Finishable attic vs outdoor improvements

mrsgossMay 20, 2013

This is a new construction issue but I'd like the opinions and experience of those in a remodeling state of mind. We are building a 3500 sq ft single story house due to my husband's bad knees and back. Largely doing universal design in baths etc. Expecting first child at 40. House includes his baby, the theater room, kitchen/living space that's a joint vision, decent laundry/hobby room that's more a woman thing, joint vision master bath, storm shelter that is my baby since I'm from tornado alley. We would both like a pool eventually and an outbuilding or two, one building more for guests/pool and one for him to tinker. The house has a 3 car garage and we are not wed to parking in it so our storage needs are not completely unmet without the outbuildings.

We could gain about 2000 storage/finish able space in the attic if we used attic trusses. We would put a practical staircase in the garage and a spiral inside to make it count as included living space if finished (appraisal rules issue), and in the garage an attic lift for moving things up there. We are by no means hoarders but we have some equipment intensive hobbies in addition to the usual life storage issues (xmas tree etc). Due to local rules we would pay a permit fee as if the attic were all finished space (any knee walls over 5' get this treatment). Likewise it would throw us over 5000 square foot covered so we have to get an engineer to stamp the plans. And the trusses are much more expensive. All told, this would cost us $30k or so for a basically invisible improvement.

Or, we could get the pool and maybe a few other outdoor improvements with that money.

Just for context, we are building on 5 acres within the fringe of the local desirable area, in the sought after school zone etc. We are building the house for us, not resale, and the land blew the budget (little to choose from) so we are doing farmhouse/white vinyl exterior, which works in the pretty rural area, and just nice nice stuff if we have a reason to want it (wolf range for double griddle but more practical stuff otherwise). Finishes largely similar to comps tho we are not fans of hardwood. Building on a slab in a traditionally crawl part of the country to eliminate stairs. Overbuilding is not an issue; 2 houses down is a 6-7k sq ft brick on 5acres, next door is a 4k sq ft subzero kitchen type home (tho it is also farmhouse exterior), etc.

The construction loan appraisal came in screwball (long story involving timing and draftsman) so this is pretty much cash money regardless how we spend it. If we don't do the attic trusses, we won't ever be able to affordably convert the space, so it's now or never on that. I have finished a basement by myself in the past. I like projects. But having a baby is kinda a big upcoming long term project (at 9 months preg now). I already work from home, and we may try to have a second baby. My inlaws may end up spending a phase of life in the home with us, so you have the potential for up to 6 living in 3500 sq ft for a time, but due to aging body parts only some of the 6 might be using any finished space upstairs.

Husband is completely supportive of the attic, and making budget cuts in his area (theater room) to support it. The attic would be my baby, but I'm just wondering whether the outdoor improvements would be a better choice. I've always wanted a pool even tho I can't swim (more a sunning/gardening/water thing) and my husband swims like a duck and it would be good for his knees. Baby would obviously get infant swim lessons etc. On the financial front, I have never not made money, but I'm definitely going to make less working from home and doing the stay at home mom thing-I guess I'm saying that the future excess cash won't be as easy to come by as the current cash, in terms of what we do later. We could, but I can't imagine we would borrow for future improvements.

Looking for insights from others, more from the 5 year out perspective in terms of which would seem like it was the better decision in retrospect.

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Sophie Wheeler

Put in the live load trusses. And find a place for an interior staircase that isn't a spiral. You can't have a staircase from a garage to habitable space. It's a fire and health hazard. Pools are money losers when it comes to resale value and you will need habitable space much more than you will a pool. A pool is a luxury item. More living space really isn't a luxury when you're talking that many people potentially living in the home. Just be sure to do a rough in for a bathroom upstairs during the construction phase as well. That's much more expensive to do after the fact than it is now. Also, you need to upgrade the insulation and possibly do an unvented attic since it will be living space and not storage space. There's a lot that goes into the change, not just the different trusses. The electrical will also need to be different as it requires arc fault. It may take all of the theater budget to do right, but that's the sacrifice that needs to be made for family. Home theaters are on the wane as a separate unit. It's more about the large multi purpose family room now.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 7:52AM
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Thank you for the heads up on the firewall issue! 3 builders, a draftsman and an engineer, and no one said a word. The stairs from garage were because we really wanted to use the storage related to outdoor hobbies. If that's not practicable then there is much to reconsider. We considered reconfiguring to get the stairs inside but finishing the attic isn't a given and how we really wanted to use that space made it better that they stay in garage. No good spot inside, it just won't work given the configuration of the rooms and hall versus need to end up arriving in the middle of the house once upstairs (it's a ranch inside, there's only so much you can do around/with hall, and the available places to put stairs inside render stairs useless for getting things from outside up there-you'd def be better off with an outbuilding than walking a maze thru house to get to stairs with bulky things in hand).

I am so with you on a practical resale level, but I'm torn on the which-is-a-luxury analysis. Given my age and the uncertainties of life, odds may be 50/50 or higher that only 3 people ever live in the home, and it's already overkill space wise for 3. Meanwhile the pool would be a luxury in the eyes of resale for sure, but it would fill a rehab type need in our world since my husband simply lives without exercise otherwise due to knees and back. We have a hottub now, and it helped a great deal when his back went out and he missed 4 months work two years ago, but a pool would have been even more used for rehab. But it's a good analysis question. I think we have assumed we might never finish the attic.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 8:45AM
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I'm confused, is this a cash build or will you have a mortgage? If the construction loan is based on a finished attic, it will need to be finished when you convert the loan or it may not meet the appraisal done at conversion.

How bad are your husband's knees and back? Can you do something like a lap pool take it as a medical deduction?

