before and afterInteriors

Before & After: A Garage Becomes A Home Closer To Grandma

by Rebekah Carey

A Couple's Grandmother's Garage Becomes Home For Them And Their Three Dogs

My husband, Alex McNall (a writer and vintage furniture revitalizer), and I are native Oregonians, but after a little over a year in Los Angeles we were looking for somewhere that felt like home. We weren’t quite ready to return to our hometowns. Having lived in the Bay Area a few different times growing up and in college, I knew that Berkeley, CA was the only other place I had been that felt like home. It was also a spot we had visited together when we were engaged and remembered the area fondly. The final push came after a tear-filled conversation with my Grandma after which we packed up our (less-than-desirable) K-Town apartment and drove north to Berkeley. Seven years later, after living in various Oakland, CA apartments, we looked at my Grandma’s “shed” (really a 1905 garage) once while mowing her lawn and thought out loud, “It really isn’t that small, right?” After talking with my Grandma, we decided to begin transforming her garage into our little house for the two of us… and our three dogs.

Our last home, a 500-square-foot cottage in Oakland, was pretty small, but downsizing from that (and a basement) to one 200-square-foot room was not without its challenges. When we had decided to turn the garage into our home, we made a choice to try to use as many reclaimed building materials as possible, and for as little money as possible. We used surplus insulation people had leftover, doors from the Habitat ReStore, free vintage strip wood flooring from Craigslist, and reclaimed siding and ceiling panels. It felt great to be reducing our footprint a little more, but not purchasing new meant fun times — like removing hundreds of rusted nails from the flooring, dealing with bowed wood, and learning a lot more patience in waiting for materials to become available. Ultimately, with weather conditions and personal health issues interfering with our process on top of everything else, it ended up taking us about six months to move in.

As we’ve been working on my Grandma’s “main” house, some of our little house projects have had to take a backseat. We’re hoping our next project is to add a bathroom to what we call the Bitty Berkeley Bungalow — the main house is about three feet from the little house door, so it hasn’t been that big of a sacrifice to occasionally go inside during the night, but after two years, we’re ready! Finishing the backyard is also a goal this summer; we’re lucky enough to have a fairly decent sized yard for the Bay Area. We love that our space can evolve as our lives do, too: having it for guests someday, or a full-time studio space — whatever we want. It’s a freedom we never knew when we were renting. Plus, having the benefit of seeing my Grandma every day, helping her however she needs, and watching our favorite shows with her (we just finished watching Bates Motel, and she and Alex watch every Warriors game together) makes us feel beyond fortunate. —Rebekah

Photography by Rebekah Carey, unless otherwise noted.

Image above: Before we moved in and transformed the garage/carriage house into the Bitty Berkeley Bungalow that it is today, it was storage for yard tools and my Grandma’s former teaching supplies. It’s pretty wild to stand in it today and see this picture and remember what it used to look like!


The Homeowners And Their Pets All At Home In Their Bitty Berkeley Bungalow

Here’s our little family in our even smaller home. The only one missing is Grandma, she was likely happily catching up on her British crime dramas in the main house while this was being taken! Photographed by Sorella Muse.

The Garage Begins Its Transformation Into A Home On Design*Sponge

Because the space used to be a garage, it had a slanted cement slab floor that we had to build a frame on top of as well as a plywood sub-floor that we would need for our newly acquired (free!) Craigslist wood flooring.

Installing Reclaimed Flooring Into The Garage On Design*Sponge

This is almost embarrassing to share – we started to hit a deadline of needing to get the floors in since nothing else could go in until the floors were installed (they could be sanded and finished later, but we needed them in to put the walls in, and the walls to do the ceiling, etc.) and could not rent a nail gun to save our lives. Faced with that looming deadline, we decided to just hand nail them because the space was so small, or so we thought.

Reclaimed Wood Flooring Is Harder To Install Than One Might Think On Design*Sponge

I’ll be honest, there was definitely a cocktail in that mug. Getting all the strip flooring reclaimed and free was amazing, but Alex had the joy of having to remove all the old rusty nails that hadn’t been taken out, then we had to lay out the pattern and cut as needed to fit, then nail all of it by hand, making sure to address any bowing wood. It was pretty sufficiently miserable!

The Bay Area Garage Slowly Becoming The Bitty Berkeley Bungalow On Design*Sponge

Once the floor was finally installed we could bring in our enormous Murphy bed my dad had built us to house our California King mattress (I knew we were “going tiny” but I really didn’t want to resent that fact by feeling cramped every night), and the rest of our supplies before it started raining.

