A naked, unadorned balcony's a sad sight. You've paid for all that glorious outdoor living space, and haven't managed to get the neurons firing in a way that lets you put it to proper use. Done well, a balcony's easily the best part of your house - it's worth putting in a bit of thought to make yours a place people want to be...
1. Install a bar around the edge
Great for narrow balconies where you don't have room for a decent sized table - especially if you have a view worth enjoying...
2. Perhaps a temporary one
Or if you're renting (or just lazy), maybe a simpler, more portable version of the same thing:
3. Lush gardens
You can put plants all over the place on a balcony - either in planter boxes around the edges, in pots hanging from your handrail or wall, or hanging from the eaves. Have a think about what affords the most shade, privacy and appeal without wrecking your view. Also (at the risk of being a bit of a buzzkill) make sure you consider how much weight your handrails and eaves are actually designed to take...
4. ...or a veggie patch
An edible garden on your balcony's a great idea if you live in an apartment and you don't have anywhere else to grow veggies.
5. A bit of shade and privacy
A trellis with a fast growing, drought-resistant creeper can also help to give you a bit of strategic shade and privacy.
6. Some bench seating
Fantastic choice, but you need to remember that seating like this will probably also need some screening behind it so that it doesn't effectively become a stairway straight over your handrail).
7. Make it your home office
Anyone who's chained to a desk for eight hours a day has moaned about getting more sunshine and fresh air at some point. If you've got enough space and a bit of freedom to adapt, some small alterations can make a decent sized balcony a very comfortable (mostly) outdoor study.
8. Plan some good lighting
Well planned lighting can transform your balcony. The stock standard lighting that's normally installed on balconies is usually fairly 'general', because they're rarely designed with a particular layout in mind. Once you've got your plants and furniture in place, try some task lighting (i.e. if you need light specifically for your barbecue or dining area) - or accent lighting to make the most of your plants or water features. Hanging fairy lights or small lanterns like the one in the picture below are great - just make sure that whatever you use is designed for outdoor use (IP67 rated).
Unless you're absolutely certain of where you want all of your lights to be, consider just getting some portable ones - the best effect's often something you'll figure out just by playing around and repositioning things until they're right.
A sturdy roll-down PVC screen's a cheap, simple way to make sure your balcony area's useful even when the weather turns bad. Keeps the wind and rain out...
10. Put in some shutters
A more permanent solution (one that doesn't turn your balcony into a conservatory, anyway) is some louvred shutters. Bifold or sliding shutters are a great idea - good way to control sun, rain and wind.
11. Massive hammocks
Easily the best bang for your buck on this list...
12. Artificial decking
This one's mostly for people with bare concrete balconies. Smart way to make things look a bit more comfortable, and not a bad way to conceal cