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Consumer Reports

In suburbia, garages becoming the new social hotspot | (KRT) ARLINGTON, Texas -- Much as Eric Patterson enjoys his house, it's the garage that really rocks.

Patterson remembers one 40-degree day when he and a passel of pajama-clad neighbors whiled away the hours in his garage.

"We sat outside from probably eight o'clock in the morning till six in the afternoon, talking, having some beer, reading the paper," he said.

The 31-year-old salesman and his friends - some keep a folding chair in the trunk for when they drop by - are garage-sitters. You can find people much like them on streets and cul-de-sacs across Texas. The garage is their window to the world. Of course, in many cases there's a television set out there, too.

It's impossible to know just how much time folks spend in their garages. But drive down a neighborhood street on any weekend, and you're bound to see a Texan or two, feet propped up on garbage cans, beer or soda by their sides, sometimes lifting their hands in a slow wave, sometimes deep in conversation about this or that.

"There is something about that big garage door rolling up and connecting you with the street," said Donald Gatzke, dean of architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. "You can sit in the shade and open the door and be part of the street and see what's going on."

Evicting smokers from the house may account for part of the move to the garage, but there's more to it, said Neil Takemoto, director of Cool Town Studios, a marketing and economic development firm in Washington, D.C.

He considers the garage to be a modern equivalent of the old-time front porch.

"In suburbia, it's pretty common to see" people visiting friends and relaxing in the garage, Takemoto said. "It's one of the pastimes people have: people-watching."

Men have traditionally been masters of the double-door domain, but women can make the scene, too.

"Garage hanging is a big part of our neighborhood," said Lee Ann Flynn, a marketing vice president for Citibank. "We talk and goof around."

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Flynn has too much stuff in her south Arlington garage to permit socializing there, but she feels right at home in her neighbor's garage, where she sometimes plays poker.

"It's very mixed" gender-wise, Flynn said. "I crash (the games) occasionally."

Mickey Wheeler lives near Flynn. His garage decor includes license plates, car pictures, a few pinup pictures and a pool table.

There's also a 1950s-vintage GE refrigerator for cooling watermelons and beer. In a separate air-conditioned room, cable TV is tuned to the Speed Channel for auto racing.

"I'm a guy who hangs out in the garage," said Wheeler, who has room for two cars as well as all his stuff. "There are millions of us that are the same way."

Suburbs' typical front-loading garage gives users maximum exposure to the street, and to passers-by with dogs and babies, both of which are conversation starters.

Alan Howard, director of the American Studies graduate program at the University of Virginia, said that he doesn't know of any scholarly literature on the garage as social nexus but that he wouldn't discount the suggestion that a movement is afoot.

After all, garages help add personality to climate-controlled homes that often lack sidewalks or deep porches, and they allow homeowners to turn their backs on the patio and create a little street life.

"Maybe what you have here," Howard said, "is the revolt of the masses."

Garages also give husbands their own space.

"My wife won't let me decorate inside," said Ross Tucker of Arlington, who has a two-car garage fitted out with microwave, TV, refrigerator, posters and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. "She lets me decorate outside."

Taking garages upscale has given Mark Brewer a market niche big enough to drive an entire business into. He owns Garage Concepts, a Bedford, Texas-based company that specializes in installing custom cabinets and flooring in garages.

"You can spend $15,000," said Brewer, who offers more than 50 finishes on his garage-storage wall systems. "It's all aesthetics."

His average garage makeover runs from $4,000 to $4,500.

"The stereo's very important," he said. "Most of my clients put central heating in."

His own garage has solid cherry walls. The cabinet fronts are herringbone-patterned brushed aluminum.

"I like everything neat and tidy," said Brewer, who decided to go pro after installing surround sound, a 36-inch TV, a refrigerator and epoxy flooring in his garage. "I don't like hanging out in the garage if it's not too nice."

In March, Brewer upgraded eight garages. He averaged better than one redo per week during the summer.

Many of his clients like to hang out with friends, making car talk and basking in the splendor of their supergarages and collectible cars.

"In the garage, the gloves are kind of off," he said. "You can kind of be yourself. You're out of the house. When you go out of the house and into the garage, it's its own escape."

"I only think about things that make me happy" in the garage, said Brewer. "It's almost like therapy."

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© 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services