Many newer California homes have abandoned the attic in favor of the vaulted ceiling, but if you do have an attic it can be a great source of potential new living space. If you decide to convert an attic yourself, most of the jobs are within the capabilities of the average handyman.
The first step is to decide how you want to use the space and to see if it's practical.
If your attic is crisscrossed with roof supports, you have a webbed or truss system, and you cannot make any changes. Only attics with conventional framing can be converted.
Determine Future Use
Adding new bedrooms is a good use of a converted attic. Gaining extra sleeping quarters is the reason most people convert an attic. If you do create bedrooms, it's handy to add a bath as well. Try to locate a new bath above an existing bath to use the same vent stack and plumbing lines.
An attic can also often be converted into a separate apartment for an older relative. Some people plan an "adult" family room in the attic. Hobby rooms and workshops make as good sense in the attic as in the basement. A playroom is a natural addition, especially if children's bedrooms are nearby.
Consult the Pros
Whatever your decision, consider consulting a builder or architect while developing your plans. A professional can tell you whether your budget is reasonable and what permits, inspections and variances you will need.
Before you begin your planning, however, check your local building codes. Codes typically set minimum standards in the design of living space that do not apply when an attic is just a storeroom. More than likely, conforming to the code will pose no great difficulty. But it pays to be sure.
Have a professional check the house's foundation and utility systems. A finished attic adds a story to the house; the structure must be able to support the extra load. (Some codes require strengthening the walls of the stories.)
Remember that the floor joists must support the increased load. You may have to strengthen them by repairing, doubling or adding joists. Again, building codes have prescribed minimums to use as a guide. You may need to install or enhance a permanent staircase -- folding attic stairs are not adequate for daily use. And plan a second exit for emergencies. When choosing the kind of windows you want and where you want them, keep in mind that they may serve as emergency exits.
Get Building Permit
Before you begin, be sure to get a building permit. Order building materials in sufficient quantity to complete the entire job. Select a place beforehand to store your materials until you need them. If necessary, consider building a simple shed to protect them. Or simply stack them on a platform and cover them with a tarp.
The Major Jobs
Installing studding and ceiling joists, insulation, windows and doors, flooring and finishing the walls and ceilings are some of the jobs that many do-it-yourselfers can do. Plumbing and electrical needs should be left to licensed plumbers and electricians.
If the attic needs more floor space or windows, dormers will have to be added. This means cutting into the existing roof and building an extension. Unless you have considerable construction experience, this task should be left to a skilled contractor.
To heat the attic, you can either hook onto the central heating system or install an electrical baseboard heating system with its own thermostat. Hooking onto the existing heating system is easiest if your home is equipped with forced-air heating. Generally, all you need to do is add lengths of hot- and cold-air ducting and join them to the existing system.