One of the easiest ways to re-purpose space is to take down non-load-bearing walls.

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HACKENSACK, N.J. — When it comes to renovation projects, contractors say homeowners often don’t (pardon the pun) think outside the box.

Want a closet? You can steal some space from a neighboring room. Want a room? You can re-purpose that little-used closet into something more practical. When your contractor takes a peek behind your walls, you might be surprised to find you have usable space you never knew existed.

A savvy contractor can often come up with an innovative solution for home design and construction problems.

“People sort of get tunnel vision,” says Richard Graniere, owner of Wayne, N.J.-based Advantage Contracting. “They work in the existing space instead of working within the outside perimeters of the house. They get blinded by the walls.”

One of the easiest ways to re-purpose space is to take down nonload-bearing walls, which are most walls in your home, Graniere says. Even a load-bearing wall can be removed, but it requires support beams to be erected in its place.

Dominic Mangiarelli recalls a woman who asked him about four years ago to renovate a bathroom, but also talked about how much she wanted more closet space for her five-bedroom colonial in Livingston, N.J.

Mangiarelli had to take down a wall between the bathroom and the hallway. In the middle, he discovered a cavity between a chimney and the hallway wall.

“It was small, only about 18 inches by 18 inches, but to her it was a gold mine,” he says. Mangiarelli carved out the space for a linen closet in that cavity.

A custom door for such a small size would be very expensive, but Mangiarelli came up with a novel idea: He used one panel of a bi-fold door. A little paint and Spackle and a carpet remnant completed the job.

“She was just as excited about that closet as she was about the weeks of work I put into the bathroom,” Mangiarelli says with a laugh.

Since then, he has done the hidden-closet trick at least two more times. About three months ago with a client in Rockaway Township, N.J., he found a tiny space between the bathroom and a hallway landing that was just right for a linen closet that could be accessed from the hallway.

“These happy surprises happen all the time,” Mangiarelli says. “You never know what you’re going to find until you start tearing things out.”

Newer homes are much more likely to have hidden spaces, Mangiarelli says. With older homes, craftsmen made sure to use every possible space wisely. “They used every nook and cranny they could find,” he says. He recalled another “happy surprise,” when he was working on a bathroom renovation.

The homeowner wanted to get rid of her bathtub to gain more space and go with just a shower stall. Mangiarelli advised against it, knowing it would bump down her eventual resale value.

Instead, he realized he could swipe some space from an L-shaped closet/changing room that abutted the bathroom.

“She wasn’t using the space in the closet, and it really helped the bathroom,” he says He kept the tub, added the stall shower and made the client happy.

“There are always ways to find space,” he says.

Sheila Manigault could read between the lines of her house. During a large renovation project on her Washington Township, N.J., home, she knew her family no longer needed the walk-in hallway closet upstairs.

Instead, Manigault and her contractor, Glen Lumia, owner of Creative Design Construction and Remodeling, decided to turn the space into a computer/homework nook for her kids. One of the closet’s walls abuts the staircase. They decided to cut a window-size hole in that wall to make the space more airy.

“I wanted them to have a little corner to go study and sit on the computer and still not be in their bedrooms,” she says. “I can go up the stairs and see them; it’s like a cozy corner.”

Manigault had advice for other homeowners considering renovation jobs.

“I made a list of my needs first instead of looking at the space first,” she says. “Once I figured out what I needed, then I could figure out where to put it.”

A Glen Rock, N.J., homeowner, Jennifer Scherer, found her hidden space while working with John Wohlberg, owner of JH Renovations of Ridgewood, on the master bedroom. The problem was the closet. Though it had a handy built-in dresser, it was too small.

“There were two racks, one behind the other, and it was impossible to get your clothes,” she says. “My husband kept his clothing in the hallway closet.”

Wohlberg suggested removing the built-in dresser and taking about a foot from a daughter’s bedroom to enlarge the closet.

“My husband originally wanted to take even more space, but John said it would look funny,” she says. “I couldn’t visualize it, but it turned out to be the perfect size. I didn’t know if it would make her room look awkward, but it actually makes it look more interesting.”

The wall in the girl’s bedroom juts in about a foot then runs the length of the closet, about 8 feet, before doglegging back for the rest of the wall.

“It looks like a little nook in her room,” Scherer says. “He put in crown molding and a chair rail around the room, and it all tied together. No one would ever walk into her room and say, ‘What is this?’ You’d never know.”

The master bedroom closet is now deep and wide and has room for all the couple’s clothing. Wohlberg also vaulted the ceiling to give more space and light.

“It’s really the perfect size,” she says.

Wohlberg says more homeowners are starting to think creatively about their space, thanks to the economy.

“Most people are not expanding these days,” he says. “They’re looking to get more space in the space they have.”