Is it worth it to refinish our attic?
July 22, 2009 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Is it worth it to remodel our attic into a living space? Will it increase the resale value of the house enough to offset the cost and effort?

We're living in our father-in-law's 100 year old, four bedroom house. The long term goal is to fix up the house and sell it when the market recovers. We're not looking for a payday; we just want to get rid of this albatross. There is a ton of work that needs to be done on the house. Have you seen The Money Pit? Yeah. Not nearly that bad, but some days it sure feels like it.

You'd think with four bedrooms, the place is big enough for three adults, but the bedrooms are very small and 2 are being used as home offices. So, my husband wants to refinish the attic (previously) to increase our space and privacy (we're newlyweds, we're living with his single-but-not-celibate father, so you fill in the blanks). I am not happy with the space/privacy as it stands now, but I could live with it if I had to. He has the tools, the technical knowledge, and access to people who can help him. This will be entirely DIY if we can help it.

My concerns are that he already works full time at a stressful job, and though he may think he can get this done in a few months, it will probably actually take longer, especially if we have other unexpected expenses. Our plan is to get the entire house into sellable (saleable?) condition in a year, and live in it for however long it takes to sell. Hopefully two years max. Honestly, the only upside I can see is if the remodeling will increase the resale value enough to offset the hassle and expense. Do people really want refinished attics? Is this something that I can just call up a local real estate person and ask? Do you know a reputable real estate agent in Oak Park?

I need some objective opinions. I will provide as much detail about the house as I can in the thread without giving the exact location - you can see the general area in my profile.
posted by desjardins to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd think about making the existing bedrooms into larger ones. I'm living in a place where there is barely enough room for my bed, and it makes me crazy. I have to step in, close the door, and then I can move around a bit. Do people really need four bedrooms? Could you combine two of the rooms to create a master bedroom and keep the remaining two as is? Or a master BR, a regular BR, and an office? I think some creative marketing here will be key.

The attic question seems to boil down to whether you really can live with having less privacy, and whether doing it is worth the expense and stress. Personally, unless you can ensure that the attic bedroom would be comfortable to live in, I wouldn't be interested. (I think of attics as hot in the summer and cold in the winter, dusty, etc.) When you do sell the place, you could call it a bonus room or a mother-in-law suite.

Oh, and btw. It's "salable."
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:37 AM on July 22, 2009

This is a complicated set of tradeoffs.

I don't think that finishing out the attic will pay for itself in resale value, but I'm not a real-estate professional. But that's not your only reason for contemplating it. If you could get the project done quickly enough that you'd have some time to benefit from it before selling, it would probably make sense.

But the other thing is that time and money spent finishing the attic is time and money not spent fixing up existing problems in the house, which you're also going to need to address, and probably have a more direct bearing on the house's marketability. From the sound of things, you could start on those projects tomorrow and maybe have them finished by the time you are thinking of selling. Working on all those other projects is going to drain enough energy and enthusiasm as it is; adding the attic project might be one thing too many. So you need to balance the benefits of having that attic finished against the aggravation of being in project-mode for that much longer.
posted by adamrice at 8:46 AM on July 22, 2009

It's worth checking out at the very beginning how hot the attic will get in the summer. That alone may make it no longer worth it.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:53 AM on July 22, 2009

Personally, unless you can ensure that the attic bedroom would be comfortable to live in, I wouldn't be interested. (I think of attics as hot in the summer and cold in the winter, dusty, etc.)

In one of my parent's houses growing up my sisters room was basically a refinished half of an attic. It was a little cold in the winter but mostly it was almost unbearable in the summer. Part of that was probably because we didn't have central air conditioning and all she had to cool it down was a few strategically-placed fans.

Another downside to a refinished attic is that they usually have weird slanted ceilings and walls, which will be what people will notice when you show it. I'm not an expert on return value for real estate improvements but I do know that people tend to not like unusual room layouts when they are buying even if they would actually be fine with it once they bought the house (just like how having the walls painted a weird color can hurt your home value when selling even though re-painting them is easy).
posted by burnmp3s at 8:56 AM on July 22, 2009

Unless you are an experienced contractor, remodels will always take longer than you think they will. The fact that you will need to do this on top of a full time job means you will not be able to put the same time and energy into it as a contractor would be able to. Unless the attic is already open (no beams that need to be removed), and you know it can take the additional weight of a remodel, it is probably going to take you several months just to work out the structural issues and get the space ready to be finished.

Think of the strain of living in a house for many months, and potentially years, that is in the process of being remodeled. It will not be pleasant.

Now think of this: Let's say that after the cost of doing the project, you are able to sell the house for an additional $10,000. Compare that to the hundreds of hours that you could have spent with your spouse during the first (and what many people consider the most exciting) year of your marriage. It is amazing how having large unfinished projects can make people stressed out and hard to live with. I know at least one "happy" couple who almost divorced due to a similar situation.

