Now that the gloom of winter is dissipating, many are turning to the great outdoors to relax and rejuvenate. But countless numbers of us are stepping no farther than our own back yard or patio to cook, relax, and entertain.

And you might be intrigued by some of the extravagant products on the market - a gas fireplace that doubles as a mirror when not in use, electric fireplaces in a variety of designs, a freestanding stove with an aromatherapy feature, a low-emission wood burning fireplace with automatic features, a gas fireplace with 30-inch-high flames.

Joan McCloskey, Editorial Marketing Director of Better Homes and Gardens recently told attendees at the International Builders Show that outdoor rooms are every bit as important to a homebuyer as interior spaces.

Homeowners want carefully planted yards and water features that look attractive at night as well as during the day.

"The biggest trend we see in landscape remodeling right now are second houses - or almost - being built in back yards," she said.

That "second house" can mean anything from an outdoor kitchen to a family room with a firepit to a dining alcove in a gazebo, or even a sleeping porch.

America seems to have fallen in love with outdoor water and rock features, rock gardens, waterfalls, creeks, and ponds, all filling spaces that used to be devoted mainly to grass, McCloskey said. And as new products replace pressure-treated lumber for decks and stairs, lack of maintenance and resistance to rot and insects offer strong appeal to homeowners.

The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, which recently held its annual tradeshow and exposition, says the growth of the outdoor living phenomena is the result of North America's interest in 'cocooning,' the trend toward a more casual lifestyle, an aging population and the popularity of porches, decks, and patios in homes.

Some of the outdoor products revealed at its expo last month include:

  • Outdoor fireplaces like the Heat-n-Glo's Dakota Outdoor Fireplace, the world's first gas fireplace developed specifically for outdoor use. It vents through a decorative front grill, so there's no need for a chimney. It's smoke-free, so there are no messy ashes. It can be used in screened-in porches, gazebos and lanais. It features realistic concrete logs and is weatherproof.
  • Affordable stainless steel grills from Beafeater and Broil King.
  • Complete outdoor kitchens systems, with TVs and refrigerators like the CalSpas Cal Flame barbecue that includes features like footrests, drawers, beer taps, refrigerators and more.
  • Infrared burners and lighted handles for barbecues.
  • Campfire-styled fire pits for backyard cooking such as the California Campfire, a portable and easy to use campfire available in redwood and teak. It comes with a fire log grate, a retractable stainless spark screen, and a fitted vinyl weather cover for when not in use.
  • Outdoor furniture designed for greater comfort and durability.

    Whether you want to create an outdoor room for cooking, eating, playing, or all three, the HPBA says you should first determine how you want to use the space. Peruse magazines and web sites and gather photos of what you like.

    Next, research products such as outdoor fireplaces, firepits, barbecues, full kitchens, and patio furniture by visiting or contacting outdoor room product manufacturers. Keep the style of your house in mind and search for complementary products.

    Once you have an idea of which products you'd like, draw a plan. Consider incorporating fire, food and water, which are the key elements to an "official" outdoor room.

    Then decide whether to tackle the project yourself or seek expert advice and installation. If you want professional help, take your scrapbook of photos and sketches to a specialty retailer that sells hearth, barbecue and patio products. They can help you determine the materials and outdoor room products available in your area and help you formalize your plan while helping you stay within your budget.

    Or, if you opt to do it yourself, visit home improvement warehouses and specialty stores on your own to determine what's available and for how much.

    Next, the experts say you should:

  • Build the space. Start by creating the foundation then adding such elements as the fireplace, kitchen and eating area.
  • Add the furnishings. No matter what your style, there is patio furniture to fit your needs and design tastes.
  • Include extras such as patio heaters, outdoor speakers, potted plants and pillows when decorating the outdoor space.
  • Add landscaping. Adding native plants will help accentuate the space and provide the sense of a lush oasis.
  • Consider lighting to enhance areas and make the space usable in all weather conditions.
  • Think about other features - water (ponds, waterfalls), flooring (wood, brick, stone, stamped concrete, pavers), shelters (gazebos, awnings, umbrellas) and decks.

    And lastly, although you want your outdoor room to be luxurious, you don't need to overspend. Set a realistic budget and remember - you don't have to do everything at once. Once you have the basics in place, pace yourself and add one or two new items each year.

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