America's garages seem a prime spot for parking disposable income these days.
Their history is utilitarian -- the natural way station for garbage bins, garden implements, car care products and household items not worthy to stay in the house. Their look has been humble and often unkempt.
Lately, however, "let's clean up the garage" has taken on a whole new meaning. These adjuncts to the house are getting designed or overhauled to resemble another room of the house -- with attractive cabinetry and flooring, detailed facades, generous windows, even expansions for gyms below or living quarters above.
It's an emerging trend with no spending figures attached -- at least, not yet, say housing industry experts. Garage improvements showed up in the National Association of Home Builders' May 11 report on consumer wish lists and as a top priority in Atlanta-based Peachtree Consulting's spring report on the $7 billion a year home organization industry.
"Getting a flex/bonus room above a three-car garage seems to be very popular in the upscale market right now. People are using them for a children's play room, home office, in-law suite. Some are even connected with an outside stairway," said Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington. He defined upscale as "$500,000 and up" houses.
Garages are getting bigger, even as the size of new homes, swelling through the 1990s, seems to have stabilized around 2,300 square feet, Ahluwalia said.
"A three-car isn't the standard, but it's trending to that -- especially in parts of the country where they don't have basements. People use garages more for storage than parking. We are national junk collectors, buying things we don't need, then putting them in the garage," Ahluwalia said. He pointed to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey, which found that only 12 percent of people with three-car garages use the space for three cars.
There is truth in this, contractors and consumers agree. But there's more to the national quest for a better garage than mindless materialism.
Milwaukee residents Barbara and Richard Brigham live in a 1927 brick and stucco two-story Tudor with a one-car garage on a small, pie-shaped lot on the city's East Side. When they hired Bartelt Filo Design Build of Menomonee Falls, Wis., to remodel their garage last year, they weren't thinking bigger, but better.
They wanted a better view of the lovely, ever-changing backyard garden which they'd spent thousands of hours developing -- and the best view was available from the garage roof.
"Something simple -- not ornate," Barbara Brigham told the remodelers.
What they got was a breathtaking view of treetops, rooftops and Lake Michigan from a 14-by-22-foot glass, brick and hand-cut wood porch above the rebuilt garage.
The Brigham garage addition is connected to the house with French doors, midway between the first and second floor -- nestled in privacy, but open to nature. The simple, small project won a national design award.
"It's a wonderful space, absolutely beautiful," Brigham said. "It's like a floating room -- floating right out into the garden. We have coffee here in the morning and at night, when I'm reading inside, my husband is out here, just watching the stars."
"Who would think this beautiful space is over a garage?" she marveled, surveying her blossoming redbud tree, the leafing-out Japanese maple trees and swaths of peonies.
It wasn't beauty, but sport, that explains Jon Schoenheider's entrancement with his garage in Hartland, Wis. In fact, Schoenheider, who runs Regency Builders Inc. in Pewaukee, Wis., built the house and garage with the intent to sell it but found he didn't want to give it up.
"There's a basketball court under the garage," he said. "My son is on a select team, and on this court, you can play two-on-two" games.
"I play twice a week in the open gym at Elmbrook Church. I knew if I didn't buy this house, the likelihood is I wouldn't get it done" on the house he already owned.
The Schoenheider family moved in last year and has been playing under-garage basketball ever since.
Builders say today's garages reflect super-sizing.
"On higher-end homes, a three-car garage is pretty much standard now. People want the space for their cars, lawn mowers, snow blowers, garden tools. And more want shelving and organizational systems," said Frank Madden, president of MD Properties Inc. in Mequon, Wis., and president-elect of the Wisconsin Builders Association.
Al Eckhart, president of Woodhaven Homes & Realty Inc. in North Prairie, Wis., said he's doing more four- and five-car garages these days. For some people, that's still not enough space, so his crews build storage areas under the stairway connecting garage and basement.
"Everybody's got motorcycles, riding mowers, bicycles -- that takes up one stall. Then two cars and if they have children, a third car. Plus most subdivisions ask that you don't park in the driveway. They want those cars in people's garages," Eckhart said.
Pete Feichtmeier, owner of Colby Construction Co. in Delafield, Wis., said more customers want garages that echo the house's architectural style and some want amenities such as storage systems, drywall and finished floors. "They're much more an integral part of the house than in the past," he said.
Clare Weaver, owner of the Complete Garage's franchise in Brookfield, Wis., ties his brisk business to the fact that the main access in many homes isn't the front door but the garage.
"We spruce it up, make it more usable -- a space they can live in," Weaver said. "We're trying to feng shui the garage."
Decluttering sure lifted the spirits of Pewaukee Lake, Wis., homeowner Judy Calvy. She, husband Tom and son Tommy, 7, moved there from California in 2002 to find they didn't have room for everything they hauled across the country.
"When you have guests over, it looks bad," Judy Calvy said. "Our basement is finished as a TV room and we don't have an attic area. But the garage has nine-foot ceilings, so I was thinking we could take advantage of that height."
Weaver's company installed shelving, bike and sail mast hangers, a work bench, a portable tool cabinet, heating, lighting.
"People say, 'Hey look at that.' It's cool," Calvy said.
It typically costs $3,000 to $5,000 to transform a 21/2-car garage from drive-in mess to cool, said Brian Hering, owner/president of PremierGarage of Southwest Wisconsin in Germantown, Wis. His company does floors, cabinets and organizers.
"The garage industry is where the closet industry was 20 years ago," Hering said. "As they get more stuff, people realize they need to make better use of their space."