Unless you both think this will be a fun project, and will enjoy doing it together, I cannot see the benefit of doing it. If you were planning to live in the house for the next 10 years than that is a different story, but if you are doing this primarily for the resale value, you may find that the rest of your life gets pushed aside in order to complete this (because once you start, you are going to need to finish if you intend to sell the house).
posted by markblasco at 9:10 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

You free on Sundays? Start going to open houses in the immediate area and see what the "competition" looks like. It's also a good way to talk to and interview real estate agents since that's what they're there for. Open houses are ways for them to find clients as much if not more than to sell that specific house.

I think you could make any number of contradictory cases for what to do here but I'll tell you my reaction: if you want to best assure that $1 put into the house gets as close as $1 back out then an attic rehab is probably not at the top of the list. Not if it feels like the money pit to you.

If that's the case you're better off painting, replacing fixtures, refinishing floors, upgrading window treatments, repairing outside blemishes, landscaping (within reason) etc.

BUT it sounds like that's not your only goal - you have a personal comfort issue you're trying to address. How does this solve it? By creating a bedroom upstairs for you two to take and thereby offering more privacy? RunningWithScissors is right about this - it's hard to make an attic space comfortable to live in.

For sale purposes you'd be better served making it an office space/rec room kind of thing, but that doesn't seem to solve your problem. I'd also be concerned about how long this will really take AND what it's going to do to the enjoyment of the level immediately below, where I presume your bedroom is. I'd particularly be concerned that you not half-ass this job because you're in a hurry to live in it. Crappy conversions are going to be worse for your sale prospects than no conversion.

If I had a magic wand that created money and was in your situation I'd make that attic into a largeish home office kind of space and knock out a wall to make two larger bedrooms down below. However that might not be the most attractive thing for your area - that's why you need to hit those open houses.
posted by phearlez at 9:15 AM on July 22, 2009

Do people really want refinished attics?

The second story of our house is essentially an attic, slanted roof and all. Our teenager and all her friends love it, always have, 'cause it feels like a separate apartment. Just make sure it's livable, i.e. has heat and AC, otherwise you're not using the space to its full potential. Remember, you want a refinished attic, if for no other reason than privacy.

Also, our house sounds a like ours (100 years old, small bedrooms) and after a bit of adjustment, we've found we like it better as it forced us to get rid of material crap and rethink what's important.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:16 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends. Some factors:

-Square footage. People want an attic conversion that creates a different living space than traditional bedrooms, like a master suite. This would include a bathroom.

-Light and air. You will need to insulate well and have heating and air conditioning installed.
If the windows are low consider a north facing skylight.

-Egress. Are the stairs up adequate to move furniture and fixtures or the twisty/turning kind?

-Timing. Do you want to do all the work and not get to reap the benefits?

And I know two local agents well and ask them before I do anything to my house for their input. Memail me for info.
posted by readery at 9:17 AM on July 22, 2009

My wife watches a lot of those 'What's this house worth' TV shows, and I think they say finished attics and basements recoup about 75% of what you pay for it, as long as the market is strong and can support improvements. If the market is depressed, and no one else has that sort of amenity, probably not so much.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:19 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

A good friend remodeled their attic after getting married into a master suite (I am not sure how the previous owners raised 4 kids in that house without it). Anyways it was a lot of money and he added a dormer so that there could be room for a bathroom up there. We did all the demolition and a lot of the rough work (as well as took the opened walls and floors as an excuse to replace all the knob-and-tube wiring with code wiring but it was certainly slow going. Unless you have a lot of experience expect this to take a lot of time.
posted by mmascolino at 9:36 AM on July 22, 2009

Unless you are an experienced contractor, remodels will always take longer than you think they will.
posted by contraption at 9:41 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about refinishing my attic too.

Some considerations:

Depending on where you live, claiming your refinished attic as extra living space square footage may not be viable if the ceiling is low. For example, in NY, my recollection is that some specific percentage of a room must have at least 7'6" clearance. This obviously will affect resale value.

Merging two bedrooms into one may improve your lifestyle, but will almost certainly hurt resale value. My parents did this to their first house, turning a cramped 4 bedroom into a spacious 2 bedroom, and my dad still regrets it 30 years later.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:32 AM on July 22, 2009

Have you done remodeling before, either on your own or with a contractor? It's a very disruptive experience at best. I'm not sure I would want to add it to the stress of an already less-than-perfect living situation, especially if I didn't plan to be around for awhile to enjoy the results.
posted by not that girl at 10:39 AM on July 22, 2009

Wait, more info please.

What other work are you going to do or are you thinking about doing to the house? What is the attic like now? Are there stairs up to it? Is there a floor? Electricity? Are the joists large and close enough to support a bedroom? Are you thinking of an upstairs bathroom as well? How many square feet will you get out of the remodel?
posted by LarryC at 10:40 AM on July 22, 2009

Most remodeling doesn't pay back the original cost. This article suggests you can recoup most of a bathroom or kitchen remodel, but 79-89% otherwise. Keep in mind that those returns are based on an unusual market, so your mileage may vary.
posted by electroboy at 10:50 AM on July 22, 2009

I think your worries are well founded.

