The average new American house, which has billowed in size by 50 percent since 1970 to 2,320 square feet, shrank slightly for the first time in seven years in 2002, according to a Department of Commerce report released earlier this year. Contributing to the dip was a wave of first-time homeowners -- spurred by low interest rates -- buying starter homes, and high-end homeowners staying put because of economic uncertainty.

But one feature of new houses has grown larger: It's the garage.

While the number of vehicles American households own hasn't changed much since the mid-1980s, the share of new homes built with two-or-more-car garages certainly has. It rose from 55 percent in 1985 to 82 percent in 2001. And 18 percent of new single-family homes included a three-car garage, up from 11 percent in 1992. Even so, numbers from the NAHB suggest that the supply of multiple-bay garages isn't quite keeping up with consumer demand. According to its 2000 survey, "What 21st Century Home Buyers Want," 19 percent of respondents said they wanted a garage for three or more cars.

Bay Watch

Astoria Homes, in Las Vegas, Nev., caters to those buyers in its move-up and high-end products, which top out in the upper $300,000s. Sia Howe, vice president of marketing, says that 90 percent of the homes in that price range offer a three-car garage, and 70 percent of buyers opt for the only four-car-garage plan the builder offers -- homes with 6,074 square feet. But the love affair with garages is sifting down to moderate-income buyers, too.

In one new community, Astoria squeezed a third garage bay onto some of the 2,630-square-foot homes selling in the low $200,000s. "Looking at the competition, we felt we would be hurt if we didn't offer it," Howe says. "The consumer has to weigh, 'do I want more of a backyard, or a three-car garage?' "

In Illinois' Lake County, a recreational area, the answer is clear. First-time homeowners and first, move-up buyers commonly request a three-car garage, says Robin Johnson, vice president of sales for Lakewood Homes, in Hoffman Estates, Ill. That's because everyone wants a place to put their boat, and restrictions prevent homeowners from keeping it in the side yard. Of the 13 floor plans the builder offers in its new Lakewood Grove community, four feature a third bay built into the box of the house, rather than protruding from the side. Space built out over the garage allows the upstairs to become proportionally larger. "With the cost of land rising, lot sizes aren't getting bigger," Johnson explains. "We needed a three-car [garage] that would fit on a standard 65-foot lot size because that's what our buyers are demanding."

Johnson says those four floor plans account for almost 40 percent of the 238 homes sold, site unseen, in the community since it opened in the fall. Of the four, the smallest house, which has 2,800 square feet and is priced at $266,990, is its best seller. The new plans create profits for Lakewood Homes because they fit on any lot in the community and are economical to build. "Any time you include something as standard, you can contract a better price for it than you can for an add-on," she notes.

Outer and Inner Beauty

If what's going on in the custom-home market is any indication, garages are also in for an aesthetic lift -- not surprising, given their growing visibility on the street.

Growing Garages
Share of new single-family homes with garages for three or more cars.
1992 11%
1993 12%
1994 13%
1995 13%
1996 14%
1997 14%
1998 15%
1999 16%
2000 17%
2001 18%
2002 18%
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census; NAHB

"For a long time, people have been willing to pay thousands of dollars for a nice-looking front entry," says Tom Wadsworth, editor of Door and Access Systems, a door-industry publication in Cleveland, Ohio. "But the garage door typically takes up much more of the front exposure of the home and demands more attention. Americans are beginning to look at the garage door as a way to add to the apparent value of a home. They're looking for ways to make it look better than the guy's next door." In the past three years, Clopay, a garage-door manufacturer based in Cincinnati, has begun offering more colors and window configurations, cleaner designs, and upscale materials. The Frank Lloyd Wright-style Studio Collection it introduced in the fall has seen a steady increase in sales, according to Pat Lohse, director of dealer residential marketing. Also popular are the wood, carriage house style doors. This fall they'll be available in a maintenance-free steel and composite overlay.

Garages are also prettier on the inside, thanks to state-of-the-art storage systems such as Syosset, N.Y.-based GarageTek. Founded in 2001, franchise sales are projected to reach $18 million in 2003. "People are embarrassed to open garages and have their neighbors see all the ugliness inside," Wadsworth says. "It's no longer the trash heap of the house where you throw everything in and get to it later."

In Las Vegas, homeowners want to park their cars out of the heat. But the homes lack attics and basements, so garages become storage and work areas. On its higher-end products, Astoria Homes offers an insulation package that includes 220-volt electrical outlets for power tools. Most builders haven't been able to compete with big-box retailers on storage solutions.

That may change, though, as companies such as Whirlpool Corp. become ever more creative. This fall, its Gladiator Storage System is slated to include a refrigerator/freezer designed just for the garage. It has a built-in heating element that keeps refrigerated food from freezing in an unheated space. More evidence that, to tweak the subtitle of a recent coffee table book on garages, Americans are reinventing the place they park.

Parking Places: Single-family homes by region and price
(percent of garage spaces built in 2000)
1-car 2-car 3+ car carport no garage
U. S. Total 7 65 17 1 10
New England 14 60 14 0 12
Middle Atlantic 17 59 8 0 15
East North Central 3 66 23 0 8
West North Central 7 60 30 0 4
South Atlantic 10 66 6 1 17
East South Central 4 64 5 4 23
West South Central 4 77 11 3 6
Mountain 3 64 28 1 3
Pacific 4 61 33 1 2
Sales Price
Less than $100,000 14 54 1 2 29
$100,000 to $149,999 9 80 3 1 7
$150,000 to $199,999 7 77 13 0 3
$200,000 to $249,999 5 68 25 0 1
$250,000 to $499,999 3 56 41 0


$500,000 or more 1 38 60 0 0
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census
Where We Park: The bigger the home, the more garage space is demanded by buyers, with 60 percent of buyers in homes priced more than $500,000 having a three-or-more car garage.