It always starts with the grill. Then, add a refrigerator (or at least an ice chest). How about a sink? Some counter and storage space add convenience.
Table and chairs? Of course. But why stop there? Bring on the couch and television. Heck, wheel out the whole entertainment center it's party time!
It's Memorial Day weekend, traditional start of our summer season of outdoor living. Californians are making a max exodus outside, and they're taking all the comforts of indoors with them.
"People want to bring their living room into their backyard," said Sunset magazine's Sarah Gaffney, creator of the "Ultimate Outdoor Living Room" for Sunset's upcoming Celebration Weekend. "They want all the components of their living room outside lighting, furniture, pillows, area rugs, throws. In California, we can do that at least eight months out of the year. We like to stay home, and we love being outside."
Reflecting economic trends, the "staycation" remains a top summer option.
According to a recent poll by pool supply maker Pentair Aquatic Systems, greater savings and high gas prices are what nearly two out of three homeowners say will keep them home this vacation. Among their top "staycation" activities is entertaining family and friends.
And with real estate values still lagging, homeowners continue to stay put instead of moving. Meanwhile, they're investing in their current houses particularly their backyards.
"A lot of people say, 'My house is too small,' " said Sacramento landscape designer Ahmed Hassan, host of HGTV's "Yard Crashers." "You've got more room outdoors why not utilize it? Invest in your own property and become the person with the spot that everybody wants to have."
Said Gaffney, "The economy had a part to play in all this. People are unable to remodel or sell for a bigger house. But they have all this backyard space. They can improve it almost instantly, but still make it stylish."
Pent-up consumer demand for fancy grills and patio sets has many shoppers buying up. While we continue to crave outdoor kitchens, we're now creating these entertainment areas ourselves.
"The trend has not really changed; we've been saying the same thing for about three years," said Hassan, who lives in the Arden Park neighborhood. "People want to use their outdoor space. But what continues to change are the elements.
"Take grills, for example. What's happening is they're faster, hotter, larger with side burners, MP3 players, refrigerators, you name it. It's still a grill, but now it has all these buzzers and bells. It's just a question of how many more bells and whistles we can add."
Surprising merchants, sales of high-end barbecues are up more than 30 percent. In addition, several new products are geared to making "room" outside feel like home.
"We've seen a tremendous increase in sales," said Chuck White, field division manager of the Home Depot. "More people are stepping up in barbecues; they're hungry for a change."
Barbecue sales actually were fairly flat in 2011, but they exploded this spring.
"This season, grill sales are up dramatically," said Chris Muller, "buyer of fire" for Hayneedle.com, which sells more than 25 brands of grills. "Last year, we had a little breather in sales following three strong years. But now, they're roaring back. It has a lot to do with people staying at home this summer."
Amazon.com also has seen a surge in barbecue sales, especially combo grills that offer both gas and charcoal. Smokers and ceramic cookers are hot, too.
White attributes the current sales spike to that pent-up demand.
"Home sales are still down," White noted. "People are coming to the realization they'll be in their home longer. They're trying to create the environment they really want."
It goes beyond grills, White added. "Sales of patio sets have increased. Decking (sales are) extremely strong in Sacramento. More and more decks are being put in. But we're also selling more swing sets, more outdoor tile (for patios). It all goes into creating more outdoor living space."
Also increasing are sales of outdoor ceiling fans for patios, built-in griddles and wok inserts for outdoor kitchens, and outdoor modular cabinets.
"Everybody wants everything," Hassan said. "But it all depends on your budget."
"Backyard bling" offset umbrellas that swing out from walls, space heaters, built-in grills make basic yards feel more like resort living.
"Everybody wants built-ins," said Hassan, who will be among the featured speakers at Sunset's Celebration Weekend on June 2 and 3 in Menlo Park. "What can they have out there all the time so you don't have to lug it around and set it up? It's less trips back indoors."
Those elements came into play while designing the Ultimate Outdoor Living Room, Gaffney said.
"What do people want to do outside? Eat, drink, sit and sleep," she said. "All those elements went into our room."
That "room" is actually a large chunk of the parking lot at Sunset's Menlo Park headquarters. For Celebration Weekend, Gaffney and her staff constructed a 700-square-foot deck out of Trex, added a 150-square-foot "mom cottage" (a little house to get away from it all) and 4,000 square feet of landscaping.
"It's like building an exhibit for Disneyland," she said. "The deck is surrounded by lawn and lush landscape. You'd never know it's on top of an asphalt parking lot."
Next weekend, more than 23,000 guests will tour this outdoor room. Defining the space are tall potted plants and "walls" of succulents, planted vertically. They wrap around an outdoor shower.
"It may be the doggy shower," Gaffney said, "but you can still make it beautiful."
Reclaimed pallet wood is used for a bar, an extension of a large outdoor kitchen. Topped with fade-resistant pillows in bright pink, orange, yellow, lime and a splash of cool blue, an outdoor bed rocks softly, inviting an afternoon nap.
"We try to think outside the box," Gaffney said. "But when it comes to creating an outdoor room, what you need most is a little shade. As long as you have shade, you're comfortable."
SUNSET CELEBRATION WEEKEND
Where: Sunset Magazine, 80 Willow Road, Menlo Park
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. next Saturday and June 3
Admission: $16 general; $14 for seniors 60 and up; children 12 and under admitted free
Details: www.sunset.com, (800) 786-7375
Highlights: Scores of demonstrations and seminars featuring the best of the West. Among the presenters are celebrity chef Guy Fieri, cookbook author Tom Douglas, Sacramento landscape designer Ahmed Hassan and Sunset's editors and staff.