If you try finishing the attic, you'll need to open up a path in the walls through the rest of the house to put in ductwork and wiring. You'll probably want to get dormers to open up the attic space. Planning on doing it without permits? I've known the joy of having an inspector appear in the middle of a basement reno and then having to race around for an engineer and plans. How confident are you that the plaster/lathe ceilings of the floor below won't start to crack under the new load and foot traffic?

When I go to open houses in our area, I see a ton of pricey fixtures and new paint, new kitchens and new bathrooms. I go down to check out the basement "family room" and always see the same berber carpet over a bumpy, crumbling concrete floor. The walls are all pretty but I can tell that it's only a year or two old and already starting to molder. But you know what? It's the eye-candy that sells houses. You're far better off spending the money on cute updates that don't require a ton of rebuilding (that will never be seen or appreciated by anyone but yourselves).

Also, it will consume your lives and your relationship until it's finished and while it's unfinished your house really will be unsellable.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:53 AM on July 22, 2009

Also, check your local codes, because a third story may require a separate fire escape.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:54 AM on July 22, 2009

First, find out if it's legal. Where I live, it turns out that you can't have a bedroom on the third floor without a fire escape. This rule has scuttled two attic remodels that I know of.
posted by kestrel251 at 10:55 AM on July 22, 2009'll also increase your sq. footage and thus, your municipal taxes.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:55 AM on July 22, 2009

Like LarryC, I'm wondering about the joists; houses that old often have attic floor joists too small / weak for use as the floor of a living space. Also, it can be challenging to effectively ventilate and insulate the roof of a finished attic. My house, for example, has 2X6 rafters, which leaves room for only R-19 fiberglass -- about half of the R-value I'd like to have. I can only guess at the details of your case, but you can't just nail down a plywood subfloor, staple in insulation, cover it with drywall, install carpeting and call it a day. It's a big project. The chances of it being worthwhile for a 2-year stay seem almost nil. The chances of it paying for itself in resale, also almost nil.
posted by jon1270 at 10:57 AM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: What other work are you going to do or are you thinking about doing to the house?

This would be better answered by my husband or his father, but from what I know, the porch needs to be entirely replaced, the exterior needs to be painted, something has to be done to the dining room ceiling, some of the electric needs replacing, and the kitchen needs cosmetic improvements. Also, an interior wall must be torn out and redone.

What is the attic like now? Are there stairs up to it?

Gabled ceiling, 2 windows (one very large), two skylights. Yes, there are stairs as opposed to a ladder. Someone put hideous linoleum over part of the floor, so there was evidently some intent to do something with it at some point. (We're planning to carpet over that section, and either sand/stain or paint the rest.)

Is there a floor? Yes. Electricity? Not yet. Are the joists large and close enough to support a bedroom? I'm not sure. Are you thinking of an upstairs bathroom as well? No. How many square feet will you get out of the remodel? Around 400.

We have checked with the building inspection folks and gotten the specs on exactly how much sq footage we need, ceiling heights, insulation, etc, so we're doing this the legal route.

Thanks for all the answers thus far. My husband is not a mefite, but I've sent him a link to this thread.
posted by desjardins at 1:28 PM on July 22, 2009

My opinion is to take care of the major cosmetic stuff you've mentioned first. It sounds like less of a structural re-do than I was imagining. I'd still try to do the least amount of work on it though. If you think "cottage", you could sand or paint the floorboards. Put wall sconces up. Do anything that you can do to avoid opening up the walls.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:00 PM on July 22, 2009

We were considering a serious remodel in Oak Park a few years ago, and our research emphasized that they rarely pay for themselves. (Specifically, what did the best was a new bathroom, and second-best was a kitchen remodel.) And that was back when the market was booming.

I do know a couple of good realtors in Oak Park-- Mefi mail me if you're interested.
posted by zompist at 4:55 PM on July 22, 2009

I would do the repairs first, then, if my experience in living in a 100year old house is typical, fix the windows, turn the basement into something non-dungeon like and keep all the original wood trim. It's sad when people remove trim as it takes away the character of the house. I agree kitchens and baths usually pay for themselves if they're neutral (no purple tiles) and decent materials are used. Attics are good if the house is small, but they're a lot of work and you have to make sure the structure will take the load and where to put stairs just for starters. I'd look downstairs before taking on the attic.
posted by x46 at 5:19 PM on July 22, 2009

Notice how conservative everyone is? You might consider not fixing anything and selling it "as is". It might actually be the best bet. If the house needs a lot of work, it might be better to give someone else the opportunity and find better digs ASAP. If you are really honest about the value of your personal time, it's pretty hard to come out on top with "do it yourself" projects. If you get a contractor to estimate the job, you'll find out exactly how difficult it will be. I'd guess $50 to $75 a square foot. That's a lot of work.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 6:08 PM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: You might consider not fixing anything and selling it "as is".

Can't be done, as the owner is underwater.
posted by desjardins at 7:47 PM on July 22, 2009

With home remodels / improvements, you can never get even close to the amount of money you put into the project when you sell the house.

Here's a link to the data for Boston. You can also view other parts of the country.

The project that had the highest cost recoup rate was replacing vinyl siding at 78%. The worst was a home office remodel at 44%.
posted by reddot at 3:26 PM on August 5, 2009

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