Do you leave a $35,000 car out all night, exposed to the elements, falling limbs, vandals and thieves while a collection of junk rests safely inside your garage?

Congratulations! You’re a typical American homeowner.

You not only endanger the well-being of your $35,000 car, you also use a portion of your home that’s worth about that much to store a bunch of generally useless stuff.

A study at Florida State University in 2003 found that the existence of a regular-sized garage had approximately a 13-percent effect on a home’s price (compared to no garage) among Philadelphia-area homes sold. An oversized garage affected home price by 14 percent. That means if your home is worth the median price today of $210,000, your garage is worth $27,300 (210,000 X 13 percent).

“It’s historically been a place to park your car — if you can get around all the clutter,” notes Bill West, author of the ” Your Garagenous Zone” books.

And Todd Rissel, CEO of e2Value and a property valuation expert to insurance companies, says people place so little value on their garages that when providing their insurance agents with information on their homes many people simply forget to include information about their garages.

The value of home characteristics

Consider, too, that garages add square footage to the household. Organizing and otherwise improving the area so that it’s better utilized (particularly in places where land values are high) directly affects the total value of a property, experts say.

Garage value
Homeowners sold on the idea of improving their garages — whether it’s to enjoy the space or for resale — have multiple options. Here’s some advice:
Utilize the space
  1. Understand what you’re working with.
  2. Start from scratch if necessary.
  3. If you’re selling, make an impression.
  4. If you’re staying, make it a usable space.
  5. Consider customizing.

1. Understand what you’re working with.

In some respects, the “ideal” garage is based on preference and perspective. For example, local weather conditions can dictate that ideal, says Anthony Marguleas, owner of Amalfi Estates, a Los Angeles-area independent real estate company. With Midwest winters, a double-sized garage “is probably vital, whereas in Southern California it is less of an issue.” As Jo Ellen Nash, owner of a real estate firm serving resort markets in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo., puts it, “No one wants to shovel snow and ice off their cars in the winter.” Many garages in her area are heated and can accommodate cars and also toys like golf carts and snowmobiles.

If averages dictate ideal size, consider this: Census data collected since 1991 indicate that the percentage of homes built with garages for three or more cars has doubled, from 10 percent in that year to 20 percent in 2005. And if keeping up with the Jones’s drives your thinking, know that 52 percent of homeowners want garages their neighbors envy, according to research from The Thompson’s Company, makers of Thompson’s Water Seal products.

Most real estate experts agree an attached garage is preferred today. The one-car detached garage, which was once the norm (original cars had a tendency to catch fire), fell out of favor as cars improved and building codes required a fire wall between the house and the garage, explains West. Convenience and security factors drove the attached-garage trend.

Yet, not everyone thinks it’s here to stay. Ralph Zucker of New Jersey-based Sumerset Development is betting that the “new urbanist” movement, born in the 1980s, will continue bringing detached garages back. Detached garages in the rear of a house accommodate cars while “offering the opportunity to provide aesthetically pleasing neighborhood streetscapes,” argues Zucker. Detached garages can be more energy efficient and protect homeowners from breathing in toxins like carbon monoxide and stored pesticides.

2. Start from scratch if necessary.

The least-desirable-garage test is an easier one to score.

Take the garage on John McElhenny’s Gloucester, Mass., property. “It’s falling apart,” he sums up. “Every time there’s even a moderate wind, we find shingles in the backyard. Anything we keep in there we have to position strategically because there are big holes in the roof. The lawnmower needs to be covered with tarp.”

Friends and family can’t glance over without passing a comment like, “Geez, what are you going to do with that garage?” adds McElhenny, who bought the house in 2005 with his wife, Aria. They hope to either rebuild or simply raze the garage before their young son is old enough to play around in the yard. “We have an older house, a list of things that need to be done. Redoing the garage is always near the top of the list.”

If they decide to sell in a few years, a consideration, McElhenny realizes the garage will be a value detriment. It doesn’t help that the “beat-up eyesore of a garage is pretty visible from the street.”

He also realizes a raze-and-replace plan means facing local zoning officials.

Yet, points out Rissel, typically a garage can be rebuilt without zoning issues — “as long as a part or parts are left standing before and after the renovations. Once the structure is removed, all bets are off.”

West says chances are, a homeowner will want to make the new garage bigger than the old one. He advises making sure — before demolition — a permit for the larger garage won’t be a problem.

3. If you’re selling, make an impression.

Cost-effective improvements should be the main goal of a seller.

Some elbow grease is one cost. “Clear out and clean out” is the top recommendation from West, also a partner and broker associate of The Group, Inc. Real Estate in Fort Collins, Colo.

“Make sure there is room to park the cars,” adds Marsha Sell, a Coldwell Banker Realtor in the Atlanta area with 34 years of experience. If need be, “Get a temporary storage unit to eliminate the clutter in the garage.” Nash advises parking cars elsewhere so the garage appears bigger.

Get rid of oil spills and other stains (a pressure clean or painting does the trick) and make sure the garage door is in good working order.

Why not just focus on the house and let the garage be a garage? Because buyers will take note. Ninety-one percent of people surveyed by Thompson’s say they’re more likely to buy a home if the garage is well maintained. And 70 percent think a garage’s organization reflects the owner. Buyers get the impression that owners with organized garages are likely “as diligent and meticulous with home maintenance,” Marguleas says.

“Since buyers buy homes based on emotion, a really dirty, cluttered and overloaded garage will certainly affect a buyer’s decision,” adds Sell.

4. If you’re staying, make it a usable space.

The best way to raise a garage’s value is to create a space that’ll get used, experts say.

For traditionalists, that may simply mean creating storage places and parking spaces. Thompson’s research indicates that more than half of homeowners use their garage for storage and about one-third for car repairs.

Those with more imagination may want to transform the space into a game room, movie theater, sound studio or office, which Marguleas says are popular conversions.

West’s garage — take your own visual tour — is more of a multipurpose room. There’s plenty of storage, but also a home gym with fold-up treadmill that can be socked away and a TV. The space has functioned as an overflow party area on New Year’s Eve and as the venue for a 32-person wine tasting dinner for his son’s school.

Some garage improvements might include adding:
  • A new, self-closing door to the house.
  • Skid-free, slip-free flooring.
  • Electrical power for a workshop.
  • Bright lighting.
  • A heating/cooling system.

5. Consider customizing.

Not sure how you’ll make room for all those improvements? A good de-cluttering is key. West advises organizing what’s left by category — sporting goods, lawn/garden, automotive, kids’ stuff, etc.

Then decide how you’ll store all that stuff. A variety of cabinet and other storage systems, many of them that get stuff off the floor and onto the walls, are available at home improvement stores. In the past several years, as garage reorganizations have become more popular, product lines have expanded.

Expect a professional, customized system to cost $10 to $14 a square foot and to get a 40 percent to 60 percent return on investment, West estimates.

Systems are available from Garage Envy, GarageTek, HouseWall Garage System, PremierGarage Systems and others.

Just be sure to “understand what’s out there before rushing out and buying anything,” says West. “A little education goes a long way.”

Melissa Ezarik is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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