Tuesday Tips: Buying Outdoor Furniture

Old Man Winter has finally packed his bags and moved out. Although his bite is still nipping a little at our heels, the promise of reuniting with the warm outdoors is so close. I'm now picturing lazy summer nights on my small patio. The kids are in bed, the Metro buses have stopped roaring past my house and the crickets are chirping. That's when my husband and I enjoy our small patio the most. But the right outdoor furniture is key. I talked to retailers and a garden designer about how to buy the right furniture for your patio. Here are their tips:

Tip #1: Before heading out to buy patio or lawn furniture, analyze the space where it will go. Think about what you'll need it for: Is it for lavish dinner parties or quiet newspaper-and-coffee mornings? Does the space get a ton of sun? Will the furniture be sitting on grass or on a hard surface? Your answers will help determine if you need an umbrella or if you need a lighter weight furniture for grassy spots. It can also help you decide if you need a large table and chairs or just a simple set of comfy chairs with an end table between them.

Tip #2: If you're buying a table for a patio or deck, measure the space that you're planning to fill. Keep in mind that the chairs around a table take up an additional 24 inches of space. And then you'll need an extra 24 to 36 inches from the back of the chairs to be able to walk around. Before you buy, go home with the furniture measurements and use chalk to draw the dimensions on your patio or deck to get an idea of whether it will all fit in the space.

Tip #3: Material is everything in outdoor furniture. You want it to be durable so it can withstand the elements but you also want it to look nice and be maintenance-free. "The reality of any outdoor furniture is that weather has a serious effect on it," says Ann Sulkie, owner of Gardens by Ann, a local garden design firm. "The summer sun is brutal on furniture." Here's the lowdown on some of the most common materials: Wrought iron is indestructible but should be washed before and after the summer season with warm soapy water. If the paint chips, it'll need to be touched up. It's heavy, so it's best for a patio or deck rather than grass. And if taken care of, it will last for decades. Aluminum is lighter than wrought iron and doesn't rust. But it certainly doesn't last as long as wrought iron. Wicker is more fragile against the elements of the outdoors. Some manufacturers sell resin wicker, which is wrapped around a steel or aluminum frame, making it more durable and easier to clean. Outdoor furniture made out of wood makes for a nice earthy look but it will change as the sun and rain hit it. Pine and cedar are softer and more affordable than shorea and mahogany. Teak is the toughest of the woods but probably the most expensive. And finally, recycled plastic is often made to look like wood without having to chop down the trees. It's also lighter in weight.

Tip #4: If you're going for pillows and chair covers, make sure you have a place to store them when you're not outside. Storing them during your indoor time will preserve the look and life of the pillows. "If you leave them out all the time, they're going to look shabby quickly," Sulkie says. Look for pillows that have some kind of color stay protection, as well as polyester fibers to allow air to filter through. Also, cushions with patterns on both sides can be flipped over when Junior loses control of his cherry-flavored popsicle and mommy spills her glass of red wine trying to save the frozen treat.

Tip #5: Go with an umbrella that's a lighter, neutral color. Otherwise a bright colored umbrella will look faded and dull by the end of the summer.

Tip #6: If you're buying a chaise lounge for stretching out your legs, make sure you spend a lot of time trying it out in the store before plunking down your credit card. There's nothing worse than an uncomfortable chaise lounge.

Tip #7: If you're working with a small space, consider a bar table set rather than a full-sized table. A bar set will hold about four people for cocktails or two people for a meal. Bar stools rather than chairs will also conserve space. If you must go with a traditional dining table, consider armless chairs. They'll take up less space around the table. If you're working with a small deck, consider taking out some of the railings and building benches around the border. That way you can put a table in front of the bench for a small dining area that doesn't take up a ton of space.

Tip #8: If you're working with limited funds, wait until after July 4th for sales on outdoor furniture. Another dollar saver is to just replace your cushions, umbrella and any other outdoor accessories rather than replacing the entire furniture set. It'll update your outdoor look without having to shell out the big bucks for new furniture pieces.

Tip #9: If you're handy and creative, check out yard sales and flea markets for old furniture that can be turned into a lawn or patio set with a can of paint.

Tip #10: Make sure you have a place to put the furniture during the winter months. If not, consider investing in heavy duty covers to protect each of the pieces.

So, what are your tips for buying outdoor furniture? Where are the best places to get outdoor pieces?

And on a different note... have you ever shopped at Bloom, the new grocery store chain that claims to offer a different shopping experience? I'd love to hear about your experience. E-mail me at shoptoit@washingtonpost.com.

By Tania Anderson |  April 8, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Tuesday Tips
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We bought our outdoor furniture at...Wegmans. No, really. As much as we would have liked a set from Offenbacher's or another specialty store, the sets we were looking at were $1500-2500. Plus, most of the pieces were too large for the space, a 14x16 sunroom.

We shopped at Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, Costco and BJ's before making our purchase. Our set consists of a loveseat, two chairs, two side tables, two ottomans, and a coffee table plus cushions for $900. It is made from a high-quality plastic wicker over a metal frame and feels very sturdy. There was a similar set at Sears, but the chairs we found at Wegmans were more comfortable and the overall design worked better with our space.

Our only complaint is that the coffee table came as part of a set and we really don't need it. The entire package would have been $1100 if bought separately without the coffee table and we are probably going to sell it in Craigslist for $25.

Posted by: SapphicHokieMom | April 8, 2008 10:10 AM

I bought a great patio set from Sears a couple years ago. The key is to buy in August. I got a large, rectangular table, 6 chairs, and a umbrella on sale for only about $400 including shipping.

Posted by: Sweetie | April 8, 2008 10:40 AM

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