Smart Strategies for Building a Master Closet

Done right, a walk-in closet will add convenience and value to your master suite addition, and extend the life of your wardrobe, too.

A walk-in closet should measure at least 10 by 10 feet if it's being used as a storage space for two people. Image: Easy Track

They don’t make closets like they used to. But this is a case where today’s versions are actually better than the old ones. Unless your house is fairly new or has been recently renovated, the closets are probably tiny alcoves with little more than a shelf and a pole or two for organizing your belongings.

Whether you’re adding a master suite, remodeling your bedroom, or just outfitting a large existing closet, you have an opportunity to upgrade to a modern walk-in closet that neatly stores all of your clothes gently and accessibly. Expect to pay $3,000 to $10,000 or more for a large, well-outfitted walk-in closet, assuming you hire a pro to build the room as part of your master suite addition, says Castle Rock, Colo., contractor Dean Bennett.

Layout and space requirements

A walk-in closet should be at least 7 by 10 feet, and preferably 10 by 10 feet if both halves of a couple will be using it, says Bennett. That gives you space to line two or three walls with shelves, cubbies, and poles, and the elbow room to reach them easily. For added convenience, include about 3 by 3 feet of floor space for a chair where you can perch to put on socks and fold laundry. And, if possible, leave enough room in the middle of the closet for setting up a folding luggage table, so you can lay open your suitcase when you’re packing for a trip.

Options for storage and organization

You could, of course, just move your existing dresser into your new walk-in, but that isn’t the best way to store clothes. You can only see what’s on top of each drawer, and trying to pull a shirt from the bottom of the pile always leads to a jumbled, wrinkled mess.

A far better option is a closet-organizing system. These storage units have an array of compartments, each designed for specific pieces of your wardrobe, from individual shelves for sweaters to small drawers for lingerie to cubbies for shoes and hats. Closet organizing systems cost $1,000 to $6,000 or more, depending on whether you go with ready-made or custom-designed.

The DIY option

At the low end of the price range are do-it-yourself closet kits, made from melamine (plastic-coated fiberboard) or coated wire. Installation is fairly easy—you just screw the attachment brackets to the wall and attach the shelves and poles. The hard part is planning the layout. You’ll need to measure your space, then choose modular components from the home center or at online sites like easyclosets or the Container Store.

Typically, closet modules are 2 to 3 feet wide and 7 feet tall, so you need to figure out the best combination of units to fill the wall, says kitchen and bath designer David Alderman. Alderman is the owner of Dave’s Cabinet, a custom woodshop in Chesapeake, Va., and vice president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

“Every closet should start with four things: a shelf unit, a drawer unit, a unit with two closet poles—typically spaced about 42 inches apart—for hanging shirts and pants, and a unit consisting of a single closet pole for hanging dresses and long jackets,” he says. From there, add whatever components your wardrobe calls for that will fit in the space.

The custom-designed closet

Hire a closet company, a contractor, or a kitchen and bath designer to outfit your closet, and you’ll get a custom setup that uses every inch of space. Instead of fiberboard or coated wire, components will be made of high-density melamine or even solid wood.

You’ll also have a much wider range of storage options—jewelry drawers, tie and belt holders, shoe racks, hamper baskets—and accessories like roll-out ironing boards, lighted makeup stations, and full-length mirrors that slide out from between the shelves and swivel open for use.

All those bells and whistles come with a big price tag. Alderman’s clients pay an average of $4,000 for his systems, but they can run as high as $10,000 or $20,000; one client’s came in at $75,000. To get the most for your money, Alderman advises keeping the design flexible, so you (or a future owner) can change shelf and pole heights and compartment configurations as needs change.

Lighting, ventilation, and other special features

If you’re designing a closet from scratch, consider incorporating features that add convenience and value:

Laundry area. A stacking washer and dryer is probably the most desirable master closet amenity you can add. Compact units require about 24 to 27 inches of wall space.  You’ll also need dedicated electrical outlets, hot and cold water supply, and a waste line, plus a few extra feet of countertop for folding, all of which can add $3,500 to $5,000 to the job cost.

Lighting. A dressing room needs plenty of light, but the classic bare bulb with a pull cord won’t meet today’s electrical codes. Your contractor can tell you the code-compliant options based on the specifics of your project, but good choices are recessed ceiling fixtures or, better still, surface-mounted fluorescent lights with protective covers, which provide the brightest illumination without generating excess heat.
 
Ventilation. You’ll want air circulating in the closet to help expel moisture and odors that come in on clothes and footwear. But unless the exterior architecture of your house demands it, avoid windows in your walk-in. Sunlight can fade colors and degrade fabric.

Instead, include one or more heating and cooling vents to help circulate the air. If that’s not possible, you can install a simple exhaust fan, much like what’s in your bathroom, to suck stale air from the closet and expel it outdoors.