Don't make the mistake of thinking you can have only one spot to gather outdoors. Areas near the kitchen are good for the grill and a dining table and chairs. Create gathering spots near a patio or French doors with chairs, sofas, and end tables. Match the size of the entertainment area to the average number of people you normally entertain, not to the once-a-season blowout.
New furniture—not to mention patios and decks—can make a serious dent in a $500 budget, so if you can, work with what you have. Dress up furniture with new water-resistant chair pads and tablecloths. Wash patios and decks with a household cleaner or mild bleach solution to remove dirt and mildew. Opaque deck stains lasted the longest in Consumer Reports' wood stain tests, at least three years. But they hide wood grain and can peel, chip, and crack like paint, making refinishing a big job. Consider semitransparent stains which let the wood grain show through but need to be reapplied every two to three years. Some clear stains have also done well in our tests, but you’ll need to reapply them more frequently.
Furniture finds. If your furniture is too far gone, our tests have found that low-priced furniture doesn't have to be flimsy. Look for tight, well-fitted joints on wood furniture. The wood should be sanded smooth all over, not just on tabletops and armrests. Painted surfaces should be uniform, with no drips, ripples, or missed spots. There should be no sharp, unfinished edges on metal furniture; check under the edge of the table, where knees may touch, as well as the underside of armrests.
The nuts and bolts holding pieces together should be hidden or capped. The caps aren't just for looks; they help keep moisture away from screws and bolts. If fasteners are exposed, are they made of stainless steel, which won't rust. If literature on the floor sample doesn't provide the information you need, ask a clerk or ask to see the assembly instructions. Finally, check that the individual pieces are rigid. Wiggle table and chairs to see whether they wobble. Slight flexing is okay.