Attics vs. Basements

diagram of house

If you’re looking for a project that will add value to your home as well as add some much needed extra space, of if you’re in the market for a new home with future possibilities for expansion, consider the possibilities that lie in attics and basements. However, don't forget about the restrictions that come along with each space.


finished attic

While basement renovations tend to be more common, attics should not be overlooked. If you're in the market for a new home, consider the limitations of the attic carefully, but don't completely rule it out.

Ceiling Height

One major drawback of attics is ceiling height, or lack thereof. Most ranch style homes just don’t have enough head room to allow for a fully functional living space. That doesn’t mean that the attic has to be wasted space.

Storage space is always welcomed, and most of the time, it’s in short supply. By installing a drop down stairway and laying some plywood across the ceiling joist, any experienced DIYer can easily resolve his or her storage dilemmas.

Weight Loads

For homes with the plenty of ceiling height, the next big issue to consider would be weight loads on the ceiling joist. A professional can inspect the ceiling joist prior to under taking your project, but it is important that he or she knows what you have in mind, as different projects will require different levels of support. A living space with a bathroom, for example, is not only a heavy project with porcelain tubs and toilets, but also a heavy project because of the piping and drains that need to be added.

Existing Work

It is important to consider potential obstacles that could be encountered during the project. Some houses run duct work for heating and air conditioning through the attic, while others have the complete unit in the attic. Any wiring or plumbing on top of the ceiling joist will have to be rerouted as to avoid contact with flooring being installed.

Stairs and Windows

Additionally, the location of a stairway on the main floor is crucial. If not positioned correctly, you could lose useful space on the main floor that undermines what you gain in attic space.

You also should consider windows and local regulations. Most states require a second exit, and with no windows, only the stairway would be an appropriate exit point. So, you need to be certain you have at least one appropriate space to install a window that meets local codes. Plus, windows also add natural light to a room and make it look larger than it is. Without windows, you don’t have a particularly inviting space no matter how well-decorated it is. Although, attics often allow for skylights without much problem, so natural light isn't an issue. You still need to be sure for at least one potential exit window.


finished basement

Some of the same issues can be encountered in the basement as in the attic. It is important to carefully examine the space you have to work with before beginning any home repairs.

Ceiling Height

Most basements will allow for at least a 7-foot ceiling height, which is workable for most storage or living space projects.

Weight Loads

Because basements are the lowest point of your home, they tend to also be the sturdiest, which means they can hold more weight than attics. So, bathroom projects in the basement should not be a problem as long as you have adequate drainage for waste water.

Bathroom Projects

Some basements are lower than the sewer pipe exiting the house, which could present a potential obstacle. However, this can be resolved by using a lift station for drainage, although be aware upfront of the added cost.

Existing Work

As previously mentioned, most duct work is tucked away in attics. However it is possible to run into problems in the basement with existing electrical work, piping, and duct work.

One of the benefits of the basement is that, so long as the ceiling is high enough, it is often possible to tuck all existing and future plumbing, wiring, and duct work between the floor joists to give an obstacle-free ceiling. So, if you don't have any current obstructions, you can add a lot to your basement and simply tuck away the evidence.

Stairs and Windows

Most basements already have staircases for an easy access point, which eliminates some of the work needed.

However, windows are a big concern when dealing with basement renovations. If an older home as a window at all in the basement, it is likely very small. Even if you have small basement windows, they do not allow much light into the space. More importantly, these windows offer no exit point. If you're remodeling your basement and want to see the return on money spent, egress windows will have to be installed. This is an added expense but well worth the money to do so. They allow light into the basement and also keep your project within local building codes.

Final Thoughts

If you're lucky enough to find a home with both an attic and basement, you have the opportunity to renovate as you see fit. If you're in the market for a new home, it may be a better choice to purchase one with a basement over an attic, because basement renovations have less structural limitations. However, pros and cons aside, it all comes down to what space you have or what space you can afford.