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 9:31PM
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The appraisal was low so we're into cash more than the usual 20%. This part is well over that point. The re-appraisal for the conversion may go better, but we wanted to keep the loan kinda low anyway. It helps to remind myself it's cash since there's not any of the normal advantage of the attic being something you could finance in a first mortgage, as compared to other types of improvements (pool, outbuilding) that would be cash or some other loan vehicle if you wanted to borrow.

The drawing shows it as unfinished. We didn't intend to finish the space right off, just have better storage and potential to finish, so there's no repercussions on the loan for not finishing. It costs $30k to have the potential to make it living space later; it'd be a fair piece more to actually finish the space, and we're not really sure we ever would. We designed the downstairs to meet all our real living needs. If finished, the attic would be used only by the people with good knees (kid/kids/me?). And it would be a rather tunnel-like space. I'm amazing myself how unenthused I am by it after a good 6-8 weeks of thinking I just had to have it.

Good idea on the script for a lap pool but he's not a fan of doctors and wouldn't convey enough to a doc to get the script anyway. He's lived with the knees for years, and the back is intermittent. But-for realizing that he can't carry the baby upstairs to bed safely, we'd probably keep living as we do where he climbs the stairs exactly once a day very slowly without complaining. We've talked before about putting an infinity pool in the garage to help with his knees but since he doesn't complain it doesn't rise to the top of the to-do list.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 11:49PM
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I wouldn't finish the attic. All your creature-comfort comments are leaning toward the pool for hubby and the little one. :) It sounds like you provided for adequate living space and storage elsewhere in your design.

Ladders & stairs become impossible on rheumatoid arthritis joints ... let alone carrying things up/down for storage. My husband's knees are shot ... he is so bow-legged you could drive a Volkwagen thru his legs. LOL.

Seriously though, we moved from a large 3-Level home with long staircases to a country ranch with two sheds. We're 50ish and loving this all one-level life style. My husband is pretty active on "flat ground" but when a knee goes out (sometimes just standing) it is scary.

Sounds like you are comfortable and want to make this home fun and worry-free -- let someone wayyy into the future figure out what to do with the Attic. JMO

Good luck and congrats on the house and little bambino!

    Bookmark   May 21, 2013 at 7:18AM
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With a new baby and a new build, I'd save the money and not do either. Put it in the kid's college fund and join the local Y. A pool is an expense that is ongoing. It's why so many people end up filling them in. They hate dealing with the expensive mainteinance. If parents need to move in, have them sell their home and construct a MIL suite with a separate garage as an addition to the home---using their money. Just design the home where something like that could be possible. That's better money spent than making the attic habitable for elderly folks who can't climb stairs (elevator anyone?)

    Bookmark   May 21, 2013 at 9:22AM
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Thanks everyone for the ideas! Been crazy busy this week and still mulling it over, but probably leaning toward a combo of PinesEverywhere and GreenDesigns. My friend the engineer thinks possibly rafters could be stickbuilt that would allow for later conversion, without requiring investing in the permitting of the space right now. If that can be done for the same money as conventional trusses then it might make sense. But we designed the lower floor already anticipating the possibility of a full house with kids and in-laws, and paying for storage that would be more easily accessed in the form of a shed or pole barn for same or less money doesn't really make sense when "flat ground" is such an important factor. If we make the call not to make the initial investment, we've got some time and flexibility to decide what to invest in once the house is built. Can't really see ourselves fighting the crowds at the Y (we don't even fight the crowds at the HOA pool in our current neighborhood) but it's not a decision that must be made right now other than placement of the house on the land to allow for pool and outbuildings. Any additional thoughts welcome though! Thanks again.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2013 at 11:46AM
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Thanks so much for the update -- and best of luck. Your posts remind me of how I plan thinking about all the options and wayyy into the future. I drive myself and everyone crazy (especially contractors). When I get "centered" and think about our current lifestyle and only one or two years ahead ... things get much "clearer".

As side notes .... Nice Amish sheds and barns are pretty affordable. You can find them built (and they'll deliver) or hire a crew that will do any design you like. Two-lane serenity pools aren't too costly either. I looked into them desiring an exercise and water feature for my back landscape. I ended up buying horses instead -- you want to talk about expensive maintenance -- LOL. I should have gotten the pool!

Good luck again with your plans!!

    Bookmark   May 24, 2013 at 12:30PM
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How many bedrooms in the 3500 sf? I'm assuming at least 4. That gives you one for the master, one for each potential kid, and one for the in-laws to share. If you've got 3 baths, that's plenty without finishing the attic space.

Speaking of elevators, you can get a home elevator installed for around $20K.

And I would think you could put stairs from garage to attic as long as there was a steel door at the top of the stairs before you entered the attic.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2013 at 6:56PM
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Yes, it's 4 bedrooms with 3 full baths, one powder room and a 3/4 bath outdoor accessible on the back side for anticipated pool/shower use. I guess that speaks to how much we want the pool that we did that. And yes, that's a fair piece less expensive than horses, oh my! And far, far less work regardless of how much you tinker with chemicals and cleaning.

I think it's enough room for the hypothetical maximum. Theater room with screen and tv will provide alternative entertainment from family room.

Checked with builder, he was already anticipating the door needing to be there and after I asked he double checked with codes to make sure that would work, but we may go with just a better quality pulldown if we're not going to have storage space up there, not sure. Sounded like his vision of the stairs involved closing them in downstairs with door on bottom, and our vision of the stairs was open like you'd see in a basement. Not sure why but neither of us likes the idea of closed staircase. Once we got off the idea of wanting the attic space we just about embraced the notion that never having to go up there might be a pleasant thought, so the stairs are less important now.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2013 at 9:11PM
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