Depending on where you’re sitting in your home, you may have hundreds of square feet of useful — and under-utilized — space above your head. Even if your attic is not a good candidate for conversion into full-time living area, there are inexpensive ways to make better use of that extra space.
To become more familiar with your attic, you need to get up there and take a look around. First, find the interior access into it. Typically, the access is a set of collapsible stairs, but it also can be a hatch covered with a movable panel. If that’s the case, you’ll need to position a ladder under the hatch and shimmy yourself up.
Worst case scenario: your attic is only accessible from the exterior of your home, and you’ll need to lean an extension ladder up to the opening mounted in a gable end. Look for a hinged door, a fixed window, an operable window or a slatted vent mounted flush with one of your home’s exterior walls. It may have a ventilation fan mounted in it. This opening leads directly into the attic.
Once inside the attic, take a look around to determine if it is ventilated and insulated.
Look for ventilation in the following forms: a continuous ridge vent along the roof ridge, a metal whirlybird on or near the ridge, metal soffit vents in the overhang across the front of the house or along the sides, or a fixed-in-place, louvered vent on a gable end. Whatever the system, take a close look at the vents to see if they’re blocked or constricted.
Circulating the air above your living space helps cool your home during the (many) warm months of the year, so plan now to add circulation before hot weather makes working in the attic unbearable.
Attic insulation types vary. Underfoot, between the ceiling joists, you may see batt insulation (the pink stuff on a roll) or loose, blown-in insulation, which is a material with an appearance like cotton on the boll. On the sloped attic sides between roof rafters, you may see radiant barriers: thin, rigid sheets or panels of reflective material.
If you have little or no insulation, contact a green-building agency — Alliance for Affordable Energy, Nola Wise, Energy Wise, Global Green — or call your electricity provider to find out about energy-efficiency programs in your area which could provide tips and other assistance with an insulation project.
Next, if your attic doesn’t have a floor, consider installing one to maximize your home’s storage space. Remember to size the plywood for the floor according to the size of the attic opening; standard sheets of plywood often have to be cut smaller to fit into the attic opening. For an extra charge, a lumber yard will cut the plywood for you, which could save you a delivery fee if you can fit the cut pieces into your car.
Use care when screwing plywood to ceiling joists so as to avoid pinching or puncturing HVAC ducts, light fixtures, wires or anything else attached to the joists.
Select plywood strong enough to bridge unsupported expanses of as much as 2 feet between the ceiling joists. Plywood should be 3/4-inch thick. If you choose either oriented strand board (OSB) or chip board, ask the advice of your lumber yard to determine how thick those products must be to bear weight over the span.
If you find room for it in your budget, use the plywood or OSB with a tongue and groove, which helps reinforce the floor at each seam.
You won’t need to install a floor surface the full width of your attic unless you plan to store several rooms worth of furniture there. Instead, create a useful storage space by installing floor plywood from the top of the stairs outward in several directions for easy access.
Flooring under the roof ridge, the tallest area in the attic, can serve as a catwalk for future trips to the attic to inspect a leaky roof, for example. Installing more attic floor now could prevent a leg through ceiling Sheetrock in the future.