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. Plus, in this age of Airbnb, VRBO, and other space-sharing platforms, a converted garage is one way for homeowners to defray the cost of their mortgage.
Garage conversions appear to be the classic do-it-yourself home remodel project. With nothing in your way like load-bearing walls, and with the box seemingly already in place, it feels like a no-brainer. Is a garage conversion your quick ticket to more living space?
Easy Way to Gain Room?
Converting a garage requires more consideration than refinishing a basement because the positives are balanced out by 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.
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, this becomes a one-for-one trade. At worst, you devalue your house.
Additionally, homeowners may plunge into a garage conversion based on the belief that little more is required than adding a few lights and flooring. Garage conversions, on the contrary, are costly, extensive, and time-extended projects on the order of building a new addition.
Zoning and Legal Issues
Changing space meant for vehicles into habitable, safe, and conditioned living space invokes legal and zoning issues. California-based attorney Andy Baker specializes in issues relating to illegal garage conversions. Baker notes that a garage goes through a significant legal transformation when it becomes a habitable and new "conditioned space." This transformation invokes technical and legal standards that were not required when the space only housed vehicles. On top of that, Baker says, "Most building codes require permits to 'construct, enlarge, alter, repair, change the occupancy,' and also to 'install any electrical or plumbing system.'"
At the very least, all converted garages should have:
- Windows: Add enough window space to provide for natural light and air. In some municipalities, this means 5 1/2 square feet or a percentage of the total garage space.
- Ceiling: Maintain at least 7 1/2 feet of 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. Per electrical code, garages already have at least one such switch.
- Outlets: Add or change wall outlets so that they meet minimum spacing standards. Basically, no cord should have to reach farther than 6 feet to reach an outlet.
Making It a Comfortable Space
Beyond the bare minimum are changes that make the converted garage a pleasant, safe space:
- 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: Garages are usually installed with non-finish-quality walls.
- Garage door: Should you leave the garage door in place or replace it with a wall? This is one major question you will need to address before converting the garage into living space.
- Box out unsightly areas: Non-load-bearing walls should be added around areas you don't want to have visible in a living area, such as the water heater, furnace, laundry area, etc.
- No loss of yard: Building an addition means more living space but less yard for children to play and for outdoor activities like barbecuing. Expanding into the garage preserves yard space.
- Structure already built: While a garage conversion does require a significant amount of carpentry work, much of the structure (walls, ceiling, roof, and flooring) is already in place.
- Doing it yourself: While a rigorous and difficult project, a garage conversion can be done on a do-it-yourself basis, given enough time. Contrast this with building a detached addition, which is rarely ever done on a do-it-yourself basis.
- Loss of storage: 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.
- Parking space: Does your garage satisfy zoning requirements for parking space? If so, then removing the cars from the garage may flout local requirements for on-site parking spaces. As one example, San Diego, due to code amendments enacted in 1992, does not allow garage conversions if off-street parking minimums are not met.
- Home value gain questionable: Garage conversion is a net-zero proposition in terms of increasing property value. On the one hand, you do gain extra living space. But expanded space due to a garage conversion tends to be space that few buyers place a premium on. Not only that, many buyers do place a premium on protected parking space, and this is lost with a garage conversion.