You May Have Hundreds of Square Feet of Livable Space Hiding Away in That Dusty Attic

12/1/2020

When Atlanta residents Elisabeth Bergman and her husband, Joel Lindsey, and their two kids started to feel cramped in their three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,300-square-foot Craftsman, they decided to expand up — into the attic.

When Atlanta residents Elisabeth Bergman and her husband, Joel Lindsey, and their two kids started to feel cramped in their three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,300-square-foot Craftsman, they decided to expand up — into the attic.

“There was no extra room for the kids or us to escape to,” Bergman says of the 1930s bungalow where they’d lived for about 10 years. They wanted more space but couldn’t afford to trade up in their Ormewood Park neighborhood.

Their idea was to convert 1,000 square feet of attic space into an office/den, bedroom and bathroom. They got multiple bids and chose a design-build firm that “drew up the most beautiful plans” and quoted $60,000 to $70,000 to finish the work, Bergman says. 

“Then, all this stuff starts popping up,” she says. Structural engineers said they needed reinforcing beams. There was talk of propping up the foundation. Dormers were needed and a secondary egress became an issue. The cost quickly ballooned to $150,000. 

"The biggest cost was for things you don’t see: the plumbing, the AC, the extra beams for support."

— Elisabeth Bergman

Adding space?

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“The biggest cost was for things you don’t see: the plumbing, the AC, the extra beams for support,” Bergman says. And adding up-to-code attic stairs was going to eat up a lot of their existing space downstairs.

The couple realized that as much as they loved the neighborhood and their home, moving would buy them more space for less money, and they quickly found a new home outside of Atlanta.

Had Bergman and Lindsey completed the renovation and then moved, they might have recouped somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the attic renovation’s value. The National Association of Realtors 2019 Remodeling Impact Report found that an $80,000 attic renovation recovered about $45,000 at sale. A more optimistic 2015 analysis by Remodeling Magazine found that a midrange attic-to-bedroom renovation of $51,696 returned almost $40,000.

Stewart Davis, owner and principal architect at CG&S Design-Build, a family-run firm in Austin, Texas, that started as a construction company in 1957, isn’t surprised by stories of abandoned attic renovations. “People see that voluminous space and they automatically assume that’s the easiest, best way to gain space,” he says, “and almost never is it the easiest and best way.”

But it can be done — and is done more often in cities where moving is difficult because housing markets are tight and building out, a cheaper option, is limited by small lot sizes.

attic interior

In Austin, for example, Davis has been working on converting a “huge attic — it’s like a cathedral up there,” on a home on a maxed-out lot. The 390-square-foot space, with ceilings ranging up to 9½ feet, allows for easy installation of mechanical equipment like a furnace and ductwork as well as uncomplicated stair placement. 

Mike Pond, architect and project manager at Berkeley Design Build in the Bay Area, urges caution on an attic renovation. Given the difficulty of shoehorning everything into a tight space, he says, adding a full story is often less expensive for the amount of space gained. In the high-priced Bay Area, he says, a high-end renovation can quickly top $500 per square foot and can go even higher for an attic. 

But sometimes an attic renovation is the only way to add space, especially in cities like San Francisco, where zoning restrictions and historic house preservation concerns can limit adding a full story, he says. 

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