When space is limited, sometimes there’s nowhere to go but up. In that sense, finishing your attic can feel like stumbling across undiscovered land in your own home. You might be tempted to throw up drywall, finish the floors, and call it a day. However, finishing an attic comes with its own quirks, expenses, and tricks to maximize its value. Doing it wrong can cost you both time — as well as the safety and structural stability of your home — in the long run.
A poor attic remodel “can hurt you to a certain point,” explains Michael Berg, a top-selling agent in the Chicago area “It may be usable space, but it’s not necessarily a great, usable space for all types of buyers.”
Read on to learn more about the costs and considerations that come with finishing an attic.
Tallying up the total cost to finish an attic
Finishing your attic isn’t like remodeling a kitchen, or even adding a ground-level addition. “When you’re renovating an attic, it’s definitely going to be more expensive,” says Berg.
One added expense is the input of an architect. In older homes, you can’t add weight to the attic without getting reinforcement along the walls, all the way down to the foundation. Without a structural analysis from an architect, you could end up with an improper renovation that feels unstable, wobbly, or even caves in on the floor below.
Hiring an architect to consult costs between $60 – $125 an hour, and hiring them to handle the renovation process can cost anywhere between $2,014 to $8,375, depending on the complexity of the project. Because that attic and roof are so integral to the structure of your home, you’ll need an architect or other structural professional’s help more often than a ground-floor project.
The total price tag to finish your attic? According to a 2019 report from the National Association of Realtors, homeowners can expect to pay at least $80,000 to finish out their attic.
Here’s a breakdown of all expenses and projects.
An attic might have a single, naked lightbulb providing light, but to make it a usable space, you’ll have to bring water, electricity, heat, cooling, and more into the room. You’ve got to lay down the foundation of the attic before finishing anything out.
Unlike finishing out a basement that is naturally cool, you’ll need to make sure there’s proper insulation in your attic to maintain a constant temperature. Adding insulation can cost anywhere between $800 – $3,500, depending on the size of the attic and the quality of materials used.
Building codes stipulate that in rooms with sloped ceilings, such as attics, at least 50% of the square footage must have ceilings that are 7 feet or higher to be considered livable space.
If the ceilings are too low for livable space, you might consider raising the roof (literally, not in the party kind of way), which starts at $15,000 or adding in dormers, which can cost anywhere between $2,500 – $20,000, for light and additional square footage.
Running pipes up to the top floor will cost $1,058 on average. This doesn’t include fixtures or finishes. You can save on some costs by planning the bathroom on top of existing plumbing.
This includes running new wires, adding outlets, and possibly putting in a ceiling fixture or fan. On average, this will cost somewhere between $1,300 and $3,000.
Depending on your climate, you’ll need proper HVAC to ensure the attic isn’t too hot or too cold. Adding HVAC to the attic costs between $40 – $250, if the home already has heating and cooling. You’ll also want to make sure your existing system can handle efficiently heating and cooling another floor without being overworked.
Ladders and rickety attic staircases won’t meet safety codes. Depending on your existing attic access, you may need to add a new staircase that’s safe for daily use. Building a staircase that runs straight up from scratch will cost between $500 to $3,000, and installing a space-saving spiral staircase is more expensive: $2,000 to $6,000 on average.
Once the bones of the attic are installed, next you’ll need to tackle interior projects including flooring, drywall, windows, and more.
Depending on what you plan for your attic, flooring varies. Waterproof tiling for the bathroom will cost an average of $1,643. Hardwood, laminate, and carpeting will range between $1,490 – $4,396 depending on material and installation. If that attic space is above a bedroom, you’ll also want to consider additional soundproofing so you don’t have to hear every step.
If your attic doesn’t have drywall, you’ll need to install it first before putting up walls. You can expect to pay $375 – $1,500 for drywall (double that number if you want drywall on the ceiling). Installing walls after the drywall with a carpenter will cost about $1,900.
With insulation and drywall in place on the ceiling, you can expect to pay $1,500 for a carpenter to install the ceiling.
If you’re building a bedroom in the attic, you’ll need two points of egress for it to be up to code. That includes the door, and typically a window. Installing windows in the attic can be tricky, and will often require the help of an architect to ensure they’re structurally sound, you’ll pay between $3,000 – 18,000 for window installation in the attic.
An attic skylight adds a unique design to the space, and can provide additional light. Once again, it’s worth having an architect sign off on the installation to make sure it’s safe in the room. A skylight can cost anywhere between $700 – $3,500 each, depending on the material and complexity.
How you furnish your finished attic will depend on the scope and type of renovation you choose to go with, but as a rule of thumb, here’s how much you can expect to pay to outfit these rooms:
For a mattress, box spring, nightstand, etc., you can expect to pay $2,600, at a minimum.
Den or living room
Turning your attic into an entertainment area or den with a sofa, end tables, and area rug will likely start around $2,100.
Does a finished attic add resale value?
Short answer? Yes, especially when you compare to the value of a finished basement, which will appraise for about 30% less in value than above-ground space. High above ground level, your finished attic space will be more valuable in the eyes of the appraiser, explains Berg, who was an appraiser for 14 years before he became a real estate agent.
But finishing out an attic will almost always cost more than a basement. So it can feel like a catch-22: Spend less in a basement renovation for a lower appraisal, or spend more in the attic for higher appraisal value.
According to the NAR 2019 report, converting an attic to a living area nets an average 56% ROI, a higher return than adding a new bathroom, or more than adding a new master suite.
How to use your finished attic space
In the Chicago area, Berg sees many homes where space is limited, and the only way to expand is up. Uses of the finished attic space range from office and playroom to full bed and bath. But there aren’t many buyers who consider climbing multiple sets of stairs a day on their list of must-haves.
“Rarely do I get people saying they’re looking for a third level,” says Berg. Too many sets of stairs can be a turn off to buyers, and in Berg’s market, he often sees buyers get more excited for a finished basement, “which is odd because basements have water issues more than attics.”
Regardless, prepping your finished attic with buyers in mind means making the space feel fully livable. The less anyone has to worry about climbing the stairs, the better. That means including a bathroom, in addition to efficient heating and cooling that makes the space truly feel comfortable for the day to day, not an afterthought.
When it comes time to sell, you’ll want to pay close attention to the attic’s staging, making it feel just as cared for and considered as the rest of the home.
How to maximize the value of your finished attic
Finishing an attic is expensive, and if it’s done purely for resale value, it might not yield the high return you’re expecting.
This will all depend on your market though, Berg explains. Out in the suburbs where space is aplenty, a finished attic won’t mean much to buyers. However, in a high-value urban setting, the high price-per-square-foot alone might justify the costly renovation. Consult with your agent more to better understand your local trends.
If your home is on a small lot, and your family wants more space without moving, finishing an attic could be the right move.
Finishing the attic into liveable space nets an average of 9.3 out of 10 “Joy Score,” or sense of happiness the owners have upon completion, on NAR’s renovation report. So, if you’re planning to get a few years of use out of it, the investment might make more sense.
For the right home and market, a finished attic can feel like a cherry on top of the property. Just keep structure, safety, and purpose in mind as you plan out your new space.
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