One-car garage conversions can unlock the full potential of a tight space

July 3

After renovating their basement and kitchen, District homeowners Mary and Ron Slimp looked to their dilapidated garage as a place to expand their house. “We didn’t want to build up or build out, but remodel what we had,” says Mary Slimp, 46.

The free-standing structure is conveniently located next to the kitchen and reached by a long driveway leading from the street. “It was too narrow for a car and had become a storage shed,” says Ron Slimp, 49, a partner in a strategic advisory firm. “We knew it could be a usable space, not just a place for piling all our junk.”

So the Slimps decided to convert the garage into a cool clubhouse for son Remy, 15, and daughter Sarah, 12. “We wanted a place for the kids to hang out and a space that would be connected to the yard,” Mary says.

To remodel the garage, she called on her younger sister Elizabeth Emerson, who works for D.C.-based architecture firm E/L Studio.

Emerson and her business partner, Mark Lawrence, had completed the previous renovations in the Slimps’s 1913 home and realized they could do more than providing a space for their kids in the garage.

“We created the opportunity for as many uses as possible,” says Emerson, who worked with Lawrence to make the most of the 111 / 2 -foot-by-17-foot interior. Because of the zoning code, the architects had to design within the garage’s existing footprint.

Despite that restriction, they managed to transform the small structure into an inviting garden pavilion. Rising to a steeply pitched roof, the rebuilt garage now provides a guest suite as well as a space for playing games and watching TV. At the entrance, folding mahogany doors open the remodeled interior to a new patio with a gas grill.

Inside, the architects managed to add a sky-lit powder room in one corner and a Murphy bed flanked by cabinets and shelves on the rear wall. A loft above the pull-down bed, reached by a ladder mounted on a rail, provides another sleeping area. Heated floors and air conditioning allow the structure to be used year-round.

This adaptable space reveals the design potential of the humble, one-car garage, which is often too small for today’s vehicles. “Most older garages have become glorified sheds due to the change in car sizes — Model As and Ts are no longer the rave,” says D.C. real estate agent Kimberly Cestari of W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors.

Cestari says remodeling a garage can boost a home’s value when done right. “If the garage is finished and someone needs an extra bedroom or office, then this accessory structure has a lot more value to a buyer than a garage used to store bikes, yard tools and whatever else doesn’t fit in the house.”

For budget-minded renovators, garage conversions offer a more affordable way to create extra space than building an addition. “They are far less expensive than adding on, because the space already exists,” District builder Ethan Landis says. “They can be less than half the cost of an addition of the same size.”

The one-car garage attached to their 1940s Bethesda home allowed Michelle and Chris Baker to gain a lower-level family room for about $50,000. “We looked at building out the back, but that was too expensive,” says Michelle Baker, 44, who works for a public relations firm.

The new room is big enough for a sofa and two armchairs, and shelving and cabinets are built into the rear wall for books and a TV. Windows and glass-
paneled French doors brighten the space and connect it to the yard. “We made sure there was plenty of light in the space so it wouldn’t feel like a basement,” Baker says.

Before they remodeled, the Bakers consulted Bethesda real estate agent Jane Fairweather of Coldwell Banker to ensure the conversion of the garage wouldn’t negatively affect their home’s value.

“In my market, most people use their one-car garage as a storage shed,” Fairweather says. “Storage isn’t as valuable as a finished room, particularly if the room is on the main level. Many garages have access to the kitchen, and that has great value and market appeal because it can give you a family room or home office.”

A converted garage, she says, “could add anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 to a property’s value, depending on where it is.”

But Fairweather says a two-car garage should not be converted to another use. “It is a rare asset and gives you value” by providing ample space for vehicles.

Quality design is particularly important to ensuring a remodeled garage is well integrated into the architecture of the house. “I’ve seen a lot of garage conversions while showing properties, but I hardly ever hear buyers classify them in a positive light,” says real estate agent Rachel Valentino of Keller Williams Realty Capital Properties. “Most of the time, the project ends up looking quite hodgepodge and out of place.”

In renovating the Slimps’s garage, E/L Studio created a contemporary design that complements a historic house. The new architecture mirrors the shapes of the gabled roof and windows, and its fiber-
cement siding is the same color as the house’s stucco exterior.

The homeowners interviewed for this story, all parents of teenagers, say garages provide the advantage of remote locations where kids can get away to watch TV, play video games and do homework.

In need of space for their 19-year-old son Ian, homeowners Lisa Baldwin, 52, and Dieter Fischer, 55, converted their basement-level, one-car garage into a bedroom as part of a larger renovation of their 1936 house in Silver Spring.

“We debated long and hard about not having a garage,” says Fischer, who works for the World Bank. “But the space was dysfunctional. You could barely drive a car into it.” On either side of the narrow driveway leading to the garage, retaining walls had collapsed and needed to be replaced.

In remodeling the garage, Landis Construction, a design-build firm in the District, insulated the concrete floor and raised it to the same level as the adjacent basement so the two areas would be better connected. New windows and a door were inserted into the garage opening. The driveway was widened, covered with permeable paving and flanked by new cinder-block retaining walls.

To replace the storage space lost in converting their garage, Baldwin and Fischer installed a shed in their yard, as did the Bakers. The Slimps make use of a storage closet built into the rear of their remodeled garage, but only for garden tools.

One of the benefits of a garage conversion, says Ron Slimp, is getting rid of stuff. “If you make the garage a nice space, it forces you to purge and pare down.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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