The garage: more than just a place to park

Many buyers want flexible space, focus on aesthetic issues


PHILADELPHIA - When was the last time you put the car in the garage?

If you can't remember, welcome to the club. These days, garages typically hold junk, not cars. Unless you have a three-car garage where the junk has overwhelmed only two bays.

The car has been one of the major influences on home design since World War I. Recently, however, there has been an effort to de-emphasize the garage in the design of single-family houses.

According to surveys and anecdotal evidence, many a buyer wants as much as a three-car garage but, because of security and aesthetic concerns, doesn't want it to be as visible, as many garages have been in the past.

Buyers also want part of those garages to be flexible space for home offices, playrooms or guest bedrooms.

Side entry

Builders and architects are responding. Garages are being built on the sides of houses or in courtyard arrangements if the lots can accommodate them.

If they are being built facing the street, they are designed to appear to be separate from the line of the rest of the construction or to replicate the carriage house quality of older residences.

Until 1915, when Henry Ford put the middle class behind the wheel, garages had limited appeal. That all changed, and homeowners and builders grappled with solutions to auto storage.

In older neighborhoods, the solution was to build a line of one-car garages in the alleys behind the rowhouses.

But at first there was no attempt to blend garage and house. Before World War II, most single-family houses were built with detached garages. People who owned single-family houses, especially those with large lots, built one-car garages behind their homes, connected to the street by driveways carved from side yards.

One reason for this was that early garages were modeled on the stables and carriage houses of the well-to-do. The rich had acquired automobiles first and had stored them in those outbuildings.

The second reason centers on the incomes of homebuyers in the first five decades of the century. About two-thirds of Americans own their homes today, up from 25 percent before World War II, according to U.S. Census figures. The reason is that mortgages were not widely available several decades ago, and most people had to save for years to buy a house.

The postwar building boom changed that. A mass-produced house in Levittown, N.Y., cost $7,000 in 1947, purchased with a Veterans Administration loan. It also came with a garage attached, because houses were being built on smaller lots to keep down costs.

In 1950, more than half of the houses built had no garages or carports. By 1999, 12 percent of residential construction came without a place for the car.

Forty-one percent of houses built in 1950 had one-car garages. By 1970, 22 percent had one-car garages, and 39 percent had two-car garages.

By 1990, 72 percent of new houses had two-car garages, and the two-car garage was standard at 55 percent of American homes, census figures show. By 1995, 76 percent of new homes had at least a two-car garage.

3-car garages common

Many houses are being built with three-car garages, but the extra space, especially in areas where houses don't have basements, is readily convertible to other uses.

The price range dictates the size and flexibility of such spaces. The ideal location for two-car garages is on the side of the house, out of view of the street. Whether buyers get that depends on whether they can pay for it.

"When we do side-entrance garages, we typically put them in houses on corner lots," said Gary G. Schaal, vice president of sales and marketing for Orleans Homebuilders in Bensalem, Pa. "It makes the house look larger, and is usually considered attractive by the rest of the community."

Though the two-car garage is standard, many buyers of houses costing $400,000 and more want three-car garages, Schaal said. Such garages remain an option with most builders.

Storage is an issue

Two-car garages are fast becoming standard with townhouses, which have long had one-car garages. Again, Schaal said, the issue is enough room for storage and housing one car.

Some buyers of expensive houses have left the two-car garage in front of the house, but they have designed it so that it looks like a separate building. Such garages often have flexible space above the bays and are designed to look like old-fashioned carriage houses rather than garages, which meshes with the homebuying public's longing for tradition in design, construction and decor.

In some parts of the country, flexible space is standard in garage areas, especially if a third bay in a garage is involved. In Texas, where many houses are built on concrete slabs, that space is referred to as a "Texas basement."

Older houses without garages have a built-in disadvantage when they go on the market, especially in urban areas where on-street parking can be a risk. Insurance rates tend to be lower for homeowners who can house their cars off the street and in garages.

Renovation `frontier'

Houses without garages have been dubbed "the first frontier in home renovation" by Kira Obolensky, author of Garage: Reinventing the Place We Park.

If the lot has enough space to accommodate a garage, one can be built by a contractor or by the homeowner from a kit.

A typical job for contractors specializing in garages involves adding a second garage or enlarging an existing one.

Cars have gotten bigger over the years, so some 10-foot-wide garages are too small. Even some new houses have smaller garages than they should.

Experts suggest a one-car garage measuring 12 feet by 22 feet and a two-car garage measuring 22 feet by 27 feet.

Anything smaller might be good only for storing junk.

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