Ending the storage shell game and searching for car-centric property
I have a pretty good life here in Newton, Massachusetts. We moved here in 1991 to be near family and take advantage of some of the best public schools in the country. It’s close to Boston, but there’s it’s clean and safe, and there’s ample room to walk around. Not much to complain about, except the sizes of the lots.
Let’s just say that it isn’t a place where anyone has a “back 40.” Very few people even have a single acre. Houses here are closely packed. We live on 6600-square-feet of land—less than one-sixth of an acre. Most Newton residents literally look out their back window into the back window of the house directly behind them. We’re fortunate to at least have a city park behind us. But, as I’ve written previously, getting my garage built without violating any zoning laws required a degree in math (which, fortunately, I have).
Now, I love my garage. A 31-foot-by-17-foot box attached to the back of the house, it’s a triumph of the possible. But it’s too small. A single rollup door allows storage of three cars; a fourth car can be shoehorned in if you put one car on wheel dollies and skooch it sideways. I store four other cars in inexpensive rented spaces in Fitchburg, about 40 miles west. This is two fewer spaces than the number of must-garage cars that I currently own, so I’m borrowing two over-the-winter spaces from a friend until I sell a car in the spring. Plus, with my garage’s low ceiling, there’s no way to have a full-height post lift, something whose absence was keenly felt during my recent clutch replacement.
For all these reasons, whenever my wife, Maire Anne, and I are out in the country—be that central Massachusetts or elsewhere in New England—our souls breathe in those open spaces, and we instinctively feel that that’s where we should be for the next phase of our lives.
And, of course, as a car person, wide-open spaces mean … UNLIMITED GARAGE SPACE! WAAA-HOOOOOO! Unconstrained by small lot sizes, I should be able to find a house with a garage large enough to land a plane in, right?
Last year (pre-pandemic), we were visiting close friends up in the lovely town of Manchester, Vermont, nestled in the Green Mountains. We’d been there many times, but this time, while walking around the block, we saw a For Sale sign on a neighbor’s house. We looked at the asking price and saw that it was about half what we could sell our Newton house for. Although this particular house had no garage, it was one of those “We could get this for that?” moments that gets one thinking.
When we got home, I immersed myself in real estate search engines. There are many, but I concentrated on Zillow, Realtor, ColdwellBankerHomes, and ReMax. They all have similar capabilities, letting you select a city or town and specify essentials like a price range, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and square footage and lot size, although there is a fair amount of variety between them in other selectable search entries, such as the view from the property, availability of assumable mortgages, details about schools, etc. But let’s concentrate on the plusses and minuses that applied to my car storage-centric search.
First, there is the search area. Zillow and Realtor let you search an entire state. Coldwell and ReMax do not. You must instead specify a town or zip code, though Coldwell allows you to add more and more towns to the search, even prompting you with adjacent towns you can just click on. Zillow has the interesting feature of letting you draw a boundary around a region in which you want to search, even if it spans states (you can, for example, draw northern New England). Since we didn’t know specifically what town or even general area we were interested in, state-searching was a huge advantage.
However, from a car-centric standpoint, every search engine I tried has a fundamental flaw. I can joke about none of them having a “click here if you’re a car person” checkbox, but in all seriousness, there’s no easy way to search for properties that have the kind of large detached structure with a cement floor that’s optimal for storing cars. It varies whether a search tool even has a useful checkbox for “garage.” Zillow has one, but you can’t specify the number of garage bays. Realtor has checkboxes for 1+, 2+, and 3+ bays. In ColdwellBankerHomes, the “garage” checkbox goes up to 5+, which is useful since most attached garages max out at three bays, so “5+” is more likely to hit on detached structures. If Coldwell searched entire states, I would’ve used it exclusively, but it doesn’t. ReMax doesn’t even have a checkbox for “garage,” instead requiring you to enter it as a keyword search term, so I quit using it entirely.
And when you get into keyword searches, it gets frustrating. You can specify a search term like “barn,” but I quickly found that that pulls in everything from dilapidated old structures to horse barns that are beautiful but unsuited for car storage due to their individual stalls. Similarly, “outbuilding” hits on every little backyard structure used to store rakes or a canoe. The multiple keyword search terms “car collection” or “car collector” proved useful, but only if the listing agent thought to describe the property that way. Plus, there’s a lot of variation in how the search engines process multiple-word search phrases. They’re not all like we’re used to with Google, where things in quotes are searched for verbatim. Zillow appears to ignore quotes completely; “car collection” is searched for as “car” and “collection,” which still works pretty well because “collection” isn’t used to refer to many other things, but “metal outbuilding” will hit on anything with both a shed and a metal flagpole. Realtor appears to search for a phrase verbatim if you type the words in together. But in both cases, “car collector” will be missed if the ad specifies “car collectors” instead. For these reasons, my success rate in finding properties with interesting houses and big metal outbuildings was low. And when I did find them, photography or even description of garages or outbuildings was often poor or nonexistent.
I mentioned this on Facebook, and a friend of mine turned me onto CarProperty.com (their slogan is literally “where the garage matters”). Initially I was very excited, but quickly found that most of the listings in New England were badly out of date. Too bad.
Let me stop myself right here because I know what you’re thinking—contact a realtor! Their profession is helping people find what they’re looking for, and they have actual boots-on-the-ground knowledge of things like properties where owners store construction equipment or boats in their outbuildings and don’t list them as “ideal for a car collector.” But I pride myself in not wasting people’s time, and Maire Anne and I didn’t even know what state we were interested in. We were in the phase of just wanting to get a sense of what was out there.
So, I slogged my way in, mostly using Zillow, as I liked its look and feel the best, and accumulated about 50 stored favorites, mostly in Vermont, but a few in New Hampshire and Maine. Some were hilarious, like the ad for the property in White River Junction that had three cell phone pics of the house, but the property included a self-store business with over 40 individual units.
Another was the bucolic eight-acre property in southwestern New Hampshire that, for $149,900, included a newly-built 60×30 barn with gorgeous weathered wood on the outside, cement floor, and electricity, but no house.
I also saw some very well-priced, appealing-looking lakeview properties that made me wonder if the thing to do was search for house and land and then pay someone to pour the slab and build the big metal structure, but most of these were within a whisker of the Canadian border. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that kind of a move requires a lot of thought and commitment.
Maire Anne actively participated in the nightly viewing of my finds, but to no one’s great surprise, her eye was more trained on the houses than on the garage space. In truth, although I joke that I could live in a shotgun shack if there was a big enough garage behind it, her and my taste in houses are just about in lock step. We’ve lived in our mid-sized 1892 Victorian farmhouse (a fancy name for a plain house with a walk-up attic and a jut-out in the floor plan for the dining room) for 30 years, and we’d like something different for our next house. Neither of us want anything McMansion-looking with arbitrary architectural protuberances sprouting forth like unpruned limbs. Preferably something more modern, lots of wood and light and windows. And nothing vaguely close to “country kitchen.” And a view of mountains or water. And affordable. And private. But with no property that needs maintenance or a driveway that needs to be plowed (he says, with tongue now firmly in cheek).
But for a garage, individual bays make no sense to me. They just take up too much space. I really do just need a plain metal-skinned building with a concrete floor, not some architect-designed structure with vintage gas pumps and ’50s jukebox kitsch to help me pretend that what I have constitutes “a collection” instead of the rag-tag bunch of beaters I actually own.
And then, I stumbled into something that made it no longer just fun fact-finding—a 60-acre property in Lancaster New Hampshire, just north of White Mountain National Forest, with a three-story outbuilding larger than the interesting-looking house. The main floor of the outbuilding originally held a family-run animal rehabilitation business, but the ground floor was open workspace that could reportedly hold as many as 14 cars. And the asking price was about 2/3 the equity of our house in Newton. Maire Anne and I talked and agreed that this one was worth seeing. If nothing else, literally test-driving the three-hour trip and getting the vibe of the little town in northern New Hampshire would be great data to gather.
