Cheaper to build rooms in attic or basement

laxgalOctober 11, 2012

I know it will be difficult to answer this question with specifics, but we are planning to build a home in Ohio and are struggling to decide if we should include extra bedrooms in the basement or the attic. All the main rooms (including the master bedroom) will be on the first floor. The main floor will be approximately 1700 square feet. These are our two options for the two other bedrooms and bonus room we would like to include:

1. Build 1.5 story home with two bedrooms, a bath and a bonus room in the 1/2 story. This option would include an unfinished, non-walk-out basement. We would have 1 dormer on the front of the house; other egress windows would be in the gable ends.

2. Build 1 story home with finished, walk-out basement. Two bedrooms, bath and bonus room in basement. No dormers required in roof.

Basically I'm wondering, in general, if it is cheaper to finish off the basement or the attic space - taking into consideration the roof design (trusses or stick-built), insulation, moisture control, etc. I've tried searching for answers to this, but mostly have found responses that deal with finishing an already existing attic or basement. I'm wondering which option is cheaper if planned from the initial build.

Thank you for your help!

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The better quality of the space would be well worth any additional cost to build in the attic.

Egress from the attic or the basement would be by an interior stairway. Adding an emergency escape and rescue opening (usually a window) in the attic would be a lot cheaper than building a well drained areaway or a bulkhead for one in the basement although it is possible to put the basement bulkhead in the basement bedroom but it's not recommended. And then there is the issue of security. We don't live in our parents world anymore.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 11:14AM
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So, are you also considering 2 different lots, because I think one requires a totally different lot than the other (walk out basement)?

You might also need to ask yourself, in your area, which appraises for more? In some areas of the country, below grade (even walk out) basements do not count in the final square footage determinations of appraisals. If the final appraisal is important to you (because you are building with a loan instead of cash), you may want to go the 1.5 story route...

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 11:27AM
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I can give you my thoughts. I would prefer a finished attic with the space being above grade (albeit in our state that is assessed higher than basement heated space) given the natural light, feeling as one cohesive home and usually that space being harder to finish post build cost effectively. However can you finish the attic and also have an unfinished basement for future expand-ability?

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 12:11PM
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Interesting question, especially if the house must have a basement and an attic. A basement is cheaper to heat and cool due to the relatively little variation in soil temperature. Basements get a bad rap due to moisture/water problems, but properly built, they should be dry. I would only consider a walk-out basement for the benefit of windows and egress.

I'm not sure which is better, but we went basement. In the event of a tornado, you do NOT want to head to the attic!

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 4:17PM
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flgargoyle - I agree with so many of your points. If I had to choose either an attic or a basement I would choose basement. It helps in resale no end even an unfinished one.

However, if I had to choose between a finished attic and a finished basement, I'd choose a finished attic everytime. Again just IMHO. I hope the convo helps you OP.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 5:26PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

We built into a southern facing slope with passive solar design and our full walkout lower level (not basement) needs no heat or air conditioning, though it is zoned for it. It maintains a min temp of 63 all winter and a max of 78 all summer. Also tax costs should be lower as basement space shouldn't be counted in an assessment. It is light, bright and dry as it was built to be finished space.

Lower level bedroom

Lower level exercise room

From the outside

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 5:56PM
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Yours is an interesting question; thanks for posting it. Am I correct in assuming your lot is such that you could have an exposed basement exterior wall for a "walk-out" condition? Or would it have to be excavated with bulkhead and stairs up to grade? Big difference.

I think there are several issues to consider:
--Initial construction cost: A basement (excavation, waterproofing, access to exterior, light from exterior, etc.) is more expensive that building under the existing roof framing (assuming that the heights and area of the "attic" are what is needed);
--Operating cost: Heating and cooling a basement is probably more economical due to the constant temperature of the ground below 5' depth.
--Assessment costs and property taxes: I guess this varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and should be evaluated in terms of annual expense of basement vs. attic.
--Liviability: Which would be more appealing to your family?
--Resale: If resale is a consideration for you in the decision-making, then you need some "comparables" of houses with similar area and basements vs. attics. I find this is a very regional issue, where some regions have and prefer walk-out basements, while other regions don't know what a "walk-out" basement is!

Let us know what you decide. Good luck!

    Bookmark   October 11, 2012 at 7:11PM
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Thank you all for the very helpful responses; you've give us lots of things to think about.
We do have a couple of different lots that we are looking at, one more conducive to a walk-out and the other being more flat; we want a basement of some kind, regardless - most of the houses in our area have a basement, so we do really need that for resale. We're just struggling with whether it is worth the extra expense to upgrade to a walk-out (assuming we choose the lot that would require less excavation to obtain a walk-out), or if we should spend that money on adding a half story (which would require the dormer and rafters instead of trusses), and which option would be more economical.
I've always wanted a house with a walk-out basement (much like Annie's house above - your home looks beautiful!); I like the idea of guests being able to have their own separate entrance to the house, so that we could eventually turn that area into an apartment (for parents, or visiting friends). The easier temperature control also appeals to me. However, as we are trying to stick to a pretty tight budget, I keep wondering if the half story wouldn't be more economical.
Thank you all again for the thoughtful responses - I'll let you know what we decide!

