Garage renovation
July 3, 2007 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Need ideas and suggestions for converting a detached two-car garage into a home office and a more efficient storage space. The garage is roughly 20' x 20' and about 70 years old, uninsulated, unvented, with a poured concrete floor. What are some features we should think about adding, and what are some possible pitfalls? Before/after photos and personal stories of renovation/conversion also sought.

Our house and presumably also our garage were built in 1939, back when cars were apparently quite a bit narrower. Our garage, which is detached and slightly behind our house, has a driveway leading up to it (bordered by a wall at the edge of our property on one side and our house on the other side) that is a bit too narrow for any modern car to actually drive up, unless we had a serious animus against our cars' side mirrors.

Therefore we mainly use the garage as storage right now since we can't drive a car up to it. The storage items are mainly camping gear and suitcases and other bulky objects, piled on wire shelving units we got from Staples, which are aligned along the walls of the garage. Like most houses in California, ours doesn't have a basement, so we really need to keep some of the garage space as storage space, but perhaps it's time for something more efficient and useful and nicer looking.

More importantly, my husband works from our home with his writing partner, and while the set-up works great for them at the moment, we've got a baby due in November and it would be easier for them to concentrate in a dedicated office space where they wouldn't have to hear an infant crying one room away and they wouldn't have to worry about keeping their voices down while they hash out their work. Making over the garage sounds like a great idea, since they'd still be "at the house" during the day but not actually in it.

So, we're thinking about making 2/3 of the space into a home office, and keeping 1/3 of it as storage, but we'd like the whole garage to be finished and climate controlled. We don't know the best way to handle air conditioning: stick in a noisy wall unit or perhaps a small "real" unit mounted on the garage's roof and bringing basic duct work into the space? We'd only need heating about three months a year since we live in Los Angeles, so I think we'd just use plug-in space heaters when warranted.

The floor is poured concrete, somewhat cracked; we're thinking of adding laminate on top that looks like wood, and maybe a small rug on top of that for the office section. There's no insulation in the walls or roof at all; it's just wood! And old (though solid) wood at that, probably not up to modern standards, considering earthquake safety issues (no "shear" plates, or whatever it's called). We'd like to add some windows on one wall, looking out into the backyard, so that should help the venting situation somewhat, which is currently nil.

Finally, we're considering adding a very small bathroom to the corner of the structure, although we may decide that that's more work than we should handle.

My husband's uncle is an experienced contractor who has done some garage conversions before, so we're in good hands on that front; he's due to start working with us on the project very soon. But we could really use some advice and suggestions about the conversion from other people who have done something like this. This is our first real home renovation project, and we'd like to get as much information as possible about what we're in for.

So, we'd really like to hear tips or ideas for the design of the structure. One of the pitfalls of it being so bare and basic right now is that it's hard to make suggestions to our uncle about how we want it to look or how we want to structure the storage parts of the space (a few giant closets? built in shelving? separate room altogther?), because it could be really anything we asked to put together. We're just not exactly sure what to ask for...

Suggestions (and caveats) welcome!
posted by Asparagirl to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend making the storage area closed off in a separate room altogether. This way, your husband & his partner could feel like they're working in a real office and not a storage space with desks. 2nd, it would make for a better selling point for the house if you ever sell it.

If your husband's going to be working in there full time, might as well go with the most reasonable AC/heating setup you can put in. Space heaters in an uninsulated room, even in a 60-degree Los Angeles winter, doesn't sound like optimal working conditions.
posted by puritycontrol at 12:44 PM on July 3, 2007

You probably want to do subsurface soil testing as a first step to determine if there are any quantities of spilled petroleum residue in the soil. Nothing will make time spent in a converted garage worse than constant exposure to noxious fumes. Remediation or capping could get expensive and may deter you from going through with the plans.
posted by JJ86 at 1:32 PM on July 3, 2007

from the LAT article
In the city of Los Angeles, a basic garage conversion requires two permits: one for the garage and another to build alternate, off-street parking. When garages are turned into livable space, homeowners must provide covered side-by-side parking for as many cars as the garage housed.
It doesn't matter that you don't currently use your garage for parking.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:29 PM on July 3, 2007

