Need more space to entertain? Just open your back door and step outside. But after a harsh, unrelenting winter, you might not like what you see. Forty-four percent of Americans plan to improve their yard for outdoor entertaining, according to the latest Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 2,000 adults. Almost 30 percent say they’ll spend $500 to $1,999, and 36 percent plan to spend $100 to $499.
Improved landscaping, better lighting, a new grill, and adding a deck or sprucing it up are high on the to-do list, as backyards evolve into true living spaces customized for fun, not resale value. Use these tips, gleaned from our experts and testing, to enjoy the long, leisurely days of summer ahead.
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Choose quality furniture
Comfortable furniture invites your friends to settle in. Painted metals should have a uniform finish and smooth welds. All-weather wicker that’s tightly wound on its frame is best; many now have more realistic-looking textures. No matter the type, joints should be tight and well fitted. End caps help protect screws and bolts from moisture. Read "Patio Furniture: Spend Less, Get More" for more details.
Take care of cushions
Vacuum dust and dirt, then use a damp sponge and mild dish detergent to clean. Rinse thoroughly and let dry. For pet stains, try a pet odor and stain remover, or blot with a solution of 1 tablespoon of household ammonia with ½ cup of water. Stain still there? Use ⅓ cup of white vinegar mixed in ⅔ cup of water. As always test an inconspicuous spot first and check for damage.
Create a nook
Wall-mounted planters and trellises can transform an ugly wall or fence. A hammock or bistro set and large containers of plants are just a couple of ways to make a charming pocket in a large yard. You’ll find plenty of inspiration online and at home centers.
Light the night
Low-voltage fixtures are do-it-yourself-friendly. The wiring can be buried only 6 inches, not the 18 required with standard voltage. Place heads every 8 to 10 feet to deliver uniform path lighting, and use floodlights and spotlights to illuminate dark areas. Long-lasting LED bulbs are ideal for hard-to-reach spots and use significantly less electricity than incandescent bulbs. To find a bulb for your outdoor sockets, see the results of our lightbulb tests.
Add a little music
What’s a party without music? The portable TDK Life on Record Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33, $145, uses Bluetooth and offers good sound. The top-rated Libratone Zipp, $400, offers even better sound, but the portable Wi-Fi unit isn’t weatherized. Neither should be left outside.
Let your new grill add a splash of color
Grills are often the centerpiece of an outdoor room and come in vibrant reds and earthy greens, browns, and copper, not just black and stainless steel. Check out the best from our latest gas grill tests.
Keep your grill in good shape
Skip the cover if your grill is in a very damp or heavily shaded area—lots of moss is a clue—because it’s likely to trap moisture even if the cover has vents. Otherwise remove the cover after a very wet or damp spell to let it air dry. Occasionally rinse your grill with water to remove any corrosive residue.
Establish a safety zone
The allure of gathering around a fire remains strong and explains why chimineas and fire pits have become popular; 16 percent of those surveyed plan to add one to their yard. Create a 3-foot safety zone to keep kids away, and keep a fire extinguisher within reach. Before calling it a night, check that embers are fully extinguished by dousing with water or burying in dirt.
Do a deck check
Leaves and other yard waste under the deck can cause mildew, so regularly clear the debris. And while you’re at it, check the framing and deck platform for insect damage and rot, especially where the deck ties to the house. If you find any, have a pro do the repairs. For the best deck stains, see the results of our deck stain tests.
Deal with mosquitoes
A fan sweeping a gentle breeze across your deck or patio can help keep mosquitoes away. They aren’t strong fliers, and the brisk airflow makes it tough for them to hone in on your scent and find you. Find the best insect repellents and learn how to deal with insects.
Protect your skin
Using sunscreen is a no-brainer, but you might be surprised how much you need to use. A family of four spending 4 hours in the sun wearing shorts and T-shirts should go through an 8-ounce bottle. And don’t leave the bottle in a hot car, which can degrade its effectiveness. Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50, from Walmart, is a CR Best Buy.
This article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.