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This article first appeared in the PB November 2011 issue of Pro Builder.

Next to energy efficiency, perhaps no other market trend is changing the landscape of new-home design than outdoor living. Long a key part of the residential design vernacular, outdoor living has gotten renewed focus in recent years as homeowners look to maximize living and entertainment space without dramatically impacting overall costs.

The home-building community has taken notice. Many builders now offer a full line of outdoor living options, from traditional features like decks, landscaping, and fully sodded lawns to contemporary options like outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, and kitchens. Some builders are even using the trend as an incentive to get potential buyers in the door. For instance, Atlanta-based Edward Andrews Homes is offering free upgrades like brick-paver patios, screen-in porches, and outdoor kitchens to entice buyers.

According to an October 2011 survey of more than 230 Professional Builder readers, 60 percent of builders said they had expanded their lineup of outdoor living options during the past 12 months (Chart 3), and more than half said that, when it comes to selling new homes, outdoor living is more important today than two years ago; only 10 percent said it is less important (Chart 1).

Moreover, nearly half of respondents (46 percent) said they are seeing increased demand for outdoor living features than a year ago, while only about 9 percent said they are seeing less demand (Chart 2).

“The bottom line is people are staying home and entertaining more, and they want to have inviting areas to attract their friends,” said one respondent. Another builder said, “I now include patio-deck spaces off of as many major living areas as possible. Outdoor space is cheaper to build than enclosed space and it increases the livable area of the building in my clients’ eyes at a lower cost per square foot without posing zoning issues.”

When asked to select their top three best-selling outdoor living features, the largest number of builders identified decks, outdoor fireplace/fire pits, and landscaping, followed by screened-in porches, stone/brick patios, and exterior lighting. More than one in three respondents said decks are a major seller, while 29 percent cited outdoor fireplace/fire pits. Surprisingly, more than 16 percent said fully equipped outdoor kitchens were a best-seller — a luxury item traditionally seen in only the highest end of the housing market (Chart 4).

One reason for the growth in outdoor kitchens, said one survey respondent, is the emergence of outdoor-specific appliances and systems for kitchens and entertainment areas. “Just a few years back, appliances and electronics designated for outdoor living areas were really made for interior applications and were not very effective,” said the builder. “Now manufacturers are making useable products for the outdoor environment, such as TVs with glare-free screens.”

What are builders offering as standard? Landscaping, decks, exterior lighting, and fully sodded lawns top the list of outdoor living features that are included in the base price of a new home, according to survey respondents. Almost half of builders said they offer landscaping as a standard feature with their new homes, while about a third said they provide features like decks, exterior lighting, and fully sodded lawns in the base price. Fenced backyards, sliding/folding patio doors, and stone/brick patios were also frequently cited by survey respondents (Chart 5).

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