I rented a house in Silicon Valley that had a garage turned into an office/3rd bedroom. It was a great example of a few things to do and not to do:
1. DON'T just put down a pad a carpet. This room was on the musty side and if it wasn't for the great light, would've been mold city. It hurt to walk on - there was really no give at all.
2. DON'T patch across the garage entrance cheaply - it will still look like a garage, inside and out and you don't want a garage, you want an office.
3. DO make use of the existing door space to put in lots of windows. Most people like natural light. I adore and thrive upon it. These windows made the space workable.
4. DO install drapes - at least a kind to block view and diffuse all the wonderful natural light
5. DO make sure that it is tight from the elements. This room was fairly tight and south-east facing. It kept reasonably cool without AC and a space heater would warm it in the winter. Consider spending extra to get the area framed with 2x6 studs or have the existing studs extended out so the bays will hold 6" of insulation. Sure, it's not west coast standards, but it will save you money.
posted by plinth at 2:40 PM on July 3, 2007

Response by poster: If it were just a matter of getting a permit for the work on the garage itself, and getting it inspected, then that would be no problem. But the second requirement for actually building brand new covered side-by-side replacement parking (impossible with our lot size) is insane, and we're just going to ignore the rule -- just like every one our neighbors does.

Yes, really, we're going with the "everybody does it" excuse because, well, they do! It's not like the local government isn't extremely aware of the 50+ year trend of taking totally-unusable bungalow garages and sprucing them up; a whole two minutes driving around my neighborhood would make that clear. Everyone has the same issues with the driveway widths being too small. Heck, our biannual local polling place is in a neighbor's converted garage.

We know we'll have to sell "as-is" someday, and we're prepared to do that. I've been in several open houses in my neighborhood, including one right across the street from us, that have had their similarly-unsuable garages converted to guest houses over the years, so it's very, very common in this area and does not seem to be an issue for any buyers who might want to live here in the first place. In other words, based on local evidence, this renovation will probably still increase the property value, not reduce, even with the permit issues.
posted by Asparagirl at 3:06 PM on July 3, 2007

Heck, our biannual local polling place is in a neighbor's converted garage.

Sure, but that really has nothing to do wit the City government or building department regulations. If you build without permits (are you absolutely sure that everyone around has done that -- they might have converted their garages before the requirement to replace the parking was instated), you're risking fines and a whole heap of other trouble if the City catches you. All that'll take is soemone else in your neighborhood having a legitimate, permitted building project going that gets inspected; then maybe the inspector drives by your house and sees construction going on.

I wouldn't be so blase about the City ignoring this stuff. Catching unpermitted building is basically a goldmine for building departments -- they don't have to do any work to be able to charge you a shitload of fees. Do you seriously think a government agency is not going to take up things like that if it'll bring in money? In post-prop 13 California?
posted by LionIndex at 3:58 PM on July 3, 2007

At the very least, research what the permit requirements are in your area or zoning. Just play dumb with the City, and treat things hypothetically rather than mentioning specifics. (i.e. "If I live in xyz zoning, does the requirement to build a replacement parking structure apply to me if I want to do a garage conversion?") They're not so evil that they'll write your address down for future reference, but still.

I'd be willing to bet that the rebuild requirement came about as a countermeasure to so many people doing garage conversions and then clogging the streets with their parked cars. It's entirely possible that you've missed the boat on that one.
posted by LionIndex at 4:03 PM on July 3, 2007

Response by poster: I will ask the City what we can do about getting around the replacement parking structure rule. I should note that we live in an area where you need an annually-renewed permit sticker for your car (tied to your registration) in order to park on our street (plus you get one hang-tag for a guest). Maybe that would mitigate the structure requirement, since we could prove that we would not be parking on the street post-renovation any more than we already park there now.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:50 PM on July 3, 2007

If anything, that would probably make them more restrictive. Whether your car (or any car) can actually fit in the garage or not will not be of concern to the building department. All they'll care about is that you're taking away two off-street parking spaces, forcing a street that's so impacted that it requires parking permits to accommodate two more cars (again, whether you yourself actually have two cars will be of no concern to the building department).

