MILWAUKEE -America’s garages seem a prime spot for parking disposable income these days.

Their history is utilitarian, the natural way station for garbage bins, garden implements, car care products and household items not worthy for the house. Their look has been humble and often unkempt.

Lately, however, “let’s clean up the garage” has taken on a whole new meaning.

These adjuncts to the house are getting designed or overhauled to resemble another room of the house, with attractive cabinetry and flooring, detailed facades, generous windows, even expansions for gyms below or living quarters above.

It’s an emerging trend with no spending figures attached, at least, not yet, say housing industry experts. Garage improvements showed up in the National Association of Home Builders May 11 report on consumer wish lists and as a top priority in Atlanta-based Peachtree Consulting’s spring report on the $7-billion-a-year home organization industry.

“Getting a flex/bonus room above a three-car garage seems to be very popular in the upscale market right now. People are using them for a children’s playroom, home office, in-law suite. Some are even connected with an outside stairway,” said Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. He defined upscale as “$500,000 and up” houses.

Garages are getting bigger, even as the size of new homes, swelling through the 1990s, seems to have stabilized around 2,300 square feet, Ahluwalia said.

“A three-car isn’t the standard, but it’s trending to that, especially in parts of the country where they don’t have basements. People use garages more for storage than parking. We are national junk collectors, buying things we don’t need, then putting them in the garage,” Ahluwalia said. He pointed to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey, which found that only 12 percent of people with three-car garages use the space for three cars.

There is truth in this, contractors and consumers agree. But there’s more to the national quest for a better garage than mindless materialism.

Builders say today’s garages reflect super-sizing.

“On higher-end homes, a three-car garage is pretty much standard now. People want the space for their cars, lawn mowers, snow blowers, garden tools. And more want shelving and organizational systems,” said Frank Madden, president of MD Properties Inc. in Mequon, Wis.

Pete Feichtmeier, owner of Colby Construction Co. Inc. in Delafield, Wis., said more customers want garages that echo the house’s architectural style and some want amenities such as storage systems, drywall and finished floors.

“They’re much more an integral part of the house than in the past,” Feichtmeier said.

Clare Weaver, owner of The Complete Garage’s Milwaukee-area franchise in Brookfield, Wis., ties his brisk business to the fact that the main access in many homes isn’t the front door but the garage.

“We spruce it up, make it more usable, a space they can live in,” Weaver said. “We’re trying to feng shui the garage.”

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Decluttering sure lifted the spirits of Pewaukee Lake, Wis., homeowner Judy Calvy. She, husband, Tom, and son,Tommy, 7, moved here from California in 2002 to find they didn’t have room for everything they hauled across the country.

“When you have guests over, it looks bad,” Mrs. Calvy said. “Our basement is finished as a TV room and we don’t have an attic area. But the garage has 9-foot ceilings, so I was thinking we could take advantage of that height.”

Weaver’s company installed shelving, bike and sail mast hangers, a work bench, a portable tool cabinet, heating, lighting.

“People say, “Hey look at that.’ It’s cool,” Calvy said.

It typically costs $3,000 to $5,000 to transform a two-and-a-half car garage from drive-in mess to cool, said Brian Hering, owner/president of PremierGarage of Southwest Wisconsin in Germantown. His company does floors, cabinets and organizers.

“The garage industry is where the closet industry was 20 years ago,” Hering said. “As they get more stuff, people realize they need to make better use of their space.”


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