'There are few things cooler on earth than owning a fast, fun car that you're proud to drive-except maybe owning your own place to build and maintain that car. It's a growing trend we're seeing more of as we talk to people at shows and events. Guys are building their own shops. Not just rich guys, either, but regular guys who work for a living. So we decided to investigate. We wanted to find out what is involved in setting up a personal garage: what you can do to add on to your existing property, or how to find commercial space for lease, and how to construct, equip, and maintain your place.
Taking on a project of this magnitude is admittedly a daunting one that is hard to cover in a single article. Imagine how a "build your dream car from the ground up" story would look! Still, we will give you good information on where to start and who to ask for guidance. We spoke to several people who have gone through the process, and we'll share their wisdom with you. There are many options, even for those on a tight budget, and you don't need to own a home to do it.
The Expert Witnesses
While researching this story we talked at length to people in the business. Chris Whitney and Gene Sherman both built shops on their property. Whitney is the shop foreman at Galpin Auto Sports, and his 1,200-foot shop is featured in This Guy's Garage on page 22. Sherman is a self-employed designer/fabricator who operates his company, Reflexx Designs, out of his 1,500-foot shop in Riverside, California.
We also spoke with Matt Delaney, business owner of Bay Automotive, a repair facility in Huntington Beach, California, and Robert Plant, facility architect for Galpin Ford. He's led the design teams that have constructed a number of dealerships and aftermarket repair franchises. These two guys shed some insight on how to rent a commercial space, an appealing option for those of us who don't own a house or don't have enough space on our property.
On the "supply" side, we talked to Jay Behm, an architect who sells building plans online, and Kamal Sabeh, general manager of Bottom Line Steel Buildings, manufacturer of steel buildings in a variety of configurations.
This building is available from Bottom Line Steel Buildings.>>>
Build It In Your Yard
This is the obvious place to start. If you own a house, you can add on to it or your existing garage. Or you can do like the guys we talked to and build a separate shop on your property. Whitney put up a steel building in his backyard, while Sherman built what he calls a hybrid. It's from Miracle Truss and is made up of steel trusses that he finished with lumber framing, insulation, and drywall. Steel buildings aren't the only option, though; you could build a wood structure as well.
Step one is to start with some research. Determine the size of the space you need, and come up with a budget. This is a crucial step. Be brutally honest and realistic with your assessment, or your project will never get off the ground. Everyone we've talked to says the same two things: You always wish you built it bigger, and everything costs more than you expect. "When you add up your expenses, triple them," says Gene Sherman. "It's the little things like hardware and wiring conduit that nickel-and-dime you past your projected amount." In fact, Bottom Line Steel Building's Kamal Sabeh says most building projects fail due to insufficient budgeting. "A lot of people just aren't aware of all the costs involved." The steel and siding to make a steel building aren't that expensive, but people often miscalculate the amount they'll have to spend in construction materials to put the place together and in the ground.
Your city's or township's zoning regulations may be available online. If not, call your local government's planning commission.>>>
Zoning And City Planners
Once you have your budget figured out, you must now check your local zoning and building planning codes to see if the type of building you want to put up is even allowed in your area. When dealing with the city, Whitney recommends calling the structure a storage shed rather than a garage, because to the city, garage implies leaky, derelict cars and an environmental hazard.
Your city or township has an incredible amount of control over all aspects of the building, from size and height requirements to appearance. Sherman lives in an area of Riverside zoned for agriculture. "That's the only reason my shop doesn't have to match my house," he says. If he were in a residential area, he'd have been required to build a wood-framed structure finished in the same stucco as his house. That would have effectively kept him from building his shop. "I'm not a carpenter, I don't know how to build a wood-framed house, and I couldn't afford to have someone build it for me," he says. Again, do lots of research. Consult with a contractor if necessary. Architect Jay Behm recommends looking for one who specializes in small projects like house additions since it may not be cost-effective for a bigger firm to take on a project like this.
Jay Behm sells garage plans on line.>>>
Now, armed with the knowledge of what is permitted in your area, you can draw up plans either on your own or from a designer. Jay Behm, an architect who's developed a specialty in designing garages and selling the plans online, says his most popular-selling floor plan is a two-car garage with shop space. The structure has 9-foot walls and wider and taller doors to accommodate a variety of vehicles. Many of his plans also include a second floor that can be used for storage space or a living area. He includes a supply list you can take to your local hardware store for a quote on the necessary materials.
