Outdoor Kitchen 101: Setting the Scene for Outdoor Living

Sure, buying a grill and calling it an outdoor kitchen is one way to go. But with a real al fresco space—quality grill, outdoor refrigerator, and ambient lighting—you are on your way to a ton of fun—and a good investment

outdoor kitchen Outdoor kitchen renovation by Sweeten contractor Dennis

If you agree that the kitchen is the heart of the home, then consider bringing that sense of entertaining and relaxation to the summer outdoors. The options for an outdoor kitchen are endless – sinks, fridges, lighting, roofing and the list goes on. If this sounds appealing then you are not alone. More than 70 percent of homeowners who have outdoor space are looking to enhance the patio with the goal of making it more relaxing, according to a recent survey from American Home Furnishing Alliance. A CNN Money survey predicted the outdoor kitchen market to be worth almost $6 billion yearly.

An outdoor kitchen might be the cherry on top of your home renovation plans – it isn’t the cheapest project nor a necessity – but it is sure to boost your summer fun and the value of your property. Here’s how you can go about bringing the food and festivities outside:

Mark the calendar

Outdoor work can be done any time of the year but weather with temperatures above freezing, rain or snow is preferred. On average, the timeframe to complete an outdoor kitchen is 2-3 weeks on the short side and four months on the long end. Start the process at least six months before you want to have the outdoor kitchen completed which also leaves enough time to create a good kitchen plan, advises Dennis.

Set the budget

As is the case with all home renovation projects, it’s better to figure out what you want to spend in the beginning. And like all home renovation projects, your budget will be a meeting place of your financial abilities and what you need and want. Sweeten general contractor Dennis has worked on outdoor kitchens in the Philadelphia area that range in price from $15,000 to more than $100,000. The national average cost of a mid-range backyard patio that includes a fire pit, small fridge, sink, gas grill, lighting, a pergola and a 20-foot square patio on flat ground is about $50,000, according to Costvsvalue.comThat renovation will add almost $30,000 to your home’s value. Many outdoor kitchens will start with a patio or deck that is already there, potentially bringing down the cost, according to Dennis.  

Draw up the design

The layout of your outdoor kitchen can be drawn up by a kitchen designer or in a growing number of cases, a landscaper, says Dennis. Landscapers help to blend the outdoor kitchen into the overall look of your outdoor space. And of course, your general contractor can likely assist you with the design.

As your outdoor kitchen will still be a kitchen, the National Kitchen and Bath Association has a host of guidelines for smart design that can often be applied to the outside. For example, consider where you place the grill, sink, and fridge as they create the “work triangle” for whoever is cooking. Be sure to keep that area free of obstructions or foot traffic. The design is also an important time to look at the strength of your deck if you are not starting from scratch. Dennis advises that existing decks will need to be assessed to determine if they can handle the added weight.

Hire a general contractor

If you haven’t already hired a general contractor as part of your design process, now is the time to get that sorted. Sweeten is here to help with that through our network of fully vetted general contractors who have proven experience with outdoor kitchens in your local area.  

Make note of the materials

With the outdoor factor, materials used will differ greatly from your indoor kitchen. And then factor in your style preference and budget. If a bench—a single permanent structure which encompasses countertop, storage, and appliances—is part of your design, common materials are stucco, concrete or stacked stone, says Dennis. When it comes to cabinets, don’t install too many as you’re not going to keep a lot of plates, pots, and pans in your outdoor kitchen. Whatever you do have should be able to stand up to the winter cold and that includes pipes that drain easily for winterizing. If you are planning on installing a deck, Dennis says care should be taken to ensure there is ample air space underneath any wooden deck so it meets the manufacturer’s warranty. If it is not built to recommendations, the warranty is forfeited. Zoning regulations, which we discuss further down, may also impact your plans for a concrete patio.

Understand the appliances

The staple piece of your outdoor kitchen, and likely the most expensive, is the grill. If you’re planning on installing this permanently by building it into a bench, then don’t hold back on price, Dennis advised. “You want to make sure you have a quality grill because if it breaks you aren’t going to find one that is an exact fit for the permanent structure,” he said. Whether your chosen grill will use a propane tank or rely on gas lines, it will have a big impact on your budget, timelines, and permits needed. Even though a tank will need replacing, gas lines won’t be needed, which saves time, money and effort.

Ironically, not all fridges are designed to withstand the winter. “Some fridges cannot handle freezing weather even though that seems odd,” Dennis said. Outdoor fridges must work harder to maintain a constant temperature when the weather fluctuates and a high-grade stainless steel will reduce rust. Like the grill, a quality fridge is recommended if you intend to build it into the permanent structure. But don’t forget the added convenience of an outdoor fridge comes with the inconvenience of needing electricity.

Keep covered

Providing shade and shelter from the rain comes in many forms. For more extravagant outside kitchens—a TV for watching sport and a sound system—Dennis recommends something closer to a gazebo roof that has full coverage. There’s also lattice, which will provide some shade, but not rain cover. On the lower end of the budget scale is a retractable awning.

Think lighting

For this area, have a long think about what you will use this area for. Will you be reading? Playing cards with friends? Then perhaps you need more lighting over the seating area as well as where you prepare the food. Hosting dinner parties? Then consider more ambient lighting that highlights architecture. And if you’re already planning on having a fridge and the electricity it needs, lighting might be a natural progression.  

Prepare for permits

An outdoor kitchen can get surprisingly complicated. Not only will you need a building permit, but likely an electrical permit for refrigeration and lighting and mechanical or plumbing permits for gas.

Approval from a zoning department might also be needed. Dennis advises homeowners to check their local zoning codes as there may be limits on how much land you can cover with a material like concrete that rain cannot easily soak through. There may also be restrictions on how close to the property line you can build. “It would be a waste of time to design something gorgeous and then submit it and not have it approved,” Dennis said.

Now, it’s time to let your general contractor do his or her thing and turn your outdoor space into a hub of outdoor entertainment.

Finding a contractor who is licensed is an important first step in determining who to work with. Learn about the steps that follow in our post General Contractor 101: How to Find One and What to Expect so you can renovate with confidence.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.