National home and gardening experts predict integrating outdoor living into daily life will continue to grow in popularity, especially if the "staycations" induced by the sluggish economy remain popular.
Locally, homeowners are expanding their interior sanctuaries beyond the back door to create exterior living spaces with amenities that range from patios with all-weather furniture and outdoor lighting to fireplaces, pergolas and outdoor kitchens.
In place of a week-long family vacation for four to Walt Disney World ($5,000 and higher), homeowners can increase the utility and value of their property while providing relaxing backdrops for spending time together.
One of the keys to realizing the dream of a resort-like atmosphere in the back yard is, of course, planning.
Scott Greeson, owner of Woodlands Outdoor Living in Concord, said proof of a strengthening economy can be found in the growing demand for outdoor living areas.
"What we've been seeing over the years - with the economy and the housing market being what it is - people are not upgrading and moving into bigger, more expensive homes, they're refurbishing and adding outdoor living spaces," he said.
His company is celebrating 10 years of business throughout the Cabarrus and Charlotte areas, so Cabarrus News asked Greeson for some advice on how to get the most out of home investments and what to look for in a contractor.
A first and a must in the design and installation process, said Greeson, is to work out a budget that includes all project aspects from start to finish. Then, simply take it on step by step or as funds allow.
"If you want to budget ... for a project, it doesn't all have to be done at the same time," said Greeson. "Go ahead and put the patio in now and wait until next year's tax return, or something like that, to finish it. As long as it's all planned together, it won't look piecemealed together.
"You also need to make sure to consider all the furniture and make your patio big enough to handle it. People think they can go out and fit a table and chairs, a grill and two lounge chairs on 200 square feet, but then you don't have room to walk around."
Woodlands specializes in upscale exterior living spaces and handles everything from design and installation to maintaining landscapes. It moved to its current location on Concord Parkway North in February 2009.
Homeowners also can consider financing their projects, but credit is harder to come by and percentage rates have almost doubled from 6 to 12 percent in recent years, said Greeson, and same-as-cash-type programs also may help offset costs.
It's a good idea to choose a company that has insurance for workers compensation and general liability during the project, said Greeson, to avoid becoming liable for accidents as the homeowner, said Greeson. Company trucks, matching uniforms and employees who have had backgrounds checks and drug screens can help ease worries.
Greeson's wife, Jenny, advises people to check whether businesses are members of the area chamber of commerce, and she advised checking the Better Business Bureau and Angie's List - an online service that compiles consumer ratings of local companies and contractors - for consumer complaints or recommendations.
Greeson, a former equipment salesmen, broke into the industry offering lawn care. Work snowballed to include paver and patio work, and within a few years, he and his 11 employees offered retaining walls, outdoor kitchens, pergolas, decks and swimming pools.
"Outdoor fireplaces are big now as are circular fire pits and Primo Smokers: the American-made version of the Big Green Egg," said Greeson. "We're on a big kick to buy everything local or, when we can, American-made."
The average patio with pergola takes about a week to build; add a week if you plan to include a fireplace and additional amenities. Make sure the work can be done in a timely manner.
"One of the biggest advantages of working with us is we take one project at a time from start to finish," said Greeson. "We go in and start one and finish it before we move on to the next one. And customers are working with only one company."
Woodlands prides itself on giving customers a location to "visualize and touch" rather than conceptualize an outdoor living area. The 2,000-square-foot showroom features a complete outdoor kitchen, fireplaces, paver patios and walkways, pergolas and pavilions, stone walls, decking, fire pits and natural and cultured stone.
"The homeowner can bring us a general idea of what they want," he said. "They can walk in here and look at pavers on the floor, they can touch them, take their shoes off and walk on them."