How to choose outdoor furniture that’s right for you
Living and entertaining used to take place primarily inside of your home. Sure, you had to mow your lawn and maintain a modicum of landscaping for curb appeal, but it was more for aesthetics than anything else. Today, however, the growing in-outdoor lifestyle has migrated more activity outside. Furnishing areas beyond the four walls is more important than ever and choosing the right patio furniture can be difficult if you don’t know what to consider. Exterior design is similar to interior decorating, but there are additional factors that you should keep in mind.
Table of Contents
- 1 How to choose outdoor furniture that’s right for you
- 2 Function & Usage
- 3 Location & Specs
- 4 Environmental Factors
- 5 Material Qualities
- 6 Maintenance & Care
- 7 Comfort Level
- 8 Quality Considerations
- 9 Personal Style
- 10 Flexibility & Ease
- 11 Accessories & Accents
- 12 Protective Measures
- 13 Final Thoughts
- 14 FAQS
- 15 References
Function & Usage
How are you going to use your outdoor patio furniture?
Do you plan to host catered soirees and seat guests at a patio dining set with an expandable dining table and armchairs? Or do you just want to hang out with friends on a big comfy couch and lounge chairs with a coffee table for games and snacks? Perhaps you simply want to enjoy the sun on a leisurely warm Summer’s day on a chaise lounge with a cool drink by your side. Whatever the purpose, it’s a good idea to begin your planning with a list of what you want to do. Think about what pieces of furniture might be needed and how many people you want to accommodate.
Location & Specs
What is your outdoor area like?
Type of space
You need to assess the space you’re planning to furnish. Are you outfitting a hardwood deck, patio, poolside, or a garden? Each of these outdoor areas has its own unique characteristics to consider when deciding on what outdoor furnishings to buy and what features are important. Uneven ground may require self-leveling table legs and swimming pools certainly need quick-drying cushions and fabrics.
Is the space beneath an overhang, covered by a pergola or nestled among trees? A screened-in porch is virtually indoors, while a deck may be completely exposed or partially shaded by trees. Protection from harmful UV rays is critical if you spend a lot of time in the sun. Surrounding fences and hedges also impact the security, seclusion and feel of space. Are you looking to create a cozy nook or a more open laid back area?
Dimensions & Flow
One of the most important things to do before purchasing outdoor furniture is to measure the space. You don’t want to order the sectional sofa of your dreams only to discover that it’s too big for your lanai after it’s delivered. Be sure to think about the usable space, shape and traffic flow, and not just the exact measurement from point A to point B. If you have an odd-shaped area, smaller pieces are a good option. A couple of bistro tables with barstools can accommodate the same number of people as a larger dining set.
Take a moment to think three-dimensionally too. You may have to use a little imagination to picture what it would be like to be seated in a particular spot. What would the eye-line be? How much room do you need to stand up and move about? Your space may be able to fit a bunch of pieces, but can you function normally without fear of bumping into something or someone? Dinner shouldn’t be a game of Twister.
What is the weather like where you live?
This is a critical factor that many people forget about until it’s too late. It may be a perfectly comfortable day when you decide to re-furnish your backyard, but what’s it like most of the Summer and during the off-season? How hot does it get? What about Winter? Is there a lot of direct sunlight? How much rain do you typically get each year? Do you experience high winds? Each of these impact the type of outdoor chairs and tables that are appropriate for your space. Make note of the conditions that your furniture needs to be able to handle.
What materials are best for your needs and environment?
Based on your use, location and weather, some materials are going to be better than others for frames, upholstery and tabletops. Extreme heat can cause untreated woods to splinter while plastic can become brittle and crack in the cold. Rain and salt air can cause uncoated metal to rust and humidity plays havoc with natural wicker. Lightweight aluminum or acrylic furniture may blow over in high winds and many fabrics will fade under harsh sun. Our Outdoor Furniture Materials Guide provides an in-depth look at many materials and their ability to withstand various conditions. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but it’s important that you understand the tradeoffs from the outset.
Maintenance & Care
How much effort are you willing to put into maintaining your patio furniture?
Care is closely tied to the type of material and finishing used on each piece. Depending on where you live and how often you use outdoor furnishings, you’re going to have to clean and protect items more or less frequently. Cleaning may range from a scrub brush with soap and water to specialized cleansers and soft cloths. Some tabletops and frames may be scratch-resistant, while others require fillers and buffing to eliminate nicks and gouges. Similarly, some woods are impervious to warping or water damage, but lose color over time without oiling. Construction also affects cleaning and maintenance. Some cushion covers can be taken off and thrown in the washing machine. Likewise, some designs have removable individual parts and manufacturers offer replacements should something wear out or get damaged. It’s a lot more cost effective to swap out a single part than have to buy a whole new piece.
What type of outdoor furniture is most comfortable to you?
Back in the day your choices were limited. There were hard wooden or metal seats that you could cover with cushions that tied around the frame. Then there were those heavy crisscrossing plastic straps that made a squeaky sound when you scooted across them. If you’re a guy, you may remember catching hair from the back of your leg in these follicle torture devices. Later there were thickly upholstered seating that was water-resistant but had a texture like dull sandpaper.
Now, there is a myriad of excellent choices from which to choose. Lightweight synthetic weaves are used to create fabric slings and webbings that stretch and conform to your body contours – providing a high level of supportive comfort. There are also plush quick-drying foam cushions of varying densities that pull water from damp clothes and allow you to sink into more relaxing positions. Patio furniture has evolved with the emergence of ergonomic design. Many sun loungers, deck chairs and sofas are designed with an understating of how seating angles, leg inclination and armrests affect body posture, spinal alignment and pressure on key body points. If you plan to be seated for a long time, it’s critical to evaluate the comfort level of each piece you’re considering.
Are you looking for long-lasting luxury or a replaceable low-cost option?
Once you’ve determined what pieces you need, the right materials and comfort level, you have to ask yourself a serious question – how much can or do you want to invest in your outdoor furniture set? High-end patio furniture is expensive, but you generally get what you pay for. Patio furniture can command a higher price tag than similar indoor pieces, because it has to withstand the elements and accommodate rougher usage. Typically, the materials are stronger, more fade-resistant and better able to repel water than less expensive alternatives. Additionally, the warrantees on materials and construction are often longer and more inclusive.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said about inexpensive immediate gratification. If you want some fun lounge chairs and end tables, there’s nothing wrong with buying a low-cost set. Just know that they will probably fade or break down after a Summer or two. You might save money initially, but replacement costs add up over time and you could end up spending more in the long run.
What look do you want – sleek and chic or bright and fun?
There are plenty of vital functional factors to keep in mind when choosing patio furniture, but it’s important to remember that enjoying time outdoors relies on appealing to the aesthetic sense too. Hanging out by the pool or barbecuing on the deck is fun and the furniture you decide on should reflect your own sense of style. If you have a hacienda style home, you might consider an elegant wrought iron set of dining furniture with a bold ceramic tile tabletop. Perhaps your minimalist modern patio calls for a sculpted set of chaise lounges with a sophisticated stainless steel cocktail table. Whatever the architectural style of your home, find outdoor furniture that speaks to you. If you want to create a very different vibe than indoors, change the style but maybe keep continuity in the color palette to make it an easy transition.
Flexibility & Ease
Do you want to be able to rearrange or use the outdoor furniture for different purposes?
If your outdoor space is limited, you may not have many options for what you can use and how it can be arranged. If that is the case, it’s critical that you try to find pieces that have a storage capability and are multi-functional. Ottomans with compartments beneath the seat are perfect for small spaces like balconies. There are even dynamic coffee tables that can elevate to form convenient work tables. Items that can fold up or collapse also give you the flexibility to change out pieces without monopolizing storage areas. Modular sectional sofas give you the creativity to adapt seating to your surroundings and changing needs. Wheeled tables and carts are great for serving and are easy to move if the weather turns bad or you want a little more room.
Accessories & Accents
What finishing touches are important to you?
Outdoor living is more than just arranging patio furniture. It’s about the subtle and not-so-subtle functional and decorative items that allow you to fully enjoy relaxing, entertaining and dining al fresco. There are plenty of things that you can add to enhance your outdoor experience.
Outdoor Umbrellas & Shades
If you have a lot of direct sunlight or plan to spend hours outside in the daytime, you should look into sun protection of some sort. Ultraviolet rays can not only damage your skin, but the glare can also hurt your eyes as well. A little shade goes a long way when you’re trying to catch up on some light reading on a bright day. Our Patio Umbrella Buying Guide is a good resource to reference. It takes a deep dive into the ins and outs of market and offset umbrellas and other shade options.
Sunny days may be warm, but the evenings can get a little chilly even in the Summer. Consider adding a fire pit, chimenea, portable fire table or even a built-in fireplace. They give off heat, provide light and create a welcoming ambiance that attracts a crowd. Traditional fires burn wood or propane, but more modern options use natural gas or bioethanol. The latter is smokeless which is key if you have poor ventilation or don’t want to install a flue or chimney. EcoSmart Fire is a premium brand of these ventless outdoor fireplaces.
On clear nights starlight creates a magical ambiance, but it might not provide enough light for eating or interacting with friends. If you host outdoor dinners, you might think about adding some overhead lighting or at least some tall floor lamps that can illuminate table tops. Pathways can be a little tricky if you can’t clearly see where you’re going. Tiki torches or ground level lamps are good options or you can repurpose holiday style string lights along eaves or in tree branches along the way. If you’re a little adventurous, there are some great DIY lighting ideas that use mason jars to create hanging lights or charming candles.
With all of the interesting shapes, textures and colors of patio furniture it’s easy to forget about what’s right under your feet. Weather-proof outdoor rugs serve a variety of purposes. They help prevent chairs and tables from scooting around on smooth surfaces, provide cushioning for bare feet and give you an opportunity to add a splash of color or design. They’re often made from woven polypropylene fibers or other contemporary textiles in a myriad of shapes, sizes and thicknesses.
Another quick and easy way to give some visual “pop” to your deck or patio is with accent pillows. You can throw a bunch on a cozy daybed or create pleasing symmetry by bookending the sides of a plush outdoor loveseat. These decorative items come in a wide variety of colors, patterns, sizes and styles. So, you can change things up for each season or whenever the mood strikes without breaking the bank. Look for pillows with quick-drying foam and covers that are fade-resistant. Sunbrella® is a premium brand that makes outdoor fabrics that are both soft and durable in most conditions.
Should you protect your patio furniture during inclement weather and the off-season?
Unless your deck furniture is made of vibranium or is otherwise impervious to weather damage, you’re going to want to protect it from the elements. Canvas covers are a great option to minimize the negative effects of rain, snow and moisture. Many brands have customized covers that are made specifically for each piece of furniture and secure by means of Velcro straps or drawstrings. In a pinch, you can move a few pieces close together and simply drape a large tarp over them. If you have a garage or protected storage area, you can move lighter pieces inside and out of the weather. Stackable or folding chairs are extremely convenient if you have limited storage space.
At the end of the day, spending time outdoors should be enjoyable and stress-free. The furnishings that you surround yourself with should add to and not detract from the experience. Sure, there may be freak tornados or random raccoon migrations through your property, but for the most part, you know what to expect. Taking this knowledge and arming yourself with a little insight from this guide can help you choose the right kind of outdoor furniture for your home.
What’s important to consider when buying outdoor furniture online?
Color & Texture
Product photos are displayed on websites and viewed on backlit screens (desktop, smartphone, tablet, etc.) which tend to make colors brighter than they actually are. If possible, request fabric, wood and metal samples to get an accurate gauge of the true color, weight and feel of the materials. You’ll be surprised how a tactile experience can really impact your perception of color and quality.
Since online-only retailers don’t have a physical location for you to see the items in person, you might want to seek out manufacturer showrooms or brick and mortar stores that also carry the items to test the comfort level. If there’s no convenient location, search for online reviews from customers who have already purchased them. They may be able to provide personal insight.
Do the items come complete or will you be required to do some assembly? Sometimes, in order to minimize shipping costs, manufacturers ship tables and chairs disassembled in a flat container. These ready-to-assemble (RTA) products are like many of the furniture pieces you might buy at IKEA. Be sure that there are plenty of instructional documents and videos to help you.
Shipping Costs & Service
Unless you’re shipping small items, most patio furniture is going to ship via a freight carrier. This can be very expensive, especially if you order heavy items like steel framed sofas or cantilever outdoor umbrellas with cement bases. Most online retailers offer free shipping, but that’s typically for curbside delivery. This means that you’re responsible for getting the items from the street through your doorway and to wherever you plan to put them. If you have physical limitations or just don’t want to risk throwing out your back, you might want to enquire about additional services. White Glove service, for example, moves everything from the truck to its final destination, performs any required assembly and removes the packaging. Premium delivery services like this may be an extra cost, negotiated into a volume purchase price or unavailable in some areas.
Availability & Lead-time
Most online retailers don’t have a physical location where they store inventory and coordinate shipments. Instead, they drop-ship items from manufacturers’ warehouses to your residential or commercial location. Consequently, online retailers are beholden to the stock levels maintained by manufacturers.
During the Spring and Summer months, most patio furniture manufacturers carry high volumes in order to meet the seasonal demand. They may have “quick ship” programs where there are even higher levels of stock for “best-sellers” or quicker restocking. Slower selling items, however, may not be stocked in as large of quantities. With all of the options for frame finishing, upholstery colors and product options, it’s impossible for manufacturers to maintain high availability for everything. As you start to evaluate brands and specific items, be aware that your unique combination may require customization that could take 12-14 weeks to deliver. Even common out of stock items could take 4-8 weeks, as many manufacturers ship from Europe, Asia or Australia.
Virtually all manufacturers will replace or repair defective items, or those that break down while under warranty, free of charge. You’ll probably have to take a few digital photos and deal with some back and forth communication, but the exchange process is not too painful.
Subjective returns are another matter. If your order includes items with many custom options, subjective returns are probably not allowed since it is unlikely that someone else wants that exact combination. Similarly, woodgrains, weathering and marble patterns are going to vary from piece to piece, so most manufacturers won’t allow returns for slight variations from product photography. Those that do will charge fees for the return.
Typically, there is a restocking fee that is calculated as a percentage of the sale price. You’re also responsible for shipping charges – not only for returning the items to the manufacturer, but the cost the retailer incurred to ship them to you. Free shipping is certainly not free to the online retailer. They’re willing to absorb the cost and subtract it from their margin for the entire order, but they won’t be out of pocket should you decide that the tangerine sectional sofa you bought doesn’t quite match the orange color of the marigolds in your backyard.
Customer Service & Reviews
There’s a huge difference in customer service quality between online retailers. Some stores have call centers with people who simply take messages and forward them to knowledgeable personnel. Eventually, you may get great information, but it could take a few days for them to get back to you. Others only provide information that is already available on their website.
The best online retailers provide customer service that is responsive, thorough, flexible, reliable and committed. If you’re investing in high-quality patio furniture, you will likely have many questions and want to work with someone who goes above and beyond to ensure you have the information you need in a timely manner. It’s a big investment, so it’s important that you feel confident about the items and trust the retail partner with whom you’re working.
Are they available nights and weekends? Can they provide volume discounts? If so, how quickly do they respond to requests for quotes (RFQs)? Do they keep customers up to date throughout the process? How do they interact once the order is delivered? Some retailers seem to disappear once the delivery has been made. Look for online retailers who follow up to ensure everything arrived safely, all pieces are accounted for and respond as you have a chance to enjoy your purchase. You can ask them how they work with customers, but it’s also a good idea to look at testimonials and reviews from past customers.