They’ve found attractive and comfortable ways to use decks and patios even as the weather gets chilly. Whether you’re just seeking ways to stay warm outside while socializing safely or looking to create a show-stopping open-air gathering space, investing in your outdoor space makes sense right now.
Here’s how you can extend your deck and patio season right through the winter.
1. Put a roof on it
“Here in the Northwest, our summer season ends in mid-October, but a lot of my clients want to be outside in all seasons,” says Micah Dennis, president of Paradise Restored Landscaping & Exterior Design in Happy Valley, Oregon.
Covered structures, including screened-in porches or pavilions that are either attached to or detached from the home, are a great way to define an outdoor space and protect you from the elements, Dennis says. He noted that open lean-to patio covers — 10-to-14-foot sloped structures that provide a roofed area for year-round enjoyment — are the most affordable.
“Lean-tos are really nice for small areas; we can do built-in benches or a bar along the posts to maximize space,” he says, estimating costs at $4,000 to $8,000. “It adds style to your outdoor space.”
You can also hang up inexpensive, waterproof outdoor curtains so you can sit on your patio in comfort. These curtains can help keep heat in (especially if you add a small space heater) and protect you from rain and other elements.
2. Heat things up
Having an outdoor heat source will mean you can more comfortably entertain as the days grow colder, says Sharon McCormick, CEO of Sharon McCormick Design in Hartford, Connecticut.
Homeowners planning to spend lots of time on the patio may want to splurge on an outdoor wood-burning or gas fireplace, which costs $3,000 and up, she says. Fireplaces add ambiance and the chance to roast marshmallows year-round. You can also incorporate fun extras like a pizza oven.
If you prefer a movable blaze, portable firepits are an affordable way to create an outdoor gathering spot for family and friends. McCormick recommends purchasing one with a large rim so you can put your feet up on it safely.
“You can get a firepit kit for $200,” she notes, though they're currently in high demand. And if you're handy, you can even build your own more permanent version from scratch.
For condo or city dwellers whose homeowners associations or local municipalities don't permit wood-burning products, McCormick suggests coffee or side tables with hidden propane tanks that double as fire tables when the temperatures dip. These tables offer the warmth and ambiance of a fire when you'd like one, or you can leave the cover on for use as a dining table.
Don't want to tend a fire? Install outdoor heating fixtures instead. You can pick up some inexpensive hanging heaters or opt for tower-style patio heaters designed for residential use that warm up a 10-foot area. But order now because these items are selling fast and are becoming scarce.
Dennis has been installing heat sources mounted on the ceilings or beams in covered structures. “It forms a heat blanket or a wall of heat,” he explains.
3. Buy all-weather furniture
White plastic tables and chairs or metal furniture with no padding just won't cut it when winter blows in — you'll need sturdy, weatherproof seating to entertain outside in colder months. Consider upgrading to a plush sectional sofa and get pillows for your wooden Adirondack chairs.
You can even splurge on heated furniture, says McCormick, but it doesn't come cheap — heated sofas cost about $8,000 — but you can stay warm outside by adding fluffy pillows, chunky knit or fleece throws or heated blankets, she suggests. Or, for a more wallet-friendly option, get a cozy hug from a $200 heated camp chair, which allows you to control the temperature.
Incorporate warm hues into your color scheme, like deep reds, burnt oranges and yellows. Store your accessories in a waterproof bin or ottoman on your porch so they don't get wet.
4. Roll out some comfort underfoot
To add warmth and define a gathering area, lay a weatherproof rug over your concrete or flagstone patio, suggests McCormick.
“There's a plethora of outdoor rugs available now in any size or by the roll so you can have it custom-made,” McCormick says. “Most have a flat weave, so people don't trip on them, but there are some fluffier ones. You can also put a pad underneath to add another layer of insulation from the concrete or stone."
5. Let there be (more) light
With the sun setting earlier each day, exterior lighting provides cozy ambiance, McCormick says.
"String lights or solar lights that look like fluorescent strip lights are inexpensive; put them around the perimeter of the patio,” she says. “In a covered area, you can hang chandeliers if you have a tall enough ceiling."
You can add outdoor lamps made for exterior use; some are even battery-operated so there's no worry about tripping over cords.
Just as you would inside, layer your lighting — standing lamps, lanterns, candles or LED votives scattered through the space. Wrap some string lights around trees or shrubs to show off your landscaping. For some focused flames that add to your dining experience, put out a few tabletop tiki torches, too.
6. Set up a hot chocolate bar
Transform your bar area or a rolling cart into a hot chocolate bar: Use the side burner on your barbecue to heat up the cocoa, and have bowls of toppings like marshmallows and cinnamon sticks nearby. Your winter bar can also serve up hot apple cider or other festive beverages. An old wicker dresser can store supplies between gatherings.
Upgrading your outdoor space for year-round enjoyment offers a great return on investment, Dennis says.
“I've had clients sell their home in a second: As soon as it goes on the market there are price wars, because everybody wants outdoor living so much,” he says.
How to Choose a Patio Heater
Start by considering where you want to place the unit. “Remember, your space heater needs space,” says Karla Crosswhite-Chigbue, spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Keep it at least 3 feet from anything combustible, including sunshades, clothing and papers. If you opt for a propane heater, never use it indoors, because it will emit carbon monoxide. Think about these issues as well:
• Portable or permanent? This depends on your budget and commitment to year-round outdoor living. Permanent heaters are powerful and expensive — often approaching $1,000 — and should be installed professionally. Portable units are less pricey.
• Propane or electric? Portable propane models produce more heat than simple-to-use electric units, but a standard 20-pound tank empties after 10 hours of usage.
• Focus on safety. To reduce fire risk, look for patio heaters with switches that automatically shut off if the unit tips over, and avoid using extension cords or power strips to reduce fire risk. Never leave patio heaters unattended, especially near pets or small children.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 6, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.
Wendy Helfenbaum is a contributing writer who covers home improvement, gardening, automotive, real estate and travel. She's written for outlets including Apartment Therapy, Houzz, BBC.com, WomansDay.com, and Costco Connection.