Roof leaks are a problem no matter what plans you have for attic storage. Even a small one can lead to serious trouble.
- Check for stains on the ceilings beneath the attic, which can be a surefire indication of a leak in the roof.
- Look for bathroom vent fans that terminate in the attic. This is a frequent mistake made by do-it-yourselfers and shortcut made by sloppy contractors. Vent fans that remove excess moisture should deposit that moisture outside of the house, either through the roof or a wall. Too often, however, the moisture is simply dispersed in the attic.
- Look for rot, stains or other signs of water damage on the underside of the roof sheathing.
- Check carefully around chimneys, vent pipes and other objects that penetrate the roof.
- Look for signs of condensation on the sheathing and framing. This may indicate the need for additional ventilation in the attic rather than a leak.
The floor of an attic is the framing for the ceiling beneath it. As long as they are not damaged, these ceiling joists should be strong enough to allow you to move around the attic for an inspection and to provide storage for typical boxed items. But they may not be adequate to support the weight of multiple people, furniture and heavy stored items.
Fortunately, it is usually not difficult to reinforce the framing with additional joists. You can then cover the joists with plywood or an OSB subfloor. You may want to discuss the suitability of your attic framing with a professional contractor.
Before you start moving around the attic, however, think hard about what you will be stepping or crawling on. The joists should support your weight, but the space between them almost certainly will not. The safest way to move around an unfinished attic is to create a catwalk (or walking platform) by attaching some 1x6 or 1x8 boards or strips of 3/4-inch plywood to the joists with screws (avoid hammering nails here as you could disturb the drywall or plaster below).
Traditional stick-framed roofs are composed of rafters running from the ridge to the walls. This framing style provides the most open space in an attic.Newer truss roofs are made at factories, where lumber is joined in a carefully engineered web. These trusses should not be cut, and with normal trusses your storage options are limited. Some roofs are framed with special “storage trusses” that leave an open, central space suitable for storage.
If you want to use your attic on a regular basis or to store large items, you may need to enlarge the access opening and install folding or drop-down stairs. If the attic has potential to become regular living space, talk with a contractor about adding a fixed stairway.
This is where dreams of adding new living space in an attic are often abandoned. Building codes often require that a finished space have a ceiling height of 7 feet 6 inches over at least half of the available floor space. So if the distance from the ridge to the floor joists isn’t at least 9 feet, you probably won’t be able to meet the code requirement unless you add a dormer.
But you don’t need to worry about building codes for creating simple storage space or a place to sit and read. Either way, you do need to be conscious of the roofing nails that may well be poking through the underside of the sheathing. A hardhat is a handy bit of protection to have when looking around an unfinished attic. If you want to spend some time up there, however, consider adding a finished ceiling.
If your house is insulated, there’s a good chance that the attic is outside of the “thermal boundary,” or insulated space. For regular use or for storing temperature sensitive items, you may want to add insulation to the walls and ceiling.
Good ventilation can also keep an attic from overheating and developing condensation problems. Many houses rely on vents in the ridge, soffit or gable ends to provide ventilation, but a full attic conversion may require windows and skylights to provide fresh air.