"We're the s'mores house," says Luke Harlan, referring to his home's fame in the Anneslie community for its outdoor fire pit, with its warm treats and ambience.
Every Halloween, the metal fire pit serves as a glowing invitation to costumed youngsters and the rest of the folks in the Baltimore County neighborhood to stop by after trick-or-treating has ended and enjoy gooey sweets, a drink and conversation with Luke and Liz Harlan. "When they come back, they could take a stick, roast a marshmallow and make a s'more," says Luke Harlan, president of the Anneslie Community Association.
The Harlans and their two sons regularly use the portable, wood-burning fire pit most of the year, but particularly on autumn and spring evenings. They gather around it, whether it's in the backyard or out front, whether they're eating pizza or whether they're unwinding with friends.
"Once the sun's down, it gets chilly," Luke Harlan says, noting that his fire pit gives off campfire-like heat - just enough to take the nip out of the air if you're close to it.
"People really like the fire pits; it does make a really nice place. At home, it attracts a lot of people around it," says Nick DiSebastiano, a sales representative at Offenbacher's, a patio and fireplace store in Cockeysville.
Hearths - fireplaces, fire pits and chimineas - have become a popular part of outdoor living.
They serve as eye-catching decor, a social hub and - with their touch of warmth and coziness - a way to extend the outdoor season.
Portable hearths are available seemingly everywhere: specialty stores, mass merchandisers and online.
The National Association of Home Builders reported this spring that two-thirds of architects, builders, designers and marketers surveyed said buyers of larger and upscale homes in the coming decade will want outdoor fireplaces.
Last year, Jim and Dayna Anderson included a wood-burning fireplace when they added a paver deck to the backyard of their Pasadena home. The fireplace, situated in a corner, complements the deck's low, stone-veneer walls with its tall chimney in the same stone finish.
The fireplace gives the deck a cozy ambience for relaxing well into the cooler weather, Jim Anderson says. "It's nice. We really do enjoy it," he adds.
The fireplace is a visual focal point - "our waterfront," he calls it - as they relax while watching the fire.
"We usually do a dinner. When it gets to be dusk, [Dayna] says, 'Let's light the fire,' " he says.
And when it gets colder? "We sit out there with our jackets on," he says.
Wood-burning hearths make hotter fires and cost less than gas-fueled ones. But gas fire pits are growing in popularity because they create less smoke, mess and hassle than wood-burning ones, says Steve Watson of Watson's Fireplace & Patio in Lutherville.
Outdoor hearths fall into three categories, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association:
* Built-in fireplaces. Custom-built masonry or factory-built, they are available in a variety of styles and decors. They can be built to use wood, natural gas or propane. Jason Bellman, vice president of Brackens, a Pasadena landscape and design firm, says masonry fireplaces start around $12,000, and because of their construction, provide the most radiant warmth.
* Fire pits. They can be built into patios at the deck level or higher, but far more popular are the portable fire pits. Looking like bowls on legs, many of the portable fire pits have wide, tablelike rims of stone and disk inserts that cover the pit when it's not in use, turning the unit into a coffee table. Wood-burning pits may have safety screens; gas ones often are topped with fake logs or lava rocks.
Portable fire pits cost about $80 and up, depending on the size, material and decorative work. Last year, a trade publication, Casual Living, reported that nine out of 10 fire pits sold were wood-burning, with $135 as the median cost. Gas-burning ones cost more. Built-in fire pits start at several thousand dollars.
* Chimineas. Patio-sized and portable, and shaped like a potbelly with a chimney, they are usually wood-burning. Prices start at under $100. The terra-cotta chiminea, which hails from the Southwest, started the outdoor-hearth trend, but is giving way to metal versions. The clays "break through carelessness or due to the winter," says Joe Watson, owner of Watson's. Metal chimineas last longer.
There also are electric faux hearths. They generate no heat. One model, with a black metal exterior, features a cooler bin on top. Some are outfitted with speakers and CD players.
"They are just for looks," said DiSebastiano.
The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association and area fire officials offer these tips:
* Keep a fire extinguisher on hand.
* Carefully read and follow the manufacturer's instructions and safety guidelines for the hearth.
* Keep combustible materials, including hair and clothing, away from the fire while you are tending it.
* Position a portable unit on a fireproof surface. Do not use on an enclosed porch.
* Do not leave a fire unattended; watch children and pets closely around all fire; extinguish the fire fully when you're done.
* Burn only dry, seasoned wood in a wood-burning hearth; consider using a hearth or grill pad or a screen cover for spark prevention. A spark can ignite dry leaves.
* Follow local regulations on outdoor fires. Do not place the pits on balconies or close to multifamily dwellings. Keep them a safe distance from a house.
* Use common sense. Be mindful that stone, metal and clay surfaces get hot.