I emailed the listing agent and asked about arranging a tour. About 15 minutes later, my phone rang. I candidly explained everything I laid out above, and stressed that, although the property looked interesting, we were at the beginning of the process, and it was likely that we’d just be data-gathering.
“So,” the realtor asked, “if you and your wife really liked the property, would you be in a position to make something happen?”
“Probably not,” I honestly answered.
“Well,” he said, “in real estate, you hate to say no, but … no.”
“Pardon?” I said. I was stunned.
“You have to understand,” he said, “that I’m 75 years old, this is a large and complex property that takes at least an hour and a half to fully walk through, and it’s not worth it if you’re just window shopping. Plus, the property will probably be sold within the next few days.”
I pointed out that I was looking at the Zillow listing that showed the property had been on the market for over a year.
“That’s true,” he said, “but with COVID, things are going nuts here up north. Sight-unseen cash offers from folks with money from New York and L.A. fleeing the cities. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
He then spent 40 minutes with me on the phone, listening to my description of my own house, and giving me advice on what we needed to do to actually pull the trigger on a move. I thanked him deeply for his time and expertise. Sure enough, two days later, the Lancaster property was listed on Zillow as sold.
Over the next few months, Maire Anne and I talked a little more about what the next house might be, but we never really did the detail work necessary for a serious search (e.g., deciding how far from Boston and from a major hospital we were really willing to live). But a few weeks ago, I began looking again, still more as a diversion than anything else.
That’s when I stumbled across this property on Zillow. I’m not even sure what search terms I was using. But there it was. The logical endpoint. The be-all and end-all of car-centric properties, at least for me. Sure, I’d seen listings for $15 million palaces of opulence and excess with an ornate Garage Mahal, but this was a property with an asking price only 15 percent above the equity in our house in Newton. It was astonishing.
The house was very nice—not the jaw-dropping modern dwelling we dream of, but a renovated and expanded 1803 farmhouse, tastefully updated, with an old money feel to it.
The barn was interesting and spacious, but it wasn’t the barn that lit up the automotive pleasure centers of my brain.
The three-car garage was serviceable, but that wasn’t it either.
It was what the description referred to as the “car barn.” From the first photo, it looked substantial, but even this was just a tease.
Then, the inside.
Then, the rest of the inside.
It wasn’t until the last photo in the listing that I had a sense for how large this structure really is.
The description referred to it as “an additional unique outbuilding created especially for car enthusiasts. The “Car Barn” is a 11,000-square-foot building that will house up to 100 cars, has a fire suppression system, geothermal climate control, and floor drainage. A separate office with bathroom, and gallery finish off this unique space.” I needed a cold shower after looking at the photos.
Now, I’m not a motorsports guy—I haven’t driven on a track in nearly 30 years—but friends of mine noted that the house was only about eight miles from the private track Club Motorsports in Tamworth, and that it was reasonable to assume that the “car barn’s” size and use were likely connected with the track.
Once I saw the size of the structure, I became curious how ColdwellBankerHomes, with its checkbox for 5+ garage bays, would’ve listed it. Again, Coldwell doesn’t let you search statewide, so I wouldn’t have normally found it using that tool. But selecting Tamworth, New Hampshire, and specifying 5+ garages, sure enough, not only did it pop up in the search, but Coldwell listed the number of garage spaces at the upper right of the summary bar.
So … we’re not dropping everything, accepting the first offer on our house in Newton, and liquidating part of the 401(k) to buy the house with the “car barn.” But it’s oddly reassuring to know that it’s out there. I’ll still just poke around online over the winter, get our house re-shingled and painted in the spring, and take it one step at a time from there.
And, about finding a garage big enough to land a plane in … well, funny story …
Rob Siegel has been writing a column (The Hack Mechanic™) for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of seven automotive books. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, robsiegel.com.