings fold out when this set of three large specialty roof windows opens, creating an exterior balcony. Velux Skylights

Another option that achieves similar results without actually increasing headroom is to install specialty roof windows that open and provide fold-out railings (see the set of three Velux Cabrio roof windows shown above).

To insulate the roof in a finished attic, foil-faced foam insulation is often the best choice.
To insulate the roof in a finished attic, foil-faced foam insulation is often the best choice. SpeedKingz / Shutterstock.com

An important consideration is to maintain energy efficiency when you turn an attic into living space. This means replacing the attic between ceiling joists over the room below (the attic’s floor) with insulation overhead and in the knee walls. See these helpful related articles: How to Insulate an Attic.

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About Don Vandervort
Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years, as Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort