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Originally published Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Storage units going condo, becoming playhouses

Storage units are going upscale. Equipped with cable TV, high-speed Internet and even clubhouses, they are not only a place to store your stuff, but a place to go and use it, too.

New York Times News Service

Michael Hunt was tired of keeping his fishing boat and Mercedes convertible under tarps next to his house, in Post Falls, Idaho. His prized recreational vehicle was falling apart after spending a few winters outside. With no room in his garage, he wasn't sure what to do.

Instead of selling his house, moving to a warmer state or getting rid of his toys, he bought a storage condominium a few miles away in Coeur d'Alene, where he could keep everything under one roof.

Then he bought another one for his home office and business files. Three years and $119,000 later, his storage units have become a second home, a place where he plays games with his children, works and shelters his vehicles.

"I have fun when I'm here and so do my kids," Hunt said of his getaway. "Our house is a toy box, and this is much quieter."

People like Hunt, with more toys than space, are spending tens of thousands of dollars to keep their weekend wheels and gear in high style. In response, a growing number of self-storage units are ditching the bright lights, long hallways and sterile atmosphere to become destinations unto themselves. Some, like the units Hunt owns at GarageTown USA in Coeur d'Alene, are bought and sold like homes and come with cable television, high-speed Internet, individual thermostats and even clubhouses.

"Everybody has stuff," Carri Berglund, GarageTown USA's national sales and marketing director, said as she was showing off the units in Coeur d'Alene, one of the company's 19 sites. "This is what you don't want in your house."

These large storage areas, which top out at 2,000 square feet, can hold sports cars and ski equipment, pool tables, personal gyms and in Hunt's case, a batting cage.

At the condo garages, spaces, which can cost up to $200,000, can range from simple metal shells with concrete floors to spacious units with epoxy floors and built-in mezzanines. GarageTown's units in Coeur d'Alene cost about $57,000 to $85,950.

"This can be a cheaper alternative than building on your own property," said Chris Sonne, a managing director at Cushman Wakefield in Irvine, Calif., who tracks the self-storage market.

Condo garages also can appreciate in value while avoiding the rent increases common of traditional storage facilities, said Brad Thorson, who is building a GarageTown in Federal Way, the company's first development in the Seattle area.

Thorson, the developer/owner of the facility, said the 67-unit project is expected to be completed by next December, with prices starting at $100,000 a unit, he said.

Such developments become neighborhoods in their own right with buyers sharing their interests and hobbies with each other, Thorson said.

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"It creates a community of like-minded people. That's been a big deal," Thorson said.

From the outside, the Idaho garages look like industrial warehouses with metal siding, roofs and roll-up doors. Step inside, and the units can resemble an art gallery or rec room. They have become places where people want to linger for a televised football game or a poker game in the clubhouse or just hang out with other condo owners.

At the clubhouse in Coeur d'Alene, a leather sofa and chairs sit near a kitchen with granite countertops. In September, Berglund brought in caterers and turned one unit into a buffet line, another into a wine-tasting area, and served dessert in another. More than 250 people came to the event.

Every state in the country has self-storage units, but most of those are rentals. Those storage units sold as condos are typically found only in spots with second homes, resorts or heavy winters where people have a lot of winter gear.

Some, like Airport Garages in Steamboat Springs, Colo., sell units at small airports where second-home owners can store their planes, cars, RVs and winter gear.

Caters to RV owners

In Ohio, Storage Condominiums designs its garages for out-of-towners who want to keep their boats and RVs around nearby Lake Erie. Premier Storage Condominiums in Yuma, Ariz., caters to RV owners who want to keep their rigs in Arizona for winter travel and offers 60-foot wide driveways, dump stations and extra long spaces.

With more storage options to choose from — there is now enough space to cover Manhattan three times, according to the Self Storage Association in Alexandria, Va. — rental companies are also adding amenities to stand out.

At Hollywood Storage Center, a rental facility in Newbury Park, Calif., there are movie posters on the walls, wine-tasting rooms, a kitchen and even a post office. For Christmas, there were free photos with Santa Claus with cocoa and chocolate-chip cookies.

"We've done all kinds of wild things here. It generates more traffic for us and that means more storage units that we'll be able to rent," said Jay Sundher, who owns the 300,000-square-foot facility. "All these things get people in a good mood, and it becomes a place where they want to hang out with their friends."

To some, a bargain

For many owners, the garages are a bargain. Some have downsized and no longer have a basement or garage. Others live in subdivisions that do not allow them to build sheds or shops.

After Angela and Shawn Quinn sold their five-acre spread and moved into a subdivision with such restrictions, they immediately started looking for storage space for their motorcycles, boats, Jet Skis and a convertible. They eventually bought a 960-square-foot garage for about $70,000 in 2006.

"With the cost of commercial real estate so high, it was more economical to buy a GarageTown unit," said Angela Quinn, also of Post Falls. "We would have paid more in a monthly rental fee, like $500, than owning this."

Like a residential condominium, the garages come with deeds, property taxes, utility bills and monthly homeowner fees. At GarageTown's Coeur d'Alene and Spokane locations, owners pay $32.50 a month for snow removal, water, lawn care and a cleaning service for the clubhouse and bathrooms.

The units have become popular with RV owners who are getting squeezed out of subdivisions and rental lots. Many new-home subdivisions ban recreational vehicles or restrict street and driveway parking. Parking a big rig on the street is often tough, especially in California, which bans street parking for more than 48 hours.

Some condo garage owners just want to declutter their homes.

Vonda Manley, who splits her time between Coeur d'Alene and Southern California, moved her Jet Skis, business files and supplies into her GarageTown unit so she could turn her three-car garage at home into a recreational room.

Since buying her 1,152-square-foot space in June for $82,000, she's added baseboards and epoxy to her garage floor to make it cozier. In the summer, she plans to open the doors and turn it into an indoor-outdoor room overlooking the Snake River.

"I can keep the toys and mess over here," said Manley, who lives nearby, "and use my garage for something fun."

At another GarageTown site, nearby in Spokane Valley, Dean Cameron, a publishing and marketing agent for artists, has set up a gallery, showcasing his collection of Northwestern artists. Inside his space, which he bought last January for $84,000, he also keeps his 1961 Chrysler Newport.

He's in the middle of building a loft, painting a mural on the floor and rehanging his art from the walls on chains, and expects it all to be done by this spring.

Previously, he kept the art in a separate room at home, while trying to keep it away from his 5-year-old niece, who loves to draw. And his car was stuck under a tarp that was always blowing over in windstorms.

"Every time we had a windstorm, I'd have a coronary," he said. "The security of this unit makes me sleep better and it keeps my wife happy."

Seattle Times desk editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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