Frankly, I find it hard to believe that they require a covered parking space--I don't see why just providing parking in the driveway or something wouldn't work. Why would they care if your car gets rained on or not?
posted by LionIndex at 4:58 PM on July 3, 2007

Building inspectors and Code enforcement folks aren't bounty hunters, nor do they work on commission. You may even have one as a neighbor. Their jobs and their offices are fully funded by your tax dollars via the City General Fund. Don't be afraid or reluctant to ask about the code requirements for your specific location and situation. They generally want to help you get your project done properly so it doesn't cause you or your neighbors difficulties later. If it's at all reasonable go for the permit and inspections.

If that doesn't work for you; "Tired of permit hassles? Tired of inspection delays? Call Red Tag Construction"

More seriously - from my experience converting a detached 2 car garage to a shop/storage. Inspect all around to make sure that everything is structurally sound. Check soil grade all the way around the garage and correct any drainage issue if necessary. Evaluate your electrical supply. How many circuits and how many amps can your existing panel support? What changes may be necessary to ensure that you are safe from potential electrical problems? Plan for your expected electrical needs then have it wired for 50% more use. Building an interior wall to separate storage from office is a quick simple job. Include a doorway between sections (use may change over tme). Insulation may not be necessary but as long as the studs are open and accessable it's a convenient thing to do. Close in the ceiling. Have your windows and sky lights installed then sheetrock the the interior. I've probably left out a bunch of stuff but you'll catch them in your planning.
posted by X4ster at 6:38 PM on July 3, 2007

You know, if you used carraige style doors to replace the existing garage doors and you didn't build any permanent walls (use cube style walls or even banks of shelving) you could claim the upgrading was just to make your garage better (for your classic Ferrari or what have you). Plausible deniability on whether it's a conversion means you don't have to call it a conversion.

On to your questions. I'd insulate with fibreglass between your studs (assuming stick frame construction). Run two circuits of outlets around the space alternating the circuits as I went around. Cover with dry wall and paint white. Same for the ceiling, if you get steel stud batts they'll stay between the joists better until you can get the drywall in place. I'd split the garage into four lighting zones each controlled by wall switches. Each zone would have one overhead fixture with 14/3 run to it so you could have a fan and a light over head and a switch controlled wall outlet.

My choice for flooring would be laminate over plywood over 2X3 sleepers over a poly vapour barrier. The space in between the sleepers would be filled with EPS but I've heard that can be tough to find in California.

Personally for a small office space like this I'd limit my windows to the north facing wall.
posted by Mitheral at 11:49 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Asparagirl, your upgrade sounds exciting! I'm not a builder, but I enslave myself to one from time-to-time. Good on ya for enhancing you and your family's environs!

About laminate flooring:

Research the available brands by searching online for tips, reviews, instructions, and by talking to folks who have worked with it. I'm in the middle of helping with a laminate flooring installation over vinyl and, despite a working with a level, ideal surface within a house, it has thoroughly frustrated me and my highly-experienced-in-construction partner.

Check out how your floor's moisture levels might affect the laminate. Our product's manual asks for a vapor barrier between the flooring and the concrete--and we're working with the padded type. Moisture has not been our problem, though.

Our biggest troubles have been with the freakish delicacy of the tongue-and-groove edges (clear the connecting sections of loose bits and lightly persuade the joints of each piece into place with a long tapping block (to diffuse the energy). Tap from one end to the other, making sure that the center of the section is truly in the groove by lifting from below or having your handy-dandy helper place his/her weight on sections. Dexterity > Strength. Strategic usage of adhesives was required to keep the entire lot from moving and skewing.

All that said, we're finishing the last row of the floor today!

Congratulations on the baby, take care of yourselves, and enjoy your upgrades.
posted by bonobo at 11:27 PM on July 5, 2007

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