    Bookmark   October 19, 2012 at 10:40AM
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We have decided to go for both. We have a natural lot for a walk-out. Originally, we were at 2 stories but it was too expensive and too big. We will have the 1 1/2 story. The problem is that we didn't want to have to put the 2 bedrooms at the walk-out portion and block the views; this would be at the expense of nice daylight for any den/rec room/studio/mil apartment. The bedrooms legally need the egress space and it's OK if the bedrooms are darker.

So we are putting a bedroom and a loft in the attic, using the bonus area over the garage for attic storage. We'll finish one bedroom & bathroom in the basement, and leave the rest for future expansion.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2012 at 5:30PM
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I think in your situation where you are building a basement either way, that the basement route would be cheaper but it depends somewhat on your siding material. If you are bricking that walkout portion, then the attic maybe cheaper.

But do the walkout lots cost more?

The difference between a basement cost and a walkout is very small if there is no additional excavation. In fact, wouldn't a walkout generally be cheaper to excavate?

When you factor in the additional tonnage on your HVAC, the basement should be the clear winner

    Bookmark   October 20, 2012 at 6:08AM
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Still_waters: We have been having the same struggle with bedroom placement in the basement; the bedrooms need windows for egress, obviously, but we want any basement living/bonus room space to have as much light as possible; putting one bedroom in the basement and one in the attic is an interesting thought. I'll have to think through that more.
David_cary: Thank you for your insight; all good points. I think we will pursue the walk-out basement - it seems like it is the best way to get the maximum usable space for the money. I would love to have a usable attic as well, but I think we'll have to wait and see how much it would add to our cost to make that space accessible.
Thank you everyone for helping us work through this!

    Bookmark   October 22, 2012 at 11:00PM
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Laxgal I'm in the same boat as you are. We will be building in NE Iowa on or near the family farm. We will need a basement and we have fallen in love with a 1500 sqft ranch plan with an optional loft area.

I actually pondering the same question after I posted a question about my plan in the Smaller Homes Forum. They suggested I do the loft space and use it for my kiddos play area. I grew up in downtown Kansas City where everyone seemed to ha e turn of the century three story homes. I loved those one room attics as a kid.

My parents have a one andnanhalf story and it is so stuffy in the
summer though it was built in '63 and not real high quality.

Budget is a big priority to us too. I am a SAHM and seriously considering being an owner/contractor for our build.

Sorry if there was some thread jacking involved. I was excited to see your question as I hadn't figured out the best way of posting. Hopefully after some more research on building techniques we can expand on the topic.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2012 at 5:20AM
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If one intends to build a basement in any event, it's pointless to ask whether it's cheaper to build in the attic!

Of course a basement is more expensive than a house without a basement. On the other hand, every house has to have a roof! Pitched roofs with a pitch above 6/12 may have an attic that is onherently habitable. The issue for habitable attics is changing from roof trusses (not habitable space) to ceiling joists and roof rafters, such that the attic may be habitable.

Generally speaking, roof construction consisting of traditional ceiling joists and roof rafters is more expensive than roof trusses. This is the case, in part, because the ceiling joists have to be calculated as floor joists in order to carry the additionl dead and live loads of an occupied floor--habitable attic.

But when it comes to a comparison of the cost of a basement vs. the cost of a habitable attic, the attic will almost always be more economical. Of course, there are all sorts of assumptions and exceptions to such a conclusion, but, in the end, it all depends on what one prefers to do.

If one prefers to have an occupied basement, that's the end of the analysis. But if one is simply looking for what's the most economical way to have habitable space, it's likely the occupied attic wins almost every time.

Let the exceptions begin!

    Bookmark   October 24, 2012 at 8:58PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

I think this is also a regional issue. Attics are not necessarily a no-brainer as attic space depends on pitch of roof, hip roof or even flat roof and whether or not you use the less expensive truss system which leaves no living space at all. Also, roof lines need to have dormers and windows or skylights added to make it livable. Often this means less window/wall ratio vs. a full walk out basement. In our region, basements are typically built anyway so the space is there to use. Adding 2x4s and sheet rock is inexpensive to build usable space in the existing structure.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 8:47AM
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Thanks, Annie. I think that's what I just said.

Roofs, however, do not necessarily need dormers or skylights, if the roof is a gable roof, ie, each rake side can easily have normal windows installed that are similar to any other wall condition.

If one wants to pre-plan habitable space in the attic (under any pitched roof), the addition of a 4' pony stud wall will help to maximize the head-room and usable area within the attic.

FWIW, there's more to a habitable basement than simply furring out the walls and adding gyb-board to enclose the area.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 10:41AM
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