As you picture your new home, broaden your view beyond your four walls – not only to your back yard, but also to your entire outdoor space. The outside of your house has great potential for creating a positive impression of your home. Better curb appeal and yard areas increase the value of the home, while also creating a relaxing environment for your family.
But there are endless possibilities for creating an outdoor space that pops – outdoor kitchen and bar areas, sprawling gardens, pools and hot tubs, and so much more. How do you choose the best outdoor features for your home – and how do you make those features a reality?
Start With a Plan
Begin with the functionality of the space. Homeowners without small children around don’t need to prioritize play space; families with kids may choose a pool and a playscape area. However you want to use your outdoor areas, define spaces for specific uses, such as grilling, dining, play, or conversation.
The next step: budget. That awesome project you saw on HGTV might be out of your reach, but landscape designers and architects can help you align your objectives with a budget that makes sense.
Don’t just consider your outdoor projects at surface level. You must factor in landscaping materials and irrigation, pergolas and other structures, retaining walls, concrete for walkways, patios, and decks, stone for fireplaces or firepits, appliances, weather-resistant TV sets. You’ll have to run utility lines for electricity, water, and gas.
Site conditions such as grading, drainage, and existing trees must also be factored into the budget. In some areas, there are regulations prohibiting the removal of mature trees. The upside is that architects and designers can work them into a new outdoor plan, along with any boulders on the property, and give your project more bang for the buck.
Finally, consider how much maintenance you’re willing to put in (or pay for) and how long you plan to live in the home.
Popular Outdoor Features
Not sure what features you should incorporate into your outdoor space? Examine your lifestyle and entertaining styles. Popular features include:
Do you want to grow some of your own herbs and veggies? Maybe you want a fruit tree, or simply some pretty flowers to give a pop of color to your yard. A Zen garden makes for a great place to sit and drink a cup of coffee and have some quiet alone time.
If you particularly like certain plants in your neighbors’ yards, find out how much sun or shade you would need on your property to make them thrive. “See what works in your locale, vegetation-wise,” says Kathryn Bishop, of Keller Williams Realty, Studio City, Los Angeles. And as you get to know your neighbors, don’t be afraid to ask for cuttings of their plants. If you don’t have a green thumb, she says, seek hardy varieties such as geraniums that do well when replanted.
Al Fresco Dining
Whether you like to entertain your own friends or let your kids invite their friends over for a grill-and-chill weekend, and outdoor kitchen is a great feature to have. High-end outdoor kitchens may include multiple grilling and cooking surfaces, sinks, trash compactors, refrigerators, pizza ovens, smokers, and wok burners. Plenty of countertop space is a must for food preparation, serving, and bar-style seating. You may also opt to include an outdoor wet bar. The outdoor kitchen is an idea that has taken off in recent years. Bishop says builders in her area typically do a little bit of landscaping, then set up an outdoor kitchen.
A covered patio, an outdoor TV with comfortable seating around it, and a fire pit or fireplace all make for great areas to simply sit and enjoy an evening with friends or family. You want the space to be comfortable, so add fans for the summer and, if you opt for no fire pit or fireplace, an outdoor heater for winter.
You can’t go wrong with a pool-and-hot-tub combo. Incorporate your Zen garden’s rockscaping by having a little waterfall that goes from garden into pool. Don’t want to go all-in with a swimming pool? Opt for a hot tub only, either above or below ground. A hot tub adds a great place for relaxation with considerably less upkeep than a pool. Or, install a fountain, pond, or similar small water feature instead.
Sports Spaces and Playscapes
For families with especially athletic children, a grassy back yard and a few soccer nets form the perfect backdrop. Higher-priced homes may even have a sports court and tennis court, says realtor Sheryl Simon, principal of Benoit Mizner Simon & Co., Wellesley, Mass.
“What’s important is to create a personal and private space for all to enjoy,” says Simon. Landscaping and fences can be used to enhance these intimate spaces, while flowering trees and bushes provide a pop of color (and, incidentally, are essential ingredients of a tranquil Zen garden). A porch with a retractable screen is a great option for maintaining privacy without losing your view or the feeling of being outside, which most clients like, DeVol says.
A Dream Yard, Under Budget
Love these ideas, but don’t quite have the budget to make your dreams come true? You can do one of two things. First, try a phased approach.
Design the entirety of your outdoor space, then tackle it in stages as finances allow, Bishop says.
Planning and designing outdoor spaces can be as complicated as designing a house. Even if the scope of your yard transformation is more modest, it might make sense to hire a landscape designer or landscape architect to create a master plan. These professionals will combine resources with the builder or architect and develop a phased approach for new-home buyers who don’t have the wherewithal to complete all the work in the first year.
“If you can afford a designer, perfect; otherwise, go to every open house and look at the back yards,” Bishop says.
In a phased approach, year one might be devoted to completing the basic landscape design or pouring the concrete for a porch or a patio. Put down mulch in areas that won’t be landscaped right away; it will inhibit weed growth and is easy to shovel out later.
Plumbing and electrical should be roughed in at the beginning to accommodate a kitchenette or bar that the homeowners plan to add later. Other things that should be completed right away, DeVol says, are fireplaces and wood ceilings, and Simon notes that anything of a structural nature should be designed and built first.
Or, try budget-friendly alternatives. Opt for wood-burning fire pits instead of gas fireplaces with stone hearths, or choose a movable barbecue grill instead of a built-in cooktop. Instead of getting a weather-resistant TV, mount it on a covered porch and get a cover you can put over it when it’s not in use, or place it in an outdoor cabinet to protect it from the elements.
Less expensive alternatives such as synthetic stone can still create an upscale look in a retaining wall, hearth, or countertop. And when a covered porch is cost-prohibitive, sailcloth-type canopies, stretched over a portion of the outdoor area, provide shade. Houses that are U-shaped in the rear work best for this type of covering, which is large enough to shelter a table for four, says Bishop.
“We do some very simple outdoor living spaces,” says DeVol. “You can do a simple covered porch, and if it’s attractive and landscaped well, you don’t have to do a fireplace.”
Finally, choose materials that you won’t constantly have to replace. For instance, natural and synthetic deck materials have their pros and cons. Redwood and cedar are resistant to insects and decay; however, a wood deck will need to be re-sealed or re-stained periodically. Composite decking materials, like Trex, offer a low-maintenance alternative to real wood, though Bishop cautions against purchasing low-quality composite decking, which is prone to warping in the heat.
Susan Bady-Holmes is a freelance writer and editor specializing in residential design and construction. She currently writes for NewHomeSource.com, Metal Architecture magazine and Metal Construction News.
Susan has also been an assignment editor for Consumers Digest magazine; handled media relations for home builders at Taylor Johnson Associates and written feature articles for Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Plan Ideas. Consequently, she has a wide range of experience in the consumer and business press and a deep understanding of the homebuilding business. She has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence.