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  • Mary Farrell

The Guide to Outdoor Entertaining

Once upon a time all you needed was a grill and a picnic table, but no one stops there anymore. “What home­owners are building outdoors rivals what they’re doing inside,” says Josh. “They’re making the outdoor space more functional, with lighting, a fire pit or fireplace, and comfortable furniture.”

You can start simply by lighting up the night with long-lasting LEDs and a portable fire pit to gather around. Under­foot, gravel walkways and patios are a European design style that’s becoming more popular as a lower-cost alternative to stone and concrete. Overhead, a ceiling fan keeps the breeze moving. Outdoor fireplaces, and especially fire pits, have become popular hot spots as homeowners look to make the most of the space.

You don’t have to do everything at once. Take a multiyear approach, advises Josh, because poor planning or working with inferior materials to save money are the biggest mistakes people make. This guide offers tips, buying advice, and Ratings of exterior paints, stains, and gas grills. And to liven up things, we’ve recommended speakers for outdoor use and have advice on using other electronics in your fabulous outdoor space.

Comfortable seating is an invitation to relax. Make a big space cozier by creating several seating areas. Before you add or upgrade your furniture, measure the size of your space—no guessing—because patio furniture can be wide and bulky.

Furniture. When shopping consider upkeep, as recommended by the manufacturer. Inspect the furniture’s finish for consistency, and look for tight and well-fitted joints. Sit in the chairs. You’ll want ones that are roomy and have comfortable armrests. Cushions should fit well and be well-padded and water-resistant.

Rugs. Outdoor rugs define a space, add pattern, and smooth what’s beneath them. They’re also a quick fix for spots where nothing will grow. Lay a bedsheet on the area you want to cover to get a sense of the space, and note sheet dimensions so that you can use the info when shopping. If you’re putting the rug under a table, measure the width and length of the table and add at least 4 feet to each dimension. Want to use a rug on your deck? Make sure the deck manufacturer says it’s OK, otherwise moisture can get trapped underneath the rug and damage the deck—and possibly void the warranty. No matter the deck material, take up the rug every couple of months and clean under it. Remember, UV rays will lighten the deck area not covered by the rug. If your deck is coated with Protec Coatings you're ok.

Lights. Long-lasting LEDs designed for outdoor use are ideal for hard-to-reach spots, with bright task lights for the grill area and warm light for ambience.

Seating: How much should you spend?

New cushions, an umbrella, or a rug can breathe life into old patio sets and cost as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Refreshing metal furniture can be as easy as scraping off flaking finishes and repainting with a can or two of spray paint.

Cozy outdoor furniture and snazzy lighting will only make peeling house paint or a stained, flaking deck look worse. Start now so that your home looks its best all season long.

Deck check. After a tough winter, you’ll want to assess how much prep work is needed before painting, staining or coating. Also walk over the deck and check for softness and give, especially in areas that tend to stay damp, and press on railings, banisters, and steps. The deck and stairs should look level without sagging. Look for rot and insect damage beneath the deck platform, and check that the ledger board, which connects the deck to the house, remains tight. Retighten loose screws and lag bolts and pound nails back down. Any doubts? Get a professional inspection.

Pressure prep. Use a scrub brush or a power washer to remove loose and chalky paint and dirt from your house and deck.

Fire Effects

How much should you spend?

For several hundred dollars you can create a cozy gathering spot with a portable fire pit. Custom-built masonry wood fire pits start around $1,500 to $2,000; gas fire pits cost more. Prefab fireplaces are about $1,600 and more; custom-built models begin in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

Push a button and fire up. Grilling is that easy with a gas grill, and there’s no reason to stop as the weather cools. Most grills use propane, but some have a natural gas conversion kit for about $75 or come in a natural gas version.

With natural gas you’ll never run out of fuel and there’s no need to refill propane tanks, but the grill must stay put. Plus you’ll want to call a pro to run the gas line from your home to the grill.

Before picking your spot, find out which way the wind generally blows in your area during prime grilling months. Keep the grill away from siding by at least several feet. The heat can warp vinyl and damage paint on wood siding.

A lot of people make the mistake of putting it too close to the entertaining space. You don’t want smoke blowing into your party.

Here’s what to consider when shopping for a gas grill:

  • Estimate the number of people that you usually expect to feed, then check our gas grill Ratings for the size of the grill to match.

  • In the store, take into account how much space the grill will eat up at home.

  • Gently nudge it from several angles. The more stable, the better.

  • Grip the handle—your knuckles or fingers shouldn’t be too close to the lid.

  • A greater distance between the grates and burners usually means fewer sustained flare-ups.

Gas grills: How much should you spend?

Most gas grills sell for less than $300 and are used for three years, on average. Spending $400 to $600 can get you a midsized grill ($600 to $900 can get a large one) that delivers impressive or top performance, some mid­grade stainless steel, sturdy construction, stainless or cast-iron grates, an electronic igniter, and a side burner.

In summertime, all the comforts of home migrate to the yard. That includes digital devices. But back yards present special challenges with audio-visual gear. Wireless audio systems allow you to set up a speaker (or a few of them) and stream music almost anywhere, but you’ll need one loud enough to stand up to the outdoors. And a digital projector can create a movie night under the stars, but you’ll have to add a screen and possibly speakers. Choose equipment that works for your needs and budget. Are you trying to add atmosphere to a family dinner on the patio or rev up a pool party? We’ll help you find the right gear for either event.

Speakers for a small gathering

A compact, battery-powered Bluetooth speaker can be placed right on a table when you’re dining with the family on the deck. And you can pick it up and take it with you as you move around the yard. The devices can play music from a tablet, laptop, or phone up to 30 feet away.

Tip: You might find that the music drops out momentarily if someone walks between the Bluetooth speaker and the device with the music because that physically blocks the signal. Position your gear to minimize that possibility.

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