Home improvement has become one of the nation's favorite pastimes. Every day millions tune in to watch T.V. gurus work their magic - sometimes to extremes.
But when it comes to real life, most Americans operate within a budget and evaluate their home improvements based on cost-effectiveness. One growing trend is an emphasis on outdoor living spaces, where families find usable space and a new venue for decorating and design.
"A nice deck or patio doesn't cost nearly as much as adding indoor space and yet it's a great addition to a home," says Chelsea Gardner, a landscape designer who writes about outdoor decorating and entertaining.
"I'm seeing more homeowners who want improvements that enhance their lifestyle, and decks give you great options for entertaining, relaxing, and spreading out. With today's wide range of deck and patio products you can add on a signature environment using creative design and interesting accessories," says Dave Bielicki, owner of Decks Atlanta.
Bielicki notes that today's decks have become much more than wooden platforms attached to the back of a house. They are designer-inspired living spaces, where comfortable furniture, functional lighting, and decorative balusters make them an attractive, multi-purpose area for families.
Kelly Jones, founder of Deckorators, a leader in deck rail options and accessories, says their newest items appeal to the homeowner who wants more than just place to plop the charcoal grill and lawn chairs.
Included on his list of best sellers are stylized baroque balusters of maintenance-free aluminum and view expanding options made of glass. The company's "Scenic Series" of glass balusters comes in two styles - the Frontier, a simple rectangular design with beveled edges, and the Contour, a curvaceous figure-eight design. Both are available in clear or tinted versions.
"When you sit on your deck, you're actually at eye level with the rails, so it makes sense to make the balusters a focal point," Jones says.
Even if a new "designer" deck is not in the budget, adding balusters, postcaps, or centerpieces can give a tired deck a brand new look. New balusters are so easy to install that do-it-yourselfers can make dramatic upgrades in their existing decks over a weekend. Jones says virtual design tools, like the one on the Deckorators Web site (www.deckorators.com), make it possible to see just how different a deck can look with some dramatic updating.
Sometimes even the "perfect home" with lots of interior space feels different when the weather warms up. Cheryl and Richard Basanti of Naperville, Ill. moved into their house in the winter, and when spring arrived they realized they lacked outdoor space to entertain and keep an eye on the children playing outside.
"Our house had a small deck, but it was not very functional. It sat up high on our house and offered no privacy from our neighbors," Cheryl says.
The Basantis hired a contractor and converted their old deck into a multi-level entertainment space, taking advantage of the slope of their land to create privacy and square footage. Today, Cheryl says her deck, which includes attractive designer balusters and matching postcaps, gets as much use - and compliments - as their inside space.
"Remodeling your home for financial reasons has actually become more of a gamble than an investment," says financial planning expert Viktor Szucs, a certified financial planner with Quest Capital Management in Dallas. "It's always best to invest in enhancements for yourself rather than for resale purposes."
Although expensive media rooms and gymnasium-sized master suites may be popular items for wealthy homeowners, a new deck or renovation of an existing one makes sense for a broader range of people. "Remodeling Magazine" says decks are expected to remain a top project for homeowners interested in adding value, space and return on investment.