< All Press

Take It Outside

Forget the fire pit. The latest luxury backyards are being outfitted with everything from movie theaters to dishwashers to bathtubs.

Todd and Cathy Ressler’s elaborate outdoor kitchen at their suburban New Haven, Conn., home has custom cabinetry, a full bar, a pizza oven and a beer tap. The space also includes radiant-heat light fixtures, allowing the family to use the space in cooler months. And to avoid going back and forth between kitchens, the Resslers purchased a separate set of outdoor flatware and dinnerware. Mr. Ressler, who cooks most meals in the summer months, says he built the new kitchen because he’s “really into the outdoors, more than the indoors.” The project, which included elevating a deck to the level of their house, cost roughly $100,000.

Backyard entertainment spaces have been around for years, but the depressed real-estate market over the past few years has fueled an urge to “invest in existing homes and make them something more usable,” says Mark Demerly, a board member of the American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Network. Interior designers and architects say they are increasingly asked to create climate-controlled oases, with commercial-grade heating and cooling systems, plus automated mosquito control.

“The homeowner basically wants you to duplicate what they have indoors, outdoors,” says Larry Smith, the marketing manager of Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens, a Wallingford, Conn.-based company that made the cabinetry in the Ressler home. Newer options include a round Benihana-style “social grill” designed for gathering around during outdoor parties. “Strange as it may seem, it’s as popular in North Dakota and Montana as it is in Southern California.”

Dan Shimek’s backyard in Apple Valley, Minn., has a pergola with a wicker couches, small kitchen and lamps in a space that overlooks a lake. A gas fireplace and an outdoor fire pit keep the area warm a few weeks beyond Minnesota’s short summer season. “It’s a great gathering space,” says Mr. Shimek, who is the president of the Outdoor Great Room Co., which makes pergolas, heaters and fire pits. His setup cost roughly $30,000, he says.

The most elaborate outdoor spaces can rival the costs of indoor rooms. Designers and builders say high-end outdoor kitchens start around $20,000 and go up to $100,000 or more for spaces with custom cabinetry, multiple cooking surfaces and granite islands. Materials and appliances are designed to be weather resistant, although homeowners commonly shut off the water in freezing temperatures and remove or cover furniture when not in use.

Though investing in outdoor rooms won’t give homeowners as strong of a return on their investment as finishing indoor spaces and basements, a well-designed outdoor space can still be a major selling point—if it isn’t too personalized, says New York-based real-estate appraiser Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers. “It becomes a contributing factor, but not a driving factor of the purchase.” Outdoor living space typically doesn’t figure into overall square footage when it comes to a home’s appraised value. For condo buildings in New York, large finished outdoor spaces typically are valued at about 50% of the price-per-square-foot inside, Mr. Miller says.

Luis Jauregui, a builder, interior designer and architect in Austin, Texas, just completed a 16,000-square-foot home with a sprawling outdoor retreat for a major-league baseball player, who he declined to identify, in the Fort Worth suburb of Westlake, Texas. Divided into several room-like areas, the backyard includes a formal living room, dining room, kitchen with a pizza oven and a casual living room with a stone fireplace and television. There’s also a cooling-mist system and a mosquito-control system that discreetly sprays around the perimeter at night to debug the area. “We designed almost the equivalent of another house outdoors,” says Mr. Jauregui. A project like this one, with 2,000 square feet of finished space and a large heated and cooled swimming pool, could cost up to $1.2 million.

Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, a company that manufactures a variety of high-end outdoor kitchen equipment in Kalamazoo, Mich., says the average outdoor kitchen it built in 2012 cost $40,000, up from $30,000 in 2010. “We’re selling bigger and bigger kitchens every year,” says Steve Adolph, the company’s president. Last year, the company introduced a dishwasher specifically designed for the outdoors. It’s built with a stainless-steel casing, specialized tubing and electric systems and a “winterization mode” for the off-season. The dishwasher costs $3,995.

National home builders have updated their designs as well. KB Homes has added indoor-outdoor great rooms with sliding glass walls that open up to outdoor living areas on some homes in the $400,000-to-$1 million price range in Southern California. Buyers can chose outdoor flooring to match what they have inside.

Greg Netro, president of the Florida North division of Toll Brothers, TOL -0.38% says over the past two years, interest has picked up for outdoor “summer kitchens” as well as furnished backyard living areas surrounding fire pits. “We used to build a model—we’d put a little table with two chairs and you’d have your pool,” Mr. Netro says. Now many models include “the summer kitchen, the fire pit, seating areas and the extension of the indoor living area.” Prices for such upgrades range from about $3,000 to $40,000.

Interior designers say they are increasingly being asked to focus on exterior spaces. Kathleen Zbacnik, a San Diego-based designer, remodeled a 5,000-square-foot penthouse apartment with an outdoor room on a 550-square-foot balcony. With walls clad in stone and sienna travertine floors, the space has a wood-fired pizza oven, couches, a dining-room table and a television with surround sound that rises from a stone base. There’s also a kitchen with a griddle. “You could make your whole breakfast there,” explains Ms. Zbacnik, who decorated the space with custom sconces and pendants in keeping with the home’s Tuscan theme indoors. The condo is currently on the market for just under $10 million.

Architects and home builders say demand has partly been driven by the growing number of outdoor furnishing products and electronics. New York-based interior designer Vicente Wolf, who is working on a 4,000-square-foot outdoor living area in Westchester County, N.Y., with sofas, chaises, a television and canopies, says outdoor furniture and lighting has gone from fussy to “fully functional.”

Furniture retailer Pottery Barn’s catalog features twice as many options for outdoor living as it did five years ago, says Jill Robach, the company’s senior vice president of retail merchandising, to include outdoor pillows, lighting and buffets. Two years ago, the company added indoor-outdoor rugs, some of which are designed to look like woven, dyed indoor rugs but with waterproof, fade-resistant material. New this year: a line of “shatterproof” outdoor dinnerware designed to look like glazed earthenware.

At SunBriteTV, a company that makes outdoor TVs designed to withstand foul weather and temperatures from 24 degrees below zero up to 122 degrees, sales volume has doubled in the past year. “As we’re talking to homeowners, it’s consistent with other upgrades they’re doing in their backyards,” says Tom Dixon, SunBriteTV’s vice president of marketing. The company’s latest line of TVs is priced roughly 40% lower than previous models. A 32-inch outdoor TV, for example, now costs $1,495, down from $2,395.

Larger outdoor theaters have also become a popular option. Interior designer Campion Platt has an outdoor movie screen on the back patio of his 1926 bungalow in Palm Beach, Fla. An indoor projector projects movies onto a screen/wall along the backside of a swimming pool, which he says he often uses for watching movies at night and during parties. “Virtually any client I’m doing a house for wants the same thing now,” he says.

Seattle-based landscape designer Scot Eckley, says he designs gardens and backyards to function like rooms, with a typical price range between $80,000 and $250,000. His clients Jenna and Jonas Sylvester wanted to extend their midcentury-modern style to their backyard, which they outfitted with a fire pit that doubles as a lounger, television nook and dining room table. “When the sun was shining, we wanted to have a place the whole family could gather and play,” says Ms. Sylvester.

Grimanesa Amorós, a multimedia artist in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood, has a rooftop terrace with several lounge areas, a hot tub, an outdoor shower and a full kitchen from Kalamazoo with a large grill, dishwasher and icemaker. Ms. Amoros says that since cooking outdoors depends on the weather, dinner parties take on a fun, impromptu nature on nice days. “I really look at the weather,” she says. “But my husband, he has cooked out here in rain and snow.”

At the Mansions at Acqualina, a Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., luxury tower on the beach, penthouse apartments will include 3,000-square-foot terraces with indoor-outdoor movie theaters, dining rooms, pools and living rooms. Todd Tragash, the interior designer, says they’ll be decorated with coffee tables, couches and lounge chairs and have 30-foot-long glass walls that open to merge them with indoor rooms. “You would have pretty much the same setup that you’d have in your [interior] living room on the outside,” he says.

Even bathing is moving outside. Cathy Schwabe, an Oakland, Calif.-based architect, recently designed a two-story home near downtown Palo Alto, Calif., that has a terrace with an outdoor bathtub. Her client partly wanted to maximize living space on a small lot with strict square-footage building codes and create a “spalike sanctuary” outside. “They thought it was really cool that you could come outside in your bathrobe.”

Get Weekly Insights and Research

Housing Notes by Jonathan Miller

Receive Jonathan Miller's 'Housing Notes' and get regular market insights, the market report series for Douglas Elliman Real Estate as well as interviews, columns, blog posts and other content.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter

#Housing analyst, #realestate, #appraiser, podcaster/blogger, non-economist, Miller Samuel CEO, family man, maker of snow and lobster fisherman (order varies)
NYC CT Hamptons DC Miami LA Aspen
Joined October 2007