The lines of demarcation between indoor and outdoor living continue to blur as more homeowners gravitate into backyard spaces to whip up dinner for friends, light a small bonfire or put in a few hours of work while sitting on a shaded patio.

Last year, families facing suspended summer plans and orders to shelter in place raced to turn their backyards into minivacation and hobby hubs with inflatable pools, freshly dug vegetable gardens, and trampolines and swing sets to engage restless children.

Now, they’re leveling up these same spaces with more permanent features that combine purpose with pleasure and celebrate a return to entertaining. A hankering for homemade pizza doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re looking to recoup costs in the future.

These bigger upgrades to outdoor spaces are great for immediate personal enjoyment but also offer potential for good return on investment when it comes time to sell the home. Spacious decks and in-ground pools will always appeal to certain homebuyers. Yet smaller projects like fire pits, gazebos and specialty gardens can be just as impactful and financially rewarding. Studies have shown that a Zen garden can increase a home’s value by 1.5%, while listings mentioning an outdoor kitchen can sell for 2.2% more than similar homes without one.

Costs to build a basic wood-fired brick oven hover around $1,000 (portable options, like the squat pizza cooker from Bertello run about $300 and up). According to a Zillow survey of 1.4 million homes sold in 2020, properties with an outdoor pizza oven can sell for 3.4% more than expected, although any major outdoor cooking features, like a kitchen, smoker and patio bar, also automatically boost a property’s desirability.

Homes with these features have been selling 39% faster than during the same period last year, according to data supplied by Realtor.com. The median listing price for properties with these amenities ticked up 14.9% year-over-year to $609,000 in 2021.

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Since the arrival of COVID-19, the team at Father Nature Landscapes in Birmingham, Alabama, has been fielding a flurry of requests from clients interested in creating more livable backyard rooms.

“The calls all pertain to entertaining outdoors,” said Daniel McCurry, who co-owns the business with his brother Andrew and whose days are now spent installing outdoor kitchens and dining spaces.

Curating outside areas for people to gather is a comfortable fit for the McCurrys.

“We were raised with an entertainer’s mind in a very nurturing home,” he said. “Our mother would entertain large groups, 40 people in our family alone, almost monthly.”

A sleek pool with a hot tub and a dedicated fire pit are popular projects for homeowners who want more out of their backyard spaces. Both features can even help homes sell for more. (Getty Images)

Motivated homeowners are also dialing Father Nature’s number for custom swimming pools with add-ons like a tanning shelf, which sits 9 to 12 inches deep in the water and provides space for lounge chairs or for children to sit and play. And customers want fountains, too, especially those that mask noise from the street and neighborhood and can be voice operated via smart devices like Google Home.

“The goal is to connect our families, and if their space isn’t intimate, they won’t have intimate conversations,” Daniel McCurry said.

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Fire features can spark more than just flames with homeowners, according to a 2018 Remodeling Impact Outdoors study provided by the National Association of Realtors. Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights for the group, said the trends — of embracing private, individual outdoor space — have been reinforced with COVID. These days, homeowners are keen on outdoor fireplaces that are easy to use and feature automatic ignitions.

Simple and transportable fire pit vessels online can run as little as $50. But the average cost for a custom-designed fireplace starts around $3,000, according to HomeAdvisor, and can skyrocket to $20,000 or more depending on the size and materials used.

Especially during the pandemic, consumers have been using fire pits for three- or four-season entertaining, and apparently are willing to pay for it. In a Zillow study exploring home features that sell, properties listing outdoor fireplaces, fire pits and free-standing chiminea fireplaces can sell 2.8 days quicker, and for 1.6% more than similar homes lacking the feature.

The fire pit is where Amy Zakarin and her husband, Isaac Rosenberg, of North Miami, Florida, find themselves most nights at the vacation home they bought in March in the mountain community of Hendersonville, North Carolina.

With the 360-degree views, the sunset is magical, but the space lacked inspiration and form, said Zakarin, who works as a senior counselor at an advertising and marketing agency.

“The original owner never truly finished the outside,” she said.

Although the house requires interior work, the couple is focusing on the outdoor spaces first. This month, they will break ground on a new “mountain patio” encompassing the fire pit, which doubles as a barbecue. They’ve allotted $35,000 for the design and installation, and to plant a privacy border of trees to block views of a nearby property.

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Homeowners are tailoring their outdoor spaces to be functional and fun, with separate areas to lounge and play. A pergola is a great way to add shade, personality and value to a courtyard. (Courtesy of Claire Goldman)

Small outdoor structures and flex spaces that can be used to walk through, sit in or have another practical use are also hitting homeowner wish lists, and experts say they’re ideal for introducing a focal point and punch of personality in a yard or garden.

“Pergolas are a great way to define a space and provide some shade,” said Claire Goldman, a principal at R & R Landscaping in Auburn, Alabama, who is on the board of directors for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

According to data supplied by Realtor.com, property views for homes with pergolas, gazebos, canopies and pavilions increased by 45% over last year, and they are selling in 36 days, which is 23 days (39%) faster than in the same period last year. The median listing price for homes with these types of outdoor structures is up 13.4% year-over-year, reaching $453,000 in 2021.

Adding a wooden deck also drives return on investment. Data from Remodeling Magazine reveals that building a new 16-by-20-foot wood deck with stairs and railings can run just under $17,000 and has a resale value of $11,000, a return of 65.8%. But be wary of rushing a project like this, cautions the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Clayton DeKorne.

“Demand for contractors is so high, and materials are still very delayed,” DeKorne said. “The best advice may be to wait, put down a deposit and lock in the project for next spring.”

Alongside lush lawns and pretty landscaping, curb appeal naturally goes a long way at resale time. Even a fresh coat of paint can do wonders for drawing viewers in. The paint brand Dunn-Edwards has declared that trending exterior colors include mineral and nature-based hues like warm grays, sage and brown, along with charcoals and deep blues. Alternatively, colors that are best to avoid include orange, bright blue, yellow and red, which are more vulnerable to fading from the sun.

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As for all the vegetable gardens planted during the pandemic, they’re probably here to stay. If anything, new iterations are becoming more purposeful, and are being tailored for fresh cut flowers and to attract winged visitors.

“We have seen more openness to a wildflower and pollinator garden surrounding the lawn instead of more manicured shrubs,” Goldman said.

The hardest part might be in figuring out which outdoor project to start with first, and Goldman recommends approaching the process cautiously.

“The biggest overall trend is more of an emphasis on thoughtfulness and function,” she said. “Clients are looking for purpose in their outdoor space.”