When designing your shop, be creative and try to imagine the variety of work you'll be doing there. Plan a space that accommodates this work efficiently. Do you want to install a lift? You'll need at least 12 feet of clearance. Are you going to keep more than one car in there? Maybe you'd prefer two roll-up doors to one large one. Do you want heat and air conditioning? You should insulate the building. Sherman is grateful that he insulated his shop. "It gets to be 115 degrees here in the summer," he says. "It could easily reach 140 in here if I didn't add the insulation. Now it's never more than 90 in here no matter how hot it gets outside." Adding insulation allows Sherman to cool his shop with two small window-unit air conditioners rather than an expensive central air system. An insulated building is also a quiet building. Rain hitting an uninsulated metal roof can sound like machine-gun fire. Plus an insulated building keeps the neighbors happy because it reduces the amount of noise coming out of the shop. If insulation doesn't fit into your budget, your shop should at least be ventilated with a fan mounted near the roof. "If you're uncomfortable, you won't want to work in your shop," Sherman says.
Anticipate the amount of electricity you'll need to run to the shop by figuring out the amperage draws of all the tools and machines you have. Don't forget to include the amperage used by the lights, fans, TV, and stereo. Of course, all these things won't be running at once, but it is good to have enough power to have a compressor and welder running at the same time. Both Whitney and Sherman say you should have at least 100 amps available. Be sure to spread the power out over several circuits, too. Sherman recommends no more than five outlets on a single circuit, and dedicating a circuit to high-amperage devices like his window air conditioners, compressors, and welders. Leave some room in your electrical box for additional circuits you can add later as you accumulate more equipment. One last thing to consider is whether to include plumbing in your shop. In some areas, adding plumbing to a garage suddenly transforms it into a habitable space, and fees and property taxes can skyrocket.
Once you've drawn or purchased your plans, you'll need to get approval and permits from your city or township. Depending on your area, this can be the most frustrating and aggravating part of the process. Whitney and Sherman both relay horror stories of dealing with the city. Whitney says he had to wait an entire year before he could even "put a shovel in the ground." Be sure your plans comply with codes for height and proximity to property lines, and that the buildings are structurally correct, too. Oftentimes the city will require fireproof walls and specific foundation specs.
If you're doing the work yourself, know that you will have to get permits for almost anything you do, too, and be prepared to have all your work inspected for everything you pulled a permit for. Whitney had to verify the depth of his concrete pad for a city inspector by drilling a hole in it. If you're hiring a contractor, make sure they're aware of your area's procedures, as zoning regulations can vary wildly from city to city. If stuff isn't up to code or if you get caught doing work you didn't get permits for, penalties range from fines to demolition and reconstruction.
Doing the work yourself saves a lot of money, though. Whitney estimates it would have cost around $40,000 if he had hired a contractor. But because he did the whole job himself, he spent about $12,000. Similarly, Sherman financed his shop with a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) and did the majority of work himself. "The only thing I didn't do was pour the concrete and finish the drywall. Otherwise it was a lot of late nights with friends and family helping. When I came across something I didn't know how to do, I bought books, asked around, and learned what I needed to know."
Gene Sherman in his shop.>>>
Once the structure is up, the creative process kicks into high gear. You get to choose all the little things that will make the place your own. What kind of lights do you want to use? What color will you paint the walls? Where will you put your toolboxes, machinery, and workbenches?
Don't dismiss this step as frivolous, either. As mentioned before, make the place as comfortable and convenient as possible; otherwise you will not enjoy working there. All the guys we talked to recommend installing lots of lights and painting the walls with a brightly colored, semigloss paint. The brighter it is in there, the easier it will be to see what you're working on, and the more comfortable your eyes will be. Finish the floor in the best epoxy you can afford. The concrete foundation may be one of the most expensive parts of the building. Keep it safe from oil, moisture, and damage from heavy parts.
When laying out your workspace, section off a separate area for dirty work-grinding, sanding, and welding-either in a different room or sectioned off with plastic sheeting or a heavy curtain. Position your toolboxes and workbenches so they are within easy reach. Sherman puts wheels on all his toolboxes, carts, and benches. That way he can move them around the car with him. "You wouldn't believe the amount of time you can waste walking back and forth to the toolbox, even if it's just a few feet away."
Fill It Up
The cost of buying tools can often rival the cost of building your shop. But if you're resourceful, you can end up with a fully furnished shop without selling vital organs. Buy used. Go to swap meets, surf eBay and Craigslist, read The Recycler. We guarantee you will find some killer bargains on some really great tools if you look hard enough. Also talk to people. Let them know you're looking for stuff. The light fixtures in Sherman's shop came from a military base, and his cabinets and shelving came from a law firm that was redecorating its offices. He grabbed up these items and lots more through word of mouth. "Someone is always selling something you can use. You have to find the deal." Whitney agrees, saying that car dealers often sell or auction off tools and equipment as they update their inventory. You may be able to score some cool, dealer-spec specialty tools and diagnostic equipment, or even a lift, for a fraction of the cost of buying new.
We were envious of the cool welding cart Sherman made. It holds everything you'd need to w
These are some of the tools and equipment we saw at last October's swap meet in Pomona. Bu
Here is a property for sale in Paramount, California, near Los Angeles. It is in a section being re-zoned as a light industrial area and could easily be made into a personal hobby shop. It was for sale at $499,000 (remember, L.A. is one of the most expensive places in the world).>>>
All this is great so far, as long as you own your own land, but what is a renter to do? Rent a space, of course. We talked with Robert Plant, who deals solely with commercial property. He told us the best way to find a commercial space is to pick an area you like and drive around noting the names of the brokers on the signs of vacant buildings. Call a couple of them and explain what you're looking for. If you tell them you're also working with one of their competitors, they may be more motivated to cut you a good deal. Commercial and industrial areas have different zoning regulations from residential areas, so be sure to use a broker that knows the codes well. It may also be possible to get a conditional-use permit that will allow residential use of a commercial or industrial space. That way you could live in your shop.
The good news about buying or leasing an industrial or commercial space is that you aren't starting from scratch-the building is already up. Usually these places have concrete floors, roll-up doors, an HVAC system, and lots of current coming into the building. Plus, there will be bathrooms with running water, and offices or smaller rooms that can be used as storage or "hangout" rooms. Noise regulations usually aren't a concern in commercial or industrial areas, either, so it's unlikely the neighbors will be calling the cops if you're grinding or using the air hammer in the middle of the night.
Commercial units usually have a lot of electricity available as seen in this electrical pa
Matt Delaney took over an automotive repair business so he could have a place to keep and
Plan to be visited by city inspectors, but don't expect to be harassed as long as your place conforms to the zoning codes. Plant says the city's concerns mostly center on pollution and environmental hazards. Don't leave gunk lying around on the floor, don't pour crap down the drain, keep the place neat, and they'll have bigger fish to fry than your little hobby shop. Be aware that certain jobs like bodywork are not permitted in all commercial or industrial zones. If you're planning a lot of bodywork, be sure to find a place that specifically allows it.
One last option is for the entrepreneur. You could buy an existing shop and open your own business. Fix cars to pay the bills during the week, and fix up your cars in the evening and on weekends. That's what Matt Delaney of Huntington Beach, California, did. "I was working in a salvage yard and had accumulated a lot of cars. The yard went out of business and I had no place to keep them." So he bought Bay Automotive, an existing repair shop, which operates out of a multi-unit automotive business park.
The upside to this is that everything is already in place-specialty tools, lifts, and air compressors. If you're a good mechanic, you can earn a lot of money fixing people's cars. The downside is that because you are fixing other people's cars, it may also feel like work when you're working on your own car. In addition, there are a number of costs involved in running a repair business-insurance, payroll, taxes, and hazardous waste fees.
Building your own shop is a huge task. But like restoring a car, it can be done if you research the job and plan and budget properly. Talk to people who've done it before. Look at the layout of dealerships and independent garages that you frequent for ideas of the kind of place you'd like to build for yourself. Help is also available online. Check out The Garage Journal (garagejournal.com), a message board dedicated to the construction of cool garages and workshops. Surf over and prepare to be inspired.
Bottom Line Steel Buildings
Galpin Auto Sports