2021: The year of the outdoor room
By Ariana Speyer
As a nation, we have a history of cherishing private outdoor spaces that extends back to Thomas Jefferson, whose home at Monticello not only had an expansive, prized lawn, but also a bountiful kitchen garden. At the time, Monticello was a nod to classic English estates, but since then it’s become a blueprint for a certain kind of aspirational American home where the exterior is engineered to have a starring role.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced more people inside their homes and apartments for longer periods. For those lucky enough to have usable outdoor space, these areas served as a getaway from the stresses of coping with a raging virus, but familiarity spurred many to look around and see “project.” According to a January 2021 trend report from the International Casual Furnishings Association, “90% of Americans agree that outdoor living space is more valuable than ever before” and “78% made outdoor upgrades during Covid-19.”
In fact, the outdoors is so essential that, in a Realtor.com study of first-time home buyers, it’s a “top-three must-have feature,” alongside “additional square footage” and a “quiet neighborhood.”
Outdoors as a showpiece, and gathering place
The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other outlets have spilled a lot of ink lately tracking the changes, with the Journal calling a “fancy” backyard “the new American Status Symbol,” and Forbes deeming 2021 “The Year of the Yard.” From over-the-top outdoor kitchens with everything from large-screen televisions to brick pizza ovens, to sustainable gardens that provide fresh produce, Americans are ramping up investments in their outdoor spaces, and all of the accoutrements that go along with them.
Landscape architects, custom builders, even interior designers are noting increased demand for exterior spaces that do more, more of the time. Hunter Smith, of On Point Custom Homes in Houston, says, “The backyard is being utilized as an extension of the house.” Whether that means screening in a porch, building a pergola or a veranda, or upgrading the outdoor cooking area, the options are many, and keep increasing as suppliers try to manage demand.
The ability to safely gather outside is another selling point driving the trend. Allison Tick, a NYC interior designer, worked with a family who had recently put in a pool, but wanted the outdoor area to function as a gathering place all year round. The solution? “We put in heat lamps, a set of Adirondack chairs, and a fire pit,” Tick said.
Fresh air and its therapeutic qualities
But these outdoor improvements can also serve another function: a ticket to well-being. In a recent survey, American homeowners noted that not only are they spending more time in their private outdoor spaces (14 hours, up from 11 pre-Covid), but a majority said it’s “therapeutic.”
In fact, when time outdoors is severely limited, it can result in what’s been called Nature Deficit Disorder. Although it doesn’t have an official diagnosis yet in medical literature, many experts agree that it’s an issue, and can impact children disproportionately. As Meg St-Esprit McKivigan wrote in The New York Times: “Numerous studies have shown the mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature, but for some people, it took a pandemic and stay-at-home orders for that desire to spend more time outdoors to feel like a necessity.”
The impact of all that time at home could be far-reaching in terms of new priorities and the habits to match. “You’re able to see this as a time where you can reconnect with your family or nature,” Kate Bailey, of Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting, told Forbes. “You can create a space where you embrace a more active lifestyle. Perhaps you can begin a circuit workout or take up a new hobby like gardening, grilling or bocce.”
Not all upgrades pay off equally
But it’s not a uniformly rosy picture in the world of outdoor projects these days. Labor and material shortages have driven down the return on investment on exterior upgrades by three percent overall, according to Zonda Media’s Cost V. Value 2021 report. A wooden deck, for example, would not be a sound investment now, because lumber prices for consumers are still high (futures prices have fallen to normal levels, but it takes time to filter down to the local lumber yard). A better bet would be a garage door replacement, which recouped the highest percentage of any project in the report, at 93.8 percent.
So what’s a savvy investment property owner to do? The trends are clear: exterior space—in all shapes and forms—is more important to more people than ever before. The answer is, figure out ways to capitalize on this craving for the outdoors while keeping a close eye on how it affects a home’s resale value or rental price on the open market.
Three outdoor room investments for two different budgets
GET A FIRE FEATURE
Fire features create atmosphere and warmth, and can help extend the use of an area into colder seasons. Smith, of On Point Custom Homes, notes that they function as “an instant gathering space that tends to become the centerpiece where people can sit and hang out.”
Options range from pricey—building a custom fireplace—to budget fire pits, but both choices get the job done and show off the versatility of an exterior space.
MAJOR: Adding an outdoor fireplace is “an incredible centerpiece that can really make a statement,” says Smith. Cost: Prices range from $1500 to $20,000 depending on the size and complexity of the job.
MINOR: Smith notes that popping in a fire pit is “an inexpensive way to make something feel homey.” Cost: Starts at under $100.
CREATE A SHADED GATHERING PLACE
“Verandas are a big trend right now,” says Smith. “Most of our customers come in wanting a big entertainment space inside that flows outside. A veranda is a covered area that provides shade and cooling, with the addition of a fan that can combat the heat.”
Especially in warmer climates, having shade is key to enjoying the outdoors. Whether permanent or a quick fix, some kind of shady area will give prospective buyers and renters a sense for how they could get the most out of an exterior area.
MAJOR: A veranda or screened-in porch is a major upgrade that adds curb appeal. Cost: $20,000-60,000
MINOR: An ample umbrella provides protection without breaking the bank. Cost: Starting at under $100
OUTSIDE COOKING AREA
An outdoor kitchen is a suburban status symbol, especially as people look for ways to spend more time together outside. Outdoor kitchens can have tons of functionality, including, says Smith, “grills with a vent hood, a sink and a countertop that flows nicely with the indoor countertop, all of which makes it truly inviting.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s a showpiece or a functional grill, having a dedicated cooking spot is a worthwhile upgrade.
MAJOR: Build an outdoor kitchen with all the bells and whistles, including sink, countertop, grill and fridge. Bonus: A 2016-17 study by Zillow concluded that “homes with outdoor kitchens sold for 25% higher than expected.” Cost: $5,000-50,000
MINOR: Establish a grill area. Cost: $299 for a Good Housekeeping-approved model.
ADD MORE PLANTS
“Something that Covid has definitely pushed is people wanting a dedicated area for gardening, especially boxed garden beds,” says Smith.
Putting more greenery, or adding flowers, is a way to bring color and make a space feel welcoming.
MAJOR: Put stone borders around flower beds and build some raised planters for herbs and flowers. Cost: A few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on how elaborate the setup.
MINOR: Add a few flowering potted plants in strategic outdoor areas to delineate and brighten up exterior zones. Cost: About $100 at a local garden supply shop.