Homeowners needing more room are in a tough spot these days. They want to trade up, but sell now in a depressed market and they lose money. One alternative is expanding the place you already have — adding on instead of leaving and taking the loss.
It might be a two-story wing of extra beds and baths, or a simple bump-out that opens up a cramped kitchen. Whatever the scope, you won't have to go house hunting or pay thousands in closing costs and real estate commissions, transaction fees that could buy concrete and wallboard for an addition. It may take a while for housing to recover. But when it does (it always has) the investment will pay off.
To start, check plan books or shelter magazines or come up with your own sketches. Try different versions, the ultimate space versus the practical space. When you get one or two that work, the question becomes how to make them part of the house.
Expanding up In homes with an attic that's framed with rafters, not a maze of trusses, dormers can turn dead space into airy, well-lit living space. Framing in an attic can be tough, particularly when new 2-by-4s join existing timbers that are a little cockeyed. On the other hand, you don't need to excavate, pour a footing, or build a foundation. The only intrusion into living space below is a stairway. Pull-down attic stairs won't cut it. The only major framing job (in most homes) is to beef up the floor joists. Extra strength is needed because loads in unfinished attics are usually figured to be lighter than loads in finished spaces with people and furniture. Where you'll find 2-by-10 joists on the first floor, the attic is likely to have 2-by-6s. Expanding even more and raising a full second story on a one-story house is more difficult. Loads are the problem because the existing structure down to the footings is designed to carry what's there, not almost twice as much.
Expanding out This approach provides more options because building an attached addition is like building a small house from scratch. The limitation is the size of your property and local zoning rules. Most building departments and zoning boards apply two formulas when they check your plans. One restricts the percentage of your site that can be covered by structures. The other applies a buffer between neighbors by limiting how close your addition can be to property lines. Unless you're on a postage-stamp site, coverage is usually not an issue. Property lines are more troublesome because most zoning boards want a minimum distance to the lines and also apply a ratio to the space on all sides of the house. For example, if your house is already close to the line on one side, you probably won't be able to build close to the line on the opposite side. But there's some wiggle room, called a variance, though you have to make a good case for an exception in front of the zoning board.
Will your plans be legal? Even within the existing house, structural work and new mechanicals will need a building permit. Some homeowners try to beat the system, figuring to avoid an increase in real estate taxes. If most of the work is hidden inside, who's to know? Bad idea. First, building inspection is a valuable check on code compliance by your contractor. Second, if an unfriendly neighbor reports the work, a building inspector can order the new work removed. Third, you won't have a certificate of occupancy for the new space, or fire insurance that covers it. And should you sell, the illegal space will come to light and could kill the sale.