“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” Dorothy famously says in The Wizard of Oz, “I’ll find it in my own backyard.” As residents—and potential residents—of the North Shore have learned over the past three years, Dorothy isn’t wrong. Home has truly become where the heart is, as couples and families seek more outdoor space to roam and to entertain on their own private properties.
Three years ago, North Shore real estate brokers would tell you they couldn’t sell a house with a pool. Now they can’t sell a house without one. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. With wait times nearly three years to have a pool put in (if you happen to have the room), well-appointed outdoor spaces on the North Shore are at a premium.
“Even though we live in an area where we experience all four seasons, people are starting to realize that their outdoor space is an extension of their homes,” says Carly Jones, a real estate broker with Engel & V.lkers in Winnetka. “This means that it needs to be functional and feel almost like an extra room.”
Jones says more people are looking for beautiful patios, outdoor kitchens, firepits, and even just green space where their families can run around. In other words, the great, all-American backyard is being quickly replaced by high-tech, fully “furnished,” outdoor living spaces.
“People want to be able to entertain in their outdoor space. This means having a place for a dining table, and bonus points if it is covered so you can still enjoy it in the rain,” Jones says. “They also want spaces where their friends and family can gather, whether that is around a swimming pool or a firepit.”
More people realize that your outdoor space can be used most of the year and not just in the summer. Dining spaces with a heater make outside dinners possible in early spring, and while buyers want outdoor spaces that allow for activity, they also want to be able to sit back and relax. Jones says many people just want an ideal space to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning without interruption.
For sellers, a well-accoutered outdoor space can increase their bottom lines.
“Outdoor space is a huge value-add to homes. People underestimate how much it costs to put in a swimming pool, put down a large patio, build a gas fire pit, or build an outdoor kitchen,” Jones says. “To have those things already done and start enjoying them right away is a huge advantage. Just as having an updated kitchen is extremely desirable to buyers, so is having a large, functional outdoor space.”
Connie Dornan, a broker with @properties in Glenview, says priorities for how green spaces are utilized by homeowners have shifted over the past couple of years.
“Outdoor living has become a top priority for many of my clients since the pandemic began,” Dornan says. “Pre-pandemic, it was more about having a large green space but now tastes have shifted, and buyers are seeking more flexibility in the use of that outdoor area. For many, it’s an extension of their living room and they are purchasing outdoor TVs and theater systems.”
What buyers are seeking is largely dependent on their lifestyle, Dornan says. For the sports and exercise enthusiasts, they are looking for basketball and tennis courts, but for the entertainers, it’s more about outdoor kitchens, cooking, gardening, exterior lighting, fireplaces, gazebos, and pergolas.
“Homes that have a ‘showcase’ outdoor living space sell in record time and are one of the main drivers for buyers,” says Dornan. “Most cannot imagine what can be done until they see it and once they do, they want it.”
“Since COVID-19, the demand for outdoor space has increased tremendously as more and more buyers are entertaining at home and, if they have children, being able to run free has dramatically been enhanced,” says Gloria Matlin, a broker with Compass in Glencoe. “Many more buyers are looking for pools, hot tubs, and general indoor/outdoor living. In prior years, pools had become a negative and now it’s on wish lists.”
Jamie Roth, a broker with Engel & Vōlkers in Highland Park, says that depending on price point, he’s seen demand for outdoor spaces increase exponentially due the pandemic.
“I just sold a gorgeous upper bracket home in Lake Forest with both a pool and tennis court and the buyers were thrilled that those amenities were there,” Roth says. “The pool was a must-have for them and the tennis court was ‘icing on the cake’. I’m also working with a number of younger buyers coming from the city and all of them want sizable yards in which they can entertain or just live as a family in case there’s another lockdown.”
Francie Pinkwater, a broker with Engel & Vōlkers in Winnetka, says she could sense early on in the pandemic that outdoor spaces were going to be a priority for new buyers.
“I think the demand for outdoor space started with COVID. I saw people erecting all kinds of outdoor areas, tents, firepits, hot tubs, heat lamps—all needed for outdoor dining and entertaining,” Pinkwater says. “Now that the pandemic is somewhat coming to an end, people are used to the outdoor entertainment areas. I have seen more firepits in the last few years than ever before, and they are here to stay.”
Pool cabanas have become a popular amenity as more families are opting for staycations and want to bring a resort-like feel to their outdoor spaces, says Cory Albiani, a broker with @properties in Highland Park.
“People are no longer seeing home as just a place to live, but a place to play,” Albiani says. “They’re putting in outdoor kitchens and amenities such as pickleball courts. I know a family that put in a pool and cabana area and an outdoor kitchen for a house that wasn’t that large on a one-acre lot, but they wanted to make that investment.”
For Laurie Field, a broker with Engel & Vōlkers in Winnetka, the demand for outdoor space is partly rooted in human nature.
“Outdoor space is high on everyone’s wish list now, where it was only on some buyers’ wish lists in the past,” Field says. “The combination of how we value outdoor space differently since COVID and recent research that shows that time outside can make you happier and healthier leads me to believe the desire for outdoor space is here to stay.
“Outdoor space has become an extension of the home and people are finding fulfilling and fun ways to use it.”