Should You Convert Your Garage to Living Space?

Garage Interior
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When space gets tight, crowded homeowners can 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 online platforms for short-term rentals, a converted garage is one way for homeowners to defray the cost of their mortgage while still living in the house.

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—a garage conversion may seem like an obvious choice. But a garage conversion does also have a number of significant downsides to consider before embarking on this project.

Pros and Cons of Garage Conversions

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.

A garage is different, though. With the garage, you trade out a space that is usable for one or several things for a space that is usable for just one thing—living space. At best, this becomes a one-for-one trade. At worst, you devalue your house.

Additionally, garage conversions are more work than they may appear. Homeowners may plunge into a garage conversion based on the belief that little more is required than adding a few lights and flooring. On the contrary, garage conversions are costly, extensive, time-extended projects that are not quite on the order of building a new addition, but close to it.

Zoning and Legal Issues

Changing space meant for vehicles into habitable, safe, and conditioned living space invokes legal and zoning issues. Each garage must go through a significant legal transformation when it becomes a habitable and new conditioned space.

One determiner used by some municipalities is whether or not adequate provisions are being made to replace the parking stalls eliminated from the garage.

The transformation from a garage to a conditioned space requires the garage to meet technical and legal standards that were not required when the area only housed vehicles or acted as a storage area. On top of that, most municipalities' building codes require a range of permits for the activities associated with this conversion: erecting or moving walls; running water supply or drainage; running sewer line; adding windows; installing a full electrical system.

Due to the rise of short-term house rentals, many municipalities have begun to look more critically at garage conversions—even if the area will not be rented out on the short-term market.

Basics of Converting a Garage to Living Space

  • 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. This may be difficult to do if you are also raising floor 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.

How to Make a Garage Conversion a Comfortable Space

Insulate the Walls

Most garage walls and ceilings are not insulated. Drywall, if already installed, must be removed and insulation should be installed. Use conventional fiberglass roll insulation, rockwool, or sprayed foam insulation for the walls. Use fiberglass batts for the ceiling.

Raise the Floor Height

Garages tend to be built 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.

Install Floor Covering

Even if you do add sleepers to raise the floor, you still will need a floor covering. Laminate flooring, engineered wood, tile, and luxury vinyl plank flooring are popular choices for garage conversions.

Install New Drywall or Finish Existing Drywall

Garages are usually installed with non-finish-quality walls. If the walls are insulated, you can keep the existing drywall but bring the finish up to higher standards.

Replace or Insulate the Garage Door

Should you leave the garage door in place or replace it with a wall? If you keep it, you should insulate the door. This is one major question you will need to address before converting the garage into a living space.

Hide Unsightly Areas

Non load-bearing walls should be added around areas you do not wish to see, such as the water heater, furnace, laundry area, or storage.

Pros
  • No loss of yard: Building an addition means more living space but less yard for outdoor activities. Expanding into the garage preserves yard space.

  • Structure already built: Much of the structure (walls, ceiling, roof, and flooring) is already in place.

  • Doing it yourself: Though difficult, a quality garage conversion can be done on a do-it-yourself basis. Building a detached addition is rarely done without professional help.

Cons
  • Loss of storage: Many people use their garage for storage. Even if you think getting rid of this extra space is a good idea, future buyers of your home may disagree.

  • Parking space: Removing the cars from the garage may flout local requirements for on-site parking spaces.

  • No value gain: A garage conversion rarely will increase the property value. Many buyers place a premium on a protected parking space, and this is lost with a garage conversion.