Before & After Of Grandma's Garage Turned Bitty Berkeley Bungalow On Design*Sponge

We live next to an apartment building, so insulating as much as possible was a necessity. The “after” view is what our little house looks like when the bed is in the up position.

A Renovation Addition Surprise On Design*Sponge

This is our renovation baby, ha! Bogie was a rescue pup that had been saved by the Oregon Humane Society from being euthanized at a California shelter. We went to Oregon for the holidays to visit our family, and went to the shelters to get my family a dog, but Bogie, it seemed, was destined for us. Shortly after this photo was taken (and five days after we moved in) Bogie got out the front door and was missing for eight days; miraculously he made his way home. We heard a dog whining at 2:30 in the morning and Alex went to go see, and he came back with a wriggling Bogie in his arms! I just kept asking him if it was somehow a dream because he had been gone for so long and we had just moved in. Luckily for us, it was real!

A Scene Of Disaster Clearly Depicting A Renovation On Design*Sponge

We were really fortunate that we didn’t have to build our house from the ground up, but when I see this picture I remember how much it felt like we may as well have. It’s astonishing how many little (and big) things have to happen before you can even sleep in a space! This disorganized scene of chaos perfectly depicts what it feels like to be in the midst of a renovation or remodel. I also had a shoulder surgery in the middle of this project, meaning I was not as much of a help physically as I would have liked to have been. But, I made up for it with mad Craigslisting skills!

Berkeley Garage Turned Tiny House On Design*Sponge

When the bed is up, which admittedly is not nearly as frequently as it should be, we slide the couch (it’s on furniture sliders so it can easily glide from the wall to the back) and it almost feels like a little nook separate from the rest of the space.

Triple Lap Siding Elongates The Petite Space On Design*Sponge

When we were researching different wall covering options I just kept coming back to lap siding. I loved that it was reclaimed, felt “vintage” (my goal was to try to make the interior feel like it could have possibly been like that when it was built), that it elongated the space with the horizontal lines running the length of the house, and that it doesn’t feel “blank” if the walls are sparse.

A Mid-Century Drop-Leaf Table Looks Stylish And Is Perfect For A Small Space On Design*Sponge

This table was on my wish list pretty much from the moment we started construction on the little house. I had been looking for a “narrow, double drop-leaf” table for years for our old place and knew it was essential for the Bitty Berkeley Bungalow. I spotted this one on Craigslist and had it all nailed down to pick up in Alex’s hometown in Oregon when we were visiting, but the owners sold it before we got there. Luckily, I found another one, at an even better price, months (and months) later. The coolest thing about this table is that it stows four folding wood chairs in the side! That way we can pull up the sides and put it in front of the couch to seat up to six.

A Murphy Bed Allows Extra Space When Not In Use In This Bay Area Tiny House On Design*Sponge

This is the bed-down version of our space. With such an incredibly small space I have done my best to keep things somewhat streamlined, but I’m a collector and as a stylist that loves patterns and quirky items. They’re definitely making their way in over time! Luckily I have an even tinier (60-square-foot) storage space behind the Bitty Berkeley Bungalow where I can stow my styling and event design props.

Bed For The Homeowners And Their Three Dogs In This Berkeley Tiny House On Design*Sponge

All of the items here were found on a budget! My piece of art was from a thrift store for $5, the hanging light was from a local salvage warehouse (and likely used as a grow lamp from the black light that came in it) for $3, the bedspread was from a thrift store in my hometown in Oregon, and the linen pillows were from the Crate & Barrel outlet in Berkeley. The orange pillow I had custom made at my favorite shop, Mignonne Decor in Berkeley.

One Of The Different Iterations Of The Bitty Berkeley Bungalow On Design*Sponge

The little closet in the back was a vintage piece we picked up at our favorite local salvage warehouse, Urban Ore, in Berkeley. We painted it and now it holds baskets with our clothes in them. Our couch was a steal because the line was not being continued the next season, from the Crate & Barrel outlet. It’s one of the few new things we bought for the house just recently.

In The Little House Nothing Has Just One Purpose On Design*Sponge

This side table from Maven Collective in Portland is another mid-century marvel. It also has a drop-leaf that’s perfect to work from as a desk, or to spread out on when I’m working on a project, and the drawers and cupboard are great for books, magazines, and my tech.

Ikea Shelves Create A Small Space Couch Alternative On Design*Sponge

This “couch” I made out of two IKEA shelves we already had, a child’s futon mattress and a canvas drop cloth! I had the custom striped pillows made at Mignonne Decor and the kilim pillow is also from there. The baskets and boxes store everything from Alex’s clothes to dog essentials and the back shelf holds our books. This wood block painting was found on our road trip to Texas this fall, it was so amazing because we had just been driving over these cattle guards the entire day before and then found this cool piece in an antique mall the next day!


We added a curtain last fall and it really does make the kitchen area feel more like its own space. Our kitchenette (which is a fridge, stovetop, and sink) was purchased on Craigslist and the little metal locker near it was from an estate sale. We had the locker in our last house and just painted it to now be our pantry, which also holds pots, spices, food, and a toaster oven. Most of our big meals we cook in the main house because we like to cook and share meals as a family with my Grandma.

The Original Beams From The 1905 Garage Are A Highlight In This Bay Area Tiny House On Design*Sponge

The original beams and the pitched roof are some of our favorite features in the little house. Someday I envision having a beautiful driveway garden (so we can open these doors to something lovely) instead of what we currently have – a driveway littered with the house projects of yore. Simultaneously fixing up the main house with this one has always kept us on our toes!

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  • Bogie’s story is the cherry on top of the story of this beautiful space! Thanks for sharing.

      • I live in a similar space and am encouraged and at awe with what you created. thank you for sharing such a wonderful “home-making” story. -jes

  • I love love love this story. What a gift to be able to live so close to your grandmother and share this time together. And I love the remodel and their approach.

    This is exactly the kind of thing I read DesignSponge for! Interesting design but with the human element. Thank you for sharing this!

  • What a lovely young couple! Adorable remodel! You two tick all the boxes! Using reclaimed materials, taking care of Grandma, plus your shelter doggies! What about HVAC needs? Do you have heat?

    • Hi Deborah, we use an Austin mini air filter and one space heater when it’s cold. Since it’s so small, that does the trick!

  • That’s an amazing transformation, loved the use of bold colors through fabrics, doesn’t look overwhelming but offsets the white very beautifully. I must say, the flooring is a great job, absolutely stunning đź‘Ť

  • I love this so much. A great story and a beautiful home! What really draws me into the story are the personal finance wins. You have managed to live in a very expensive area and be close to family, and you’ve done it for probably much less than most of us spend on our homes in “reasonably priced” areas. I would love to find out how much the project cost and how much your living expenses are each month. I know it’s none of my business, but wow, I’m just so impressed. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Hi Amanda, I believe all told the project and new furniture pieces we bought came to around two-thousand dollars. Living in the Bay Area we really lucked out because of how much was free/very affordable on Craigslist because of being in such a populated area. I’m not totally entirely sure how much our utilities are because we pay them all together with the main house.

  • Having grown up in the Bay Area, I realize that I will never be able to live there again due to the now exorbitant price of housing. I truly admire the ingenuity and stamina you put into your beautiful home. Kudos to you both, you did an amazing job, and the space looks even lovelier and more comfortable than any conventional home.

  • This is lovely! How did you track down the paneling you used for the ceiling? I’m renovating a cabin and discovering that in my area at least, finding reclaimed wood paneling is pretty difficult. I’d love to hear any tips!

    • It was a few towns away on Craigslist. Nearly everything we found was due to someone not starting/finishing a project and finally deciding to let go on craigslist, haha! The only tip I have (in addition to just waiting as long as you can do you have the best odds and checking every day) is just to try every combination of key terms when searching, I would even get so desperate to just search “wood” sometimes, because you never know how people categorize things!

  • This is so, so inspiring. I also live in the Bay Area – Oakland – and I love it so much. Even though I didn’t grow up here, I knew that this place would end up being ‘home’ to me – it’s felt more like home for me from the first time I visited than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’m reveling in building my life here. What a distinct joy to be able to live somewhat affordably in this beautiful place. It’s not my reality, but I am overjoyed that you were able to find it. And, I love your pups. So much love for this post.


  • Okay, this is so cool! I love the transformation. Seems like a lot of hard work went in to it, but it was totally worth it. Hope grandmas is happy! :)

  • Love this! I am currently working on a reno in a similar space which used to be an old workshop/carriage house. It is so inspiring to see such a lovely reno on a limited budget. What a bonus to also save nice things that might have just ended up in a landfill!

  • That is true ingenuity and innovation at work! I’m blown away by this project. It is just so creative and smart, and I love how eco-friendly the renovation was – that’s particularly inspiring.

    Amazing job, Rebekah!

  • Awesome use of reclaimed items, even though it took way more time than you wanted you stuck with it and now you have something to be proud of. As you reno the yard and the main house you should post those processes to. The consistent looking for product daily is what made the project so well priced as well as gave you lots of options to choose from. You do what others just talk about, the sweat equity.

  • What a lovely example of Less can be More. Its easy to be creative in a large space and extravagant budget, but this is a strained resource situation which is looking so warm and inviting. way to go! I liked the shelving beneath the bed. I saw similar kind of malu sea grass baskets which I am tempted to buy after seeing your baskets!

  • I’m headed for the garage! Though it will continue to be the pantry, gym, laundry room and work room, it can look better. So thanks for the inspiration! Your bitty bungalow is a delight. And so are the fur-kids. Bet Bogie never wants to escape.

  • This really touched me. My aging parents, who live in a different state, have been on my mind a lot lately and I’m currently scheming about ways to bring them closer. This story is a small, but vital, example of how we can make the world better: honor the richness of our elders by truly connecting with them. And the space is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you so much! He was about a year and a half in his solo photo (as we had just adopted him the month before) so we believe he is almost four now.

  • What a lovely space! Loved reading through the insight on your projects – such an inspiration and encouragement to being patient and persistent for salvaged, reusable materials, and for choosing furniture that met the small space needs without straying or compromising your style. I also appreciated the reflection and honesty on projects that were tedious and not the most enjoyable as a process.

    Do you have any tips, resources, advice, etc. on constructing a similar murphy bed? Curious of the materials and construction along with how you mounted it to the wall. My husband and I are getting ready to move and have been trying to scheme up some potential solutions for our guest bedroom – to be able to host family, but also allowing the room to function as an office space in between visitors. I have been researching murphy beds here and there, and haven’t come across many that fit our style, or that are particularly affordable. We had not considered building one (likely with the help of my father-in-law), and really enjoy the simple design and ability to house a king size bed. …Thank you again for sharing! Incredibly transformation!

    • Hi Emily, thank you so much for your kind words! I researched several plans just from doing internet searches, then cobbled together elements of the ones I liked best. We used the “nice” kind of plywood (i.e. It is smooth and flat, so good for finishing/pieces that will show for the main pieces) and the parts that help lift and slowly lower such a heavy mattress were hydraulic parts from salvaged trunk pieces (I can’t remember the actual name, but they’re the parts that help lift a trunk of a car up, you can get them at a salvage car parts place!) Then, for safety, just in case we put a chain lock on the outside, but it hasn’t even fallen on its own before, because it’s so heavy it’s nice to feel assured! Best of luck with your guest space!

  • “A soft and flowy curtain hangs to separate the living area from the kitchenette (a purchase from Craigslist) that features a fridge, stovetop and sink…”

    I lived in a 400 sq foot, 2 car garage; and I am concerned about a “soft flowy curtain” being ANYWHERE near a stove top. That is a real fire hazard. Your design is lovely to look at; but please reconsider another way of separating the kitchen from the rest of the cottage.

    In my city you cannot add a kitchen to a pre-existing garage, but you can have a bathroom. So my bathroom has a 54 year old electric skillet, a hot plate and a toaster/oven. You may be asked to stir the scrambled egg, while you are in the bathroom, but I’m grateful for the architectural compromise.

    • Not to worry, the curtain is tucked back between the couch and the “pantry” (a metal locker that separates the kitchen unit from the “living room” (as it were), there is more space between than what the picture illustrates. We also have a fire extinguisher right there for emergencies!

      Love your ingenuity with your bathroom/kitchen!

  • Great job! Love the space, the family situation, your pride of place…..and the dogs.

  • Lovely and thrifty! But . . . no bathroom? So she has to go in your house to go? Not good for and older person!

  • Is there a bit of plumbing or does the sink have running water? And, what does it drain into?

  • It’s a beautiful home! I am curious about the bed though, is it a Murphy that you purchased or did you design it to fold up like that?

  • I really enjoyed this story, loved the pictures. I recently transformed my mother’s shed into my “poutin’ house” and can relate to so much of your story. I too tried to use reclaimed materials, and was on a strict, (recently separated) budget. I’m a frequent thrift shopper, but now that I’m basically done, I’m missing the “hunt” for deals! I have my two bestest girls (my doggie, Lucy and my rat, Ruby) in my 200+/- sqft shed and it’s perfect.