At the end of a busy workday, Rich Morrison likes to head home to his spacious saltbox colonial and unwind in his favorite place: the garage. He and his wife, Svjetlana, relax there on plastic lawn chairs and chat before dinner. He also uses it as a workshop, television room, sound studio, reading area, and recreation center for playing darts.
"It's my palace," says Mr. Morrison, associate vice president of Central Michigan University in Pleasant, Mich. "It's a refuge."
Those rhapsodic words hardly describe the typical American garage. But Morrison's multipurpose space puts him in the vanguard of a small but growing band of homeowners who are turning the last bastion of domestic clutter into a new outpost of order and cleanliness. With the help of books, professional organizers, modular organizing systems, and retail stores devoted to garages, these owners are creating what is becoming the latest status symbol: a showplace garage.
Even the vocabulary is changing. "We view the garage not as a garage but as a room," says Marc Shuman, president of GarageTek, a five-year-old company in Syosset, N.Y., that makes flexible garage storage systems. "Don't think of your garage as a useless pile of junk, but as an extension of your home."
Yet junk still crowds many of the nation's estimated 69 million garages. Lawn mowers, snow blowers, garden tools, bicycles, golf clubs, and camping gear all vie for space with the family cars.
"The average American two-car garage has become a no-car garage, because it's crammed full of so much clutter," says Barry Izsak, author of "Organize Your Garage in No Time." "It's ironic that the one room of the house where the doors open daily for the whole world to see is the most unsightly, poorly utilized, and neglected."
Calling a garage "the family dumping ground," Mr. Izsak says, "It's the one room shared by the entire family. It ends up being the room where everyone throws everything that they don't know what to do with."
Mr. Shuman has seen it all. "We've been in garages where you couldn't see the car. It was surrounded by debris."
Even the garages of the wealthy can fill with clutter. "It's not a socioeconomic thing," says Neil Bindelglass, a professional organizer in Hudson, N.Y.
One factor propelling garage makeovers is the high cost of real estate. "Homeowners say, 'We've paid a fortune for our home, but it's not that big,' " Shuman says. They need to maximize the space.
Other owners simply want their garage to match the standards of the house. "Our customers are not messy, disorganized people," says Doug Arndt, president of The Complete Garage in Minnetonka, Minn., which sells products for organizing garages. "People are looking at their homes and saying, 'I have this beautiful 3,000-square-foot home. The kitchen has a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and we have brass doorknobs. But the garage doesn't reflect the rest of the home.' "
A trend toward larger garages and more three-car garages is also increasing the need to organize possessions, home organizers say. In 2001, 18 percent of American homes had three-car garages, up from 11 percent in 1992.
Even garage doors are going upscale, adding to the star status of garages. "Garage doors are what they're now calling the front door of the home," Shuman says, noting that many more people use the garage as the entrance to the house.
Although garages are often regarded as a male preserve, women are driving the garage-improvement industry, experts find. When Mr. Arndt exhibited at a home show, he says, "Women were dragging men to the booth and saying, 'I'm tired of a disorganized garage.'"
Even so, Shuman finds that the garage is still "the last place anybody wants to spend money." But once the rest of the house is in order, he says, many find it a logical next step.
Shuman's professionally installed system divides the garage into three zones. He covers floors with resin tiles, impervious to ice, snow, oil, and solvents. Wall-hung storage cabinets house tools, sports equipment, and lawn and garden supplies. A ceiling track system creates a place to hang baskets, bins, and lighting. Costs start at $2,500 and have gone as high as $25,000 for a four-car garage on Long Island, N.Y. A two-car garage averages $6,500.
For those with modest bank accounts or a do-it-yourself bent, Izsak offers alternatives. "You don't have to spend a lot of money on a garage if your budget doesn't allow it," he says. "There's some product out there at every price point."
Even castoff furnishings have a place, he suggests. An old desk can become a workbench. "You can take the kitchen cabinets if you've renovated the kitchen. You can use old bookcases, or an old chest of drawers from a baby's room. You can put these things there and give them new life, instead of running out and buying new."
Gregg Steiner of Sherman Oaks, Calif., recently transformed what he calls a "gross" garage into an attractive one. He needed room to store products for his home-based Internet business. A workman installed shelving, cabinets, and pegboard for hanging tools. The project cost $2,000. "Now I can fit two cars, all my supplies, tools, bikes, and toys in the garage," Mr. Steiner says.
Morrison designed his garage storage without professional help. He built the drawers, workbench, shelves, and moveable work carts in it. For him, shelving, a large work surface, and drawers are key elements in keeping the space organized. He also installed a gas heater, reflecting a trend by some owners to heat and air- condition their garages.
With so many amenities, garages like these offer space not only for cars but for workout rooms, gardening centers, and hobby areas. "We've even had people throw holiday parties and use it as a place for children's birthday parties," Shuman says.
Add Morrison to the list of those who use the space for socializing. "When we occasionally have guests over for a barbeque, a party, or just a get-together, we always end up in the garage," he says. His wife parks her car in the garage, but his truck stays outside.
Izsak emphasizes that there is no right or wrong way to organize a garage. "There are umpteen methods to storing bikes, tools, and lawn and garden equipment. What's more important is that you create a system that's going to work for you and stick to it. Whether your garage has been a dumping ground for 20 years or not, there's a solution for everybody."