Garage chic
Imagine: Showroom-perfect display for your cars, your tools all in order.
By Ellen Florian Kratz, FORTUNE writer

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Size used to be the only thing that mattered when it came to designing a dream garage. If you were able to squeeze three cars into a drab, cement-floored room along with old furniture, ladders, bicycles and enough paper towels for a year, you couldn't ask for anything more.

But for today's deep-pocketed car enthusiasts, the garage has practically become a second home.

"It's a room that is really coming into its own," says Steve D'Gerolamo, owner of Ultimate Garage, a northern N.J. company that specializes in high-end garage makeovers. "It's kind of like the man's kitchen."

It's no secret how expensive kitchen renovations are these days, and garage makeovers are also costly (in fact, one expensive makeover that D'Gerolamo consulted on included a kitchen and a couple of bathrooms). D'Gerolamo has worked on transformations that cost $50,000 at the low end to one that ran upwards of $2 million.

So why would anyone want to spend so much money on a garage?

One common reason is to showcase an extensive car collection. Another is to have a private workshop so that detailers and mechanics can make house calls. "The last thing a guy with a $500,000 car wants is for it to be sitting outside in some mechanic's parking lot getting dinged by other people," says D'Gerolamo.

Okay, so $2 million is a bit steep. But plan on forking over at least $150,000 to build a fabulous, fully outfitted 1,200-square-foot garage. Here are a few of the things you'll need:

Hydraulic Lift: You need to be able to get your car off the ground, preferably by more than six feet if you have a high enough ceiling. The devices can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000. Some garage owners these days are opting for built-in lifts. The benefit: they're flush with the floor, and there aren't any posts sticking up. The drawback: You can't capitalize on the extra space and park another car underneath.

Air Compressor: Considering how many tools run off of air, a compressor is considered a basic utility for the serious home garage, right up there with electricity. Inexpensive models can be purchased from home supply stores for around $500. Higher-end ones start at $2000.

Plumbing: Water is another must-have utility in the ultimate garage. After all, you need to be able to wash your car, wash your hands, and let it all drain away. For the drain, expect to run into some zoning issues. You will probably have to install a separate seepage tank and an oil separator. Done properly, a drainage system can cost as much as $10,000.

Floors: In any dream garage, there are "clean" spaces and "dirty" spaces, and you need the proper floor for each area. For the showcase portion of the garage, tile floors (and walls) are the most attractive. Unfortunately, they're also more expensive, costing between $10 and $15 per square foot. For the workshop portion of the garage, it's best to go with an epoxy finish, which costs less (around $6 per square foot). The reason: nothing gets through the tough finish of epoxy, whereas even sealed tiles can still pick up stains.

Storage: Tool junkies need someplace to put all their stuff. Storage units can run anywhere from a couple hundred bucks for something modest to thousands of dollars for an industrial grade setup. D'Gerolamo's advice: Stay away from systems where items like ladders and bicycles are placed on hooks. "It's an accident waiting to happen," he says. "If somebody brushes something, it could fall off the racks and onto the car."

Lighting: Home builders are always designing window configurations that will allow for plenty of natural light. But for cars, regular sunlight will fade paint and fabrics. So you want to very careful about the placement of windows -- that is, if you decide to have windows at all.

The hottest lighting for garages at the moment is something called T5 fluorescent lighting, which has a stronger and more efficient output than its T12 and T8 predecessors. The only problem is that if you don't have very high ceilings, you'll need to use diffusers to avoid glare.

Another important consideration for garage lighting is color accuracy. "You want to have the cars look the same in the shop as they would out in daylight," says D'Gerolamo.

Heat, Air, and Humidity: You wouldn't put your family in a home that isn't equipped to defend against the elements. Same goes for your prized automobiles. If you're building your new garage from scratch, radiant heat in the floors is ideal.

Air conditioning is equally important. And one of the most important systems to have in place is a dehumidifier to prevent rust and mold. "Humidity will really kill collector cars," says D'Gerolamo. At the minimum, you want to keep levels below 60 percent. The cost of installing all-out temperature systems: more than $10,000.

Turntable: Just because some of these garages are big, doesn't mean it's easy to park cars in them. Which is why some owners opt to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 to install a turntable. "This piece of equipment allows you to get into spots where there is no other way to physically maneuver a car," says D'Gerolamo.

Bar: Some people want their garage to be all business, with nothing more than a plug-in radio for entertainment. Others want a club type atmosphere where people can gather. These days, more and more people are building lounge or bar areas in the garage. For what exactly? "The garage has become more than just a place to park the car," says D'Gerolamo. Plus, a bar is a good place to sit and admire your collection.

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