FARGO - When Tim and Vanessa Lystad moved into their 97-year-old house near Island Park seven months ago, they found a lot to love except the garage, which was too small for both their cars.

As they considered an upgrade, Tim Lystad said, they thought why not make it a three-stall garage? Then, he said, they thought why not turn the extra space under the roof into a bonus room?

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“When you start looking at it and going, ‘Hey, this is space you can use for the next 20, 30 years,’ it seems to us worth the extra time and energy needed," he said Friday, Aug. 24.

There was just one problem.

In his enthusiasm for maximizing the space allowed by the city of Fargo’s height restrictions, their architect, Scott Dahms, ended up getting a little too creative with the roof for city inspectors and their building permit was initially denied.

While these kinds of conflicts aren’t common, city staff said they have seen architects find creative ways to comply with city codes as bigger garages grow in popularity.

It’s not clear how many homes have bigger garages because the city doesn’t track them. But building inspector Melissa Gaulrapp said, “Over the years, it's been a growing trend. People would like to have extra usable space above.”

Realtor Shawn Ostlie said garages have been growing in size for years driven by homebuyers’ lifestyles. “They have more things.”

Defining height

For many Fargoans who, like the Lystads, want to upgrade garages at existing homes, the popular way to maximize space is with a gambrel roof. This is a roof commonly found on barns with a gentle slope at the top and steeper slope on the sides.

Aaron Nelson, a city planner, explained that this is likely because of how the city’s height restrictions are written.

In Fargo, as well as West Fargo, the height of a detached garage, one that stands apart from the house, must be no more than 15 feet.

In both cities, height is measured from the ground to the top of the roof for flat roofs and mansard roofs, which are flat with steep sloping sides like a classic McDonald’s restaurant.

But for pitched roofs, such as gable and gambrel roofs, height is measured from the ground to a point halfway between the eaves and the highest point. That means the highest point can be quite a bit higher than 15 feet.

A gambrel roof is ideal because not only can it be higher but the gentle slope at the top means it offers more room than other pitched roofs.

Oddly enough, city codes are silent on the height of the eaves, and Gaulrapp said architects have taken advantage of that. “I’ve seen some very creative barn roof styles where the sides come down to - I think the most extreme one I ever saw proposed was down to almost 4 feet. But then they ended up not building that garage because they just decided they didn’t like the way it looked.”

At 4 feet above the ground, the halfway point would be 11 feet higher, which means the highest point on the roof could be 26 feet. The garage would be all roof, however.

Nelson said the rules are decades old and he doesn’t know the reason the city measures the height of pitched roofs differently. He said he suspected that because if height was measured just to the highest point, flat roofs would be the best way to maximize space and city leaders didn’t want to see only flat-roof garages be built.

Lystads’ dormers

For the Lystads’ garage, their architect Scott Dahms said he wanted to avoid gambrel roofs because the house is in a historic neighborhood and he wanted the garage’s roofline to match the house’s gable roof. He said he made more space available by adding a large dormer.

A dormer is a structure with a window protruding out of a sloping roof. Dahms’ dormer would have been very long with several windows, a not uncommon feature in many houses in the area. Essentially, he wanted to take advantage of the gambrel roof’s gentle slope without using a gambrel roof.

Gaulrapp said the problem with Dahms’ dormer was it was so long that it constituted the majority of the roof, causing city staff to use the dormer’s roof to measure the halfway point.

Dahm objected, saying city codes don’t address dormers. But he ultimately relented by reducing the length of the dormer to less than half the roof’s length and adding a second dormer on the other side of the roof.

The Lystads said they like the double-dormer design more anyway since it seems to have gotten them more space, about 300 square feet. Construction of their garage started last week.

One tall garage

Other metro area cities do things a little differently.

Dilworth restricts garages to 16 feet, but the height is measured simply to the highest point. Moorhead and Horace allow the garage to be as tall as the house itself, which is restricted to 35 feet.

Kristie Leshovsky, the Moorhead city planner, said it’s true that a 35-foot house could have a 35-foot garage, but the higher the wall of the garage the farther away from the property line it has to be. She said she hasn’t seen very many garages with second floors, however.

In Fargo and West Fargo, for the garage to be as tall as the house, it has to be attached to the house.

In one case, a couple in the Washington neighborhood appears to have used that rule to build a tall garage for a recreational vehicle on a small lot next to the lot on which they have their main house. Their new garage, at 501 15th Ave. N., is about as tall as a two-story house and is about twice as long as the 800-square-foot, one-story house it’s attached to. The couple declined to speak with The Forum.

Gaulrapp said a residential lot can’t have just a garage on it without a dwelling and the minimum requirement for a dwelling is it must be equipped so a person living in it can cook, eat, bathe and sleep. She said the couple’s expressed intent was to live in the smaller house in retirement when they’re not on the road.

Decades-old trend

The trend toward bigger garages goes back decades, according to Ostlie, the Realtor.

In neighborhoods built in the 1950s when many households had just one car, single-stall garages are common, he said. By the 1970s, as more households acquired second cars, two-stall garages became the norm, he said, and by the 1990s, three-stall garages became more common.

“Even some of the two-stalls became a little wider because a lot of people were using one stall in the garage for a car and one stall for storage,” he said.

In recent years, more garages come with bonus rooms above them simply because it’s a cheaper way to add more space than expanding the footprint of the house, he said. But this seems to be more common in new homes and new garages than older ones, which often aren’t built with rafters that can handle the weight of people walking on them.

Bonus rooms can add to the value of the home, though how much depends on how finished the room is and, as in many things, the mood of the buyer, he said.

Many families use these bonus rooms as a family room, often for kids so they can make a lot of noise without disrupting the rest of the house, he said. He’s also seen people turn the bonus room into their man cave or an extra large closet, he said.

Nelson said city staff don’t ask what people do with their bonus rooms, but he remembers one large family telling him they’d use it for a hangout area.

Ostlie said people can get more creative with their bonus room than the rest of the house. “When you get that extra space, you don’t feel so confined to what’s in the house, and you can have a little more fun with it. You can be more whimsical with its use and its decorating.”

Tim Lystad said his bonus room will be used for his and his wife’s hobbies, but figured it’s more for him than her. He said his previous house had a soundproof room where he could indulge his passion for acoustic guitar and there was no suitable room in the new house.

With the bonus room away from the house, he said, “we're able to segregate the noise from the house.”

And, as a bonus, he said, he can display his guitars and can leave his equipment out without having to set it up and tear it down with each session.