By Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
The garage is going more high-tech, high-gloss and high-end at many houses.
But it doesn't have to be upscale to be functional or fun.
Forget dusty gray concrete, exposed wall beams and a broken down TV in the corner. Many of today's garages have granite-like floors, cabinets that would be at home in pricey kitchens and audio and video that can rival home theaters.
Garages offer a way to expand a house's living area and storage space without new construction. The home storage and organization market will total about $9 billion in 2015, with about $2 billion of that being products purchased for the garage, which is the fastest-growing segment, according to a 2011 report by the Freedonia Group, a business research company.
Whirlpool-owned Gladiator GarageWorks, which sells products including storage cabinets and garage floors, sees room for growth because only 35% of garages made for at least two cars have room for more than one, says Tim Keaton, who heads marketing, brand and product for the company.
"Man caves have always been popular, but with the ever increasing size of rec rooms and kids' playrooms, the man has nowhere to go," says Todd Shuster, the custom audio and video manager at Abt Electronics. "Enter the garage, a place that can be a shrine to your favorite football team, your Harley or sports car."
"The place where you park has become a living quarters," says Phil Berg, author and photographer for the book series Ultimate Garages.
The growing American attention to garages started, not surprisingly, in Detroit, Keaton says. First, garages were strictly functional as a place to store tools. Then came "form and function," before it became what's increasingly a family hangout.
"When people need space, it's the only place to go," he says.
Garage uses range from the mundane - such as storage - to transformations that turn the space into art-like galleries featuring cars. Somewhere in between lie the more traditional man caves with refrigerators, couches and wide-screen TVs, or studios for homeowners who love to paint, sculpt or garden.
Men with renovated garages often tell Berg, "'I would live in my garage if my wife let me.'"
For John Weinberger, that would hardly be a hardship. His 3,500-square-foot garage in Naperville, Ill., is the same size as his house and nicer than many people's homes. It's so comfortable, in fact, that he and wife Lisa lived there for five months recently while their home was being renovated. And even Lisa says she misses it.
It helps that the couple share a love of cars. John, retired founder of the Continental chain of Chicago-area car dealerships, used to race cars and still fixes them. He recently taught a grandson to rebuild an engine. Lisa has worked in dealer promotions and races cars as well. The couple actually met at a toll booth. John was scrounging around for change, and Lisa lent him 40 cents.
The Weinbergers regularly host car clubs and parties in what's really a series of garages, including a party room filled with automotive memorabilia that sits on a black-and-white checkered floor. That room leads into the part of the garage that houses Weinberger's collection of 30 classic and exotic cars that he, like many other auto enthusiasts, got tired of being separated from while they sat in storage.
"Instead of reading the paper, I go out in the garage and tinker," says Weinberger. "But it's more of a museum than a mechanic's shop."
Livable garage space can include cars - or not. When people room is in short supply, less valuable cars usually move outside. The transition from junk-filled eyesore to high-tech hangout can be a gradual one. The first step, says Keaton, is to organize what's there. Recognizing the trend toward garage living, the company has been making its storage cabinets more similar to the styles and finishes people would use inside their houses.
Housing codes in many areas of the country require that garages have drywall of a certain width to help keep any car fires from spreading into homes. That gets homeowners partway toward having an enclosed living - or, at least, entertaining - area. If they have to add drywall anyway, Mike Gacek of LaMantia Building and Construction in Brookfield, Ill., recommends spending the extra $900 or so to add insulation.
Then, the addition of a small heating unit and ceiling fans can make it a four-season room in many parts of the country.
Because well-heeled car enthusiasts like the Weinbergers often collect cars like others might collect art, they don't want their masterpieces hidden away. But even those with just one classic - or simply old - car that they enjoying looking at will sometimes renovate their houses and garages to offer a better view.
While Berg was building a replica Porsche in his garage in the '90s, he added a glass door in the back of the house so he could pull the car out of the garage and admire "the fruits of my labor" while standing in his kitchen.
Some of the latest garage features:
• Electronics. A couple of old couches and a rickety TV simply won't work in the high-tech garage of today. But that's where some guys start, Keaton says. Gladiator added grommets for electronics wiring to one of its cabinets, and future products will reflect consumers' increasing desire to add audio and video in their garages.
When she decided to turn her garage into a room for entertaining, Gladiator spokeswoman Monica Clark added an outdoor TV by Sunbrite that includes a heating and cooling system that keeps it operating at extreme temperatures. She also wired her garage for a stereo system that includes outdoor speakers. A fire pit on the patio outside of the garage keeps guests warm at her year-round beach home near the Lake Michigan shore.
When it comes to upscale garage renovations, "Almost all of these guys have a movie screen rolling out of the ceiling," says Berg.
Large flat-screen TVs for big garages could range from 65 to 100 inches or more, says Shuster, and an audio system can be a "good sounding" Bose system or a full theater-level speaker, which could provide the "guttural impact of a large theater."
A complete conversion of a garage for high-end electronics could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000, Shuster says.
• Flooring. Forget concrete if you're trying to keep the area some semblance of neat. The top layer collects dirt and constantly wears down, creating a steady stream of dust. Even those who aren't planning to host any parties around their cars frequently finish their floors to improve both the look and the cleanliness.
The options include an epoxy coating, such as one sold by Floorguard. Nita Trexler, who co-owns the East Coast's only franchise, Floorguard of Delaware, says it takes about four days to give garage floors a granite-like finish that has a clear sand rolled into the surface to prevent slips.
The company has done many garages that are used simply for cars but also one for a man whose wife decreed that he couldn't hold his smoke-filled poker parties in the house anymore.
Gacek had his concrete garage floor redone with concrete polish by In2Crete, which also looks like granite. Gladiator sells high-tech polymer tiles that can be hosed down and are popular in garages as well.
• Storage. Wall or floor cabinets that can be rolled around on caster wheels tend to satisfy everyone from families with changing storage needs to auto do-it-yourselfers who want to scoot their greasy tools away when they're not working on their cars. Gladiator has expanded its cabinet lines from hammered granite looks in silver, black and gray, to cabinets with doors with the same finish but with a matte silver tone that has broader appeal.