Lowly Garage Opens Doors To Luxury _ Homeowers Are Exploring Their Outer Space

The Star-Ledger, August 1st, 2007

LOWLY GARAGE OPENS DOORS TO LUXURY - Homeowners are exploring their outer space SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

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English (c) 2007 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

The next time the temperature inside your car climbs to greenhouse levels and you're squirming to keep your bare thighs off the searing vinyl, think about this for a moment.

That box of recycled cardboard you meant to take to the dump six months ago, the used cans of paint you bought at Home Depot, the rusted wheelbarrow, extension cords - all that stuff - are sitting nice and cool and dry on your garage floor.

Meanwhile, your car - the second-biggest asset you will own - is parked in the driveway, getting pummeled by rain and sleet and snow and sweltering heat.

The National Association of Home Builders reports that 82 percent of homes have two-car garages, but only 15 percent of people actually park their cars in them.

The No. 1 reason? Too much junk in the garage.

But there is some good news - at least for your garage. The dingy area, with its exposed studs, oil-stained concrete floors and dim bulbs, is cleaning up its act.

Long considered the family dumping ground for wayward toys and tools, homeowners are reclaiming all that wasted space and transforming garages into gourmet kitchens, game rooms, activity and hobby centers, even pet condominiums.

Homeowners spent $800 million on garage-organizing products in 2005, double the amount they spent in 2000, according to one estimate by a market research firm Packaged Facts. The report also projects that spending on garage makeovers is expected to rise by 10 percent a year for the rest of the decade, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of the home-improvement market.

"This is a permanent upgrade and improvement," said Jay Feingold, owner of PremierGarage of Northern New Jersey in Passaic, a company that remodels garages. "People used to just finish their basements. Now, it's the garage."

The reasons for the trend are as varied as the makeovers themselves: Today's monster cars don't fit in the smaller garage spaces of older homes. People are looking to maximize their living space. Concerned parents are suddenly realizing the perils of letting small children wander around cluttered garages.

Garage makeovers can range from $500 for the do-it-yourselfer to hundreds of thousands of dollars for lavish improvements that include flat-screen televisions, sound systems, track lighting and stainless-steel work tops.

Walk into Maplewood resident Christine Ebersole's detached two-car garage and it's hard to imagine that just a few months ago it was nothing more than a refuge for mice and spiders.

"Termites had eaten the corners, the garage doors wouldn't open, it was rotting, it was flooding because it was on a downgrade," said the Tony Award-winning actress and singer. "My husband used it as a station for building the kids' treehouse, and after a while you couldn't even walk in here because it was so horrifying."

Today, Ebersole's garage has been transformed into a stunning studio where she makes beaded jewelry, complete with vaulted ceilings, track lighting, a ceiling fan and carriage-style garage doors.

Even with fancy upgrades, the large garage doors often remain to avoid the headache and expense of obtaining permits required for exterior alterations.

Feingold of PremierGarage coated the concrete floors with a skid-resistant finish that looks like granite. He also hung wardrobe-style cabinets for hidden storage that are made of thermo-fused melamine, which can withstand extreme temperatures without sagging or warping.

"It's a really nice getaway - it's like an oasis," Ebersole said. "We can just come in here and sit down on the couch and just chat. You feel like you have gone away."

And the cars?

"Still in the driveway," Ebersole said, smiling. "Forget about parking the cars in the garage - we never did it anyway."

For many homeowners like Ebersole living in older homes, parking the car in the driveway is not a matter of choice, but rather "no choice."

Back in 1950, most new homes were built without a garage or with a one-car garage designed for significantly smaller cars, according to an NAHB analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Data.

In many older suburban towns like Maplewood, where more than 65 percent of the housing stock was built before 1940, most people can forget about trying to wedge schooner-size Chevy Suburbans into their garages, said Les Hutton, the owner and general manager of Stirling-based GarageTek of Northern and Central New Jersey.

Today, the demand for bigger garages is growing. The number of three-car garages has doubled from 11 percent in 1992 to more than 20 percent today, according to the NAHB. And the average size of today's three-car garage is about 900 square feet, with builders typically allowing 12 feet of width per vehicle and a depth of at least 24 feet, according to garage industry experts.

"I have done some really old, turn-of-the-century or earlier garages that were only 9 feet wide and 17 feet deep, and when you try to fit a full-size car in there, you can't even open the car door, let alone put stuff inside the garage," Hutton said.

That's one reason Ridgewood resident Brett Inlander decided to turn his 16-by-16-foot, two-car attached garage into a gym.

A plasma TV now hangs on the wall. There is a sound system where he can hook up his iPod. There's a treadmill, a spin-bike, a stepper, weight benches and weights.

"I never parked the car in here," Inlander said. "It used to be a two-door garage and there was a pole in the middle, but you could never get two cars in here."

But even if he could maneuver his cars into the garage, he wouldn't do it.

"It's a waste of expensive space," he said. "Why just park a car there if you can use it for a gym or something else?"

Inlander spent about $15,000 for his garage makeover. He said his 9-year-old twins also like to come into the garage and watch TV with their friends.

"They open the garage door and play on the trampoline on the driveway," he said. "So, it turns into their little place, too."

Hutton said it is often women who decide to overhaul the garage, citing safety as the primary reason.

"In one case, the daughter tripped over all the stuff strewn on the floor and hit her head on the snowblower and was rushed into the emergency room and got 12 stitches," Hutton said. "Women are like, hey, my kids are running around in here. There are gas tanks and paint cans and chemicals."

Another reason garages are getting face-lifts is because many people use the garage as the primary entrance to the home, according to Chad Haas, president of Vault, a luxury garage remodeling company based in Oregon.

"If you think about it, day in and day out, this is America's front door," Haas said. "We seldom use the front door anymore." Sam Ali may be reached at sali@starledger.com.

  1. Christine Ebersol, a Tony Award-winning actress who lives in Maplewood, enjoys her detached garage, which she has recently remodeled into a studio with cathedral-style ceilings. At top, her new garage features carriage-style doors. 2. Brett Inlander has transformed his garage into a gym, where he works out, watches television and listens to music.