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I admit it: We were the people standing in the checkout line at Target on the morning of Christmas Eve, buying garage storage bins.

Not what you'd think Santa would be packing into the sleigh, and probably not a last-minute holiday must for most. But I'd carped all fall that the garage was a mess and asked my husband to build a functional storage wall. When the weather cooled off in early December, he got busy, building a base so storage bins would be up off the floor.

He was planning to build cabinets and shelves until he wandered through Lowe's, Home Depot and Target and discovered the range of storage gear at a price he said he couldn't match. By Christmas Eve he was eager and ready to shop.

We did not shop alone. Last year, Americans spent $2-billion on garage remodeling, a figure that is expected to increase to $2.5-billion this year, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Builders outfit kitchens with all kinds of cabinetry: base cabinets, overhead cabinets, pantries, broom closets, lazy susans, pull-out bins, a place for everything and more. Yet in the garage, which houses at least as many parts and pieces as the kitchen, they typically offer an empty room and a remote to close the door. So the market was ripe last year when Whirlpool introduced its Gladiator Garageworks modular line of base cabinets, hanging racks and lockers in a stamped-metal, tread-plate look.

Almost overnight, the garage _ the largest room in the house _ was transformed from forgotten square footage to a showoff space that rivals kitchens fit for a TV chef and bathrooms right out of a spa. Competitors have flooded the market, and the attitudes of both women and builders toward the garage "have changed almost exponentially," Gladiator spokesman Christopher Hubbuch said.

The Gladiator line started out as Whirlpool's effort to introduce appliances into rooms of the house other than the kitchen and laundry. Researchers first thought they'd build an industrial-looking refrigerator-freezer, trash compactor and dishwasher for the garage. But their research showed that the garage first needed to become more livable, functional and organized.

Women make most of the decisions about options for the home (which is why builders offer those glamorous and well-outfitted kitchens). They say they understand the garage is their husbands' space, and in the past they've paid less attention to the garage than to other rooms in the home, Hubbuch said. Now, women say, "The garage is part of my home and I want it to have the same level of organization and order that the rest of the home has." People want to move beyond plastic storage boxes, he said, to a "full coordinated solution" so they can be "just as proud of the garage as of other rooms."

Whirlpool research showed that homeowners experienced the highest levels of stress when they came home, hit the button and opened the garage door. Outside: their beautifully landscaped lawn, sprinkler system, nice outdoor furniture, carefully maintained home. Inside the garage: "Either it's a disaster and they're embarrassed, or it's clean but it's just white walls and bare light bulbs and nothing else, and they're not proud of it. Either way it's a very stressful room."

Garages house four categories of stuff, said Mike Franks of O'Sullivan Industries, which makes storage items under license for Coleman. First, there is "storage, period": overflow items from the house, seasonal items, "stuff we haven't got around to throwing away," as well as typical garage-based items like home and garden chemicals and motor oil. Second, home improvement, repair and remodeling gear. Third, lawn and garden equipment. Fourth, automotive products. All those areas except automotive are inspired or shared by female consumers, he said.

"The garage has been the great untapped frontier for storage," Franks said. "It's a multitasker at this point, and it shouldn't surprise us that it's growing in importance and in need of organization." Women tend to be more organized than men, he said, which drives the movement for garage organization.

In a 2002 study, consumers identified the garage as the No. 1 area in need of organization. "That's the first time anything other than the kitchen came in first," he said.

Bill West, a Colorado real estate agent and author of Your Garagenous Zone: Innovative Ideas for the Garage, laments on his Web site,, that "cars worth thousands of dollars are parked outside because the garage serves as a family storage unit." He calls the garage a "drive-in closet." Poor lighting, tracked-in dirt, lack of storage space and a landfill mentality _ "I'll just toss it in the garage, dear" _ contribute to mess and stress in this once-neglected space.

It's neglected no longer, as the array of storage pieces illustrates. What's new in the garage storage market, we discovered in our pre-Christmas shopping, came from familiar names: Coleman (which makes a lot more than lanterns and camping stoves), Black & Decker and Rubbermaid, as well as that old storage-box favorite, Sterilite.

All the storage equipment we looked at seemed to be tough and sturdy. Most of it can be assembled without tools. We thought the Coleman Tuff Duty line, in silver metallic and graystone with metal corners and steel tread-plate trim, was terrifically good-looking. But $156 for the tall cabinet was more than we wanted to spend. We opted instead for Black & Decker's gray resin cabinet at $69.99.

For our recyclables _ newspapers, plastic bags, glass and plastic bottles _ we liked the three-drawer chest by Sterilite for $29.99. Handgrips on both ends allow us to pull each drawer out completely, like a laundry basket, and swing it into the back of the car to go to the recycling center. It's a vast improvement over the jury-rigged system of plastic bins, cardboard boxes and paper bags we once used.

When I walk into the garage now, I'm pleased with what I see. The cleaning products we buy in bulk are neatly stowed in the Black & Decker cabinet. Small bottles (Goo Gone, silver polish) are corralled in a plastic basket. On the right side (probably intended for mops and brooms) my husband stores his woodworking jigs, level, straightedge and saw.

We used to keep cleaning cloths in a tower of four stacking baskets atop a bookcase. They threatened to fall over, and the stack was too high for me to see what was there. Now each basket rests on a separate shelf of the bookcase that once held cleaning supplies, and I can actually see what's where. I added four smaller plastic baskets ($1.29 each). One holds sponges, the other three are empty _ for now. Our total outlay: $69.99 for the Black & Decker cabinet, $29.99 for the Sterilite three-drawer cabinet, just more than $6 for the small baskets. For $106, my stress level has plummeted. It's still a working garage, not a showroom, but we can actually find what we want and I no longer cringe when the neighbors look in.

Asked what kind of garage they wanted in a new home, 54 percent of the respondents in a survey conducted for the National Association of Home Builders chose a two-car garage; 24 percent wanted three or more. More than half of those who will pay $250,000 or more for their homes want room for at least three cars.

Other research by the builders association shows that only 12 percent of homeowners with three-car garages park more than one car there. Guess what they do with the rest of the space? Bring on those storage cabinets!

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Coleman's line of storage gear offers a gray metallic look with a tread-plate accent. "We wanted something that looked like it belonged in a garage. We didn't just go for white cabinets," a spokesman for the manufacturer said. The wood encased in plastic stands up to heat and humidity, the company says.