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Backyard and bathroom updates are the summer's top projects

Home improvement activity is heating up this summer with 60 percent of homeowners expecting to spend an average of $1,200 on at least one upgrade. At the top of the list is improving outdoor spaces, followed by bathroom remodels, according to Zillow Digs, an online real estate website that tracks design trends. Here are 10 ideas for backyard and bathroom projects as well as some top-rated products from Consumer Reports that'll help all your hard work pay off.

Five ways to enjoy your backyard
Younger homeowners and homeowners with children are the most likely to be planning a summer project and many are looking outside. "Homeowners want outdoor spaces that are just as comfortable as their indoor spaces," says Cynthia Nowak of Zillow Digs. "Specifically, pool and patio spaces are used more for socializing and lounging, rather than recreation."

Go low-maintenance. A sustainable backyard design can save you work and money. To save on watering costs, choose drought-resistant plants and shrubbery that's native to your area.

Bring the indoors out. If you have a covered porch, sunroom or other protected outdoor area, furnish it with comfy weatherproof furniture. Some homes even have a place to safely install a television so you can watch movies al fresco. The 32-inch Samsung UN32EH5000, $350, has excellent high-definition picture quality and a matte-like screen that minimizes reflections.

Make it festive. Bright colors like tangerine, turquoise, hot pinks and corals are becoming more popular. Refresh your old wooden furniture by painting it a fun color—or more than one. In our tests, Behr Premium Plus Ultra Flat Enamel, $37 a gallon, lasted the equivalent of nine years outdoors, and resisted cracking, color change and mildew.

Create an outdoor kitchen. Camp-like elements, such as stone fireplaces and brick barbecues can make a setting seem more natural. Build a brick or slate workspace for your backyard kitchen with a gas grill as the centerpiece. The Weber Spirit SP-320 46700401, $600, is perfect for slow cooking ribs and roasts. While the Char-Broil Red, $400, sold at Home Depot, and the Brinkmann 810-2545-C, $260, sold at Walmart, offer great performance at appealing prices.

Decked out dining. If you're spending more time outdoors, you'll want your deck to be in good repair. If yours is in need of replacement, we found that ACQ Southern Yellow Pine, $175 per 100-square-feet, is an inexpensive, slip-resistant deck material that resists mildew and color change over time.

Five fun and functional bathroom updates
Bathroom remodels are the second most popular project this summer, according to Zillow Digs. "Because the bathroom is small, folks are giving that room an identity," says Alan Zielinski, who has 25 years of kitchen and bath design experience and is on the board of directors at the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "That's opened it up to make it a lot of fun."

Frame it. With a few inexpensive touches, you can dress up the d��cor. Install a large vanity mirror and frame it. Get creative by using repurposed wood, installing backsplash tile on the frame or painting it in an accent color.

Get inspired by glass. More homeowners are opting for spa-like showers instead of tubs and doing away with the shower curtain. You can extend the trend to the counter by adding a tempered glass bathroom sink, which held up well to stains, scratches and heat in our sink tests but not to dropped items.

Plan for the future. More consumers are thinking ahead when redesigning the bathroom. Installing attractive yet functional shower grab bars will serve you down the road. As will a "comfort-height" toilet, like the Aquasource AT1203-00, $100, which is also a champ at conserving water.

Relax with sound. Technology in the bathroom is a growing trend. If you like to sing in the shower, sing along to Kohler's Moxie Showerhead + Wireless Speaker. It pairs with a Bluetooth-enabled device and lasts for long, leisurely showers. Although we haven't tested the Moxie, we do recommend the Kohler Fort�� K-10282, $55, which has a rain-shower feel.

Stay neutral. Whites and off-whites remain the top color schemes in bathrooms, especially for cabinetry. You can add a pop of color with bath towels, soap dishes and accent tiles. Glidden Premium Satin, at $24 a gallon a CR Best Buy, works well in bathrooms because it withstands moisture, reflects light well and wipes clean easily.

More ideas
For more home improvement projects and products, check out Consumer Reports' guides to Home Improvement, Lawn and Garden and Bathroom Remodeling.

—Kaitlyn Wells

Copyright © 2005-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.