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<p>A cement-limestone fireplace erases any trace of the old garage.</p>

A cement-limestone fireplace erases any trace of the old garage.

Photo by Paul Whicheloe

Who wouldn't want to gain a guest or rec room—without having to add on? While Diane and James Murphys' 1916 garage-turned-handsome-home, with its new fireplaces and wood paneling, is definitely on the deluxe side, the couple had to make many of the same basic decisions as any homeowner looking to oust the family car and take over its quarters. Here are some fundamental considerations in tackling such a conversion.

Fix the floor. A concrete slab with no major cracks can be one of a garage's biggest bonuses. A floating wood floor or carpeting can go right over it. Just be sure to first remove oil stains with a degreaser, seal minor cracks with a filler, and put down a vapor barrier. The Murphys could have kept theirs if they hadn't needed to run new kitchen plumbing and fill the mechanic's pit.

Finish the walls. The Murphys' glazed-brick walls were an unusual find, so when contractor Wayne Eberle built stud walls in front of them, he attached them to the ceiling rather than drive fasteners directly into the masonry. Most masonry walls don't require such finesse—just regular stud walls, insulation, and drywall. Even garages that already have finished walls may lack insulation; in that case, blown-in insulation will disturb the walls the least.

Fill the openings. The Murphys replaced their garage doors with energy-efficient French doors and transoms that fit the openings. When that's not practical or desirable—where the doors face a busy street, for instance—openings can be closed with framing and finished with drywall and siding. For a historically accurate look on a pre-1945 home, carriage doors can be added to preserve the facade and a wall built inside. Old windows are usually replaced with energy-efficient ones.

Upgrade the systems. If you have a forced-air system, extending the ductwork to the garage space is the cheapest way to install heat, followed by electric baseboards. With the latter, though, expect your monthly utility bill to take more of a hit. If you are replacing the slab, consider adding a much pricier radiant system that embeds plastic tubing for hot water in the concrete. It's the top choice for heating a big room evenly, says Eberle. Keep in mind that any system that uses hot water or steam requires running new pipe to your existing boiler, even if your garage is plumbed for laundry or a utility sink. To add wiring without disturbing the brick walls here, Eberle threaded

it through hollow ceiling coffers and behind wall paneling. If drywall is already in place, you'll need to cut holes to snake new wiring and add outlets. In that case, consider finishing the walls with wainscoting. Along with covering the holes, you'll gain a nice detail.