Should You Convert Your Garage To Living Space?

Think Really Hard About This One Before Plunging In

Garage Conversion 563940913
Garage Conversion. Getty / H. Armstrong Roberts Classic Stock

Want 400 square feet of living space?  You may have found it.  It's called the garage.  And it's free space.  Or is it?

When space gets tight, crowded homeowners get desperate for ways to carve out space from nothing.  Garage conversions abound in areas where real estate is expensive and neighbors are close.  Garage conversions appear to be the classic "Sure, I can do it myself" home remodel project.

 With nothing in your way like those pesky load-bearing walls, and with the box seemingly already in place, it feels like nothing can go wrong.  Not so fast there, though.

Like refinished basements, garages seem like "found space."  That's where the comparison stops.  

Converting a garage requires more consideration than refinishing a basement because of significant downsides.  With the basement remodel, you can hardly go wrong with elevating an unusable dark space into one that is light-filled and usable.  Little is lost.  With the garage, though, you trade out a space that is usable for one thing (storing cars, boxes, etc.) for a space that is usable for another thing (living).  At best, it's a one-for-one trade.  At worst, you devalue your house.

Real estate professionals tend to agree that garage conversions do not add to the home's overall property value.

Garage conversion is a net-zero proposition in terms of increasing property value:

  • Gain:  Living area, but an area that may attract only a few buyers.
  • Lose:  Parking space, but a space that buyers generally place a premium on.

Changing space meant for cars into conditioned living space invokes legal issues.

California-based attorney Andy Baker specializes in issues relating to illegal garage conversions.

 On his site, he reminds us that

Once the use of the garage changes to a habitable space, it is considered as a new “conditioned space”, required to comply with specific technical and legal standards that were not previously required. Most building codes require permits to “construct, enlarge, alter, repair, change the occupancy,” and also to “install any electrical or plumbing system.”

In many communities, these minimum standards are: 

  • Windows:  Add enough window space to provide for natural light and air.  In some municipalities, this means 5.5 square feet or a percentage of the total garage space.
  • Ceiling:  Maintain 7.5' minimum ceiling height.
  • Heat:  Provide heating to maintain 70 degrees F.  Retrofit heating options include extending existing central heating ductwork and installing electric baseboard or fan-driven wall heaters.
  • Light:  Add at least one wall-controlled light switch.  Good thing:  you already have one.
  • Outlets:  Add or change wall outlets so that they mean minimum spacing standards (basically, no cord should have to reach farther than 6 feet to reach an outlet).

It's not just about cars:  it's about storing the big and less-than-beautiful stuff of our lives.

Keep in mind that garages are used for more than just parking cars.

 Garages are places where we store lawn mowers, Christmas decorations, bicycles, rolled-up rugs, decommissioned children's toys, and other large items that will not fit (or should not fit) in our homes.  Even if you don't mind getting rid of this storage room, subsequent buyers of your home probably will mind.

In many cities, when you take out a parking area, you need to replace it with another off-street parking area.

Does your garage satisfy zoning requirements for parking space?  One Redfin commenter, a former code enforcement inspection officer says that "In some municipalities the garage satisfies the only on site required parking spaces and eliminating that space can be a code violation."  San Diego is one example of a city that, dues to code amendments in 1992, does not allow garage conversions if off-street parking minimums are not met.

Beyond the legalities, you need to do even more to make your garage conversion really, truly habitable:

  • Insulate:  Most garages are not insulated.  Drywall, if already installed, must be removed and insulation installed.
  • Floor Height:  Garages tend to be lower than the house.  While not necessary, your home benefits if you match flooring heights by adding sleepers to elevate the floor covering above the concrete garage floor.
  • Floor Covering:  Also called a finish floor, this is the visible floor that you walk on.
  • New Drywall or Finish Job:  Garage drywall is usually installed as non finish-quality level one or two.  If you happen to have insulation behind there, you can leave the drywall in place but bring it up to level four.
  • Garage Door:  Leave the garage door in place or replace it with a wall?  See below for garage door considerations.
  • Box Out Unsightly Areas:  Non load-bearing walls should be added around areas you don't want to have visible in a living area--water heater, furnace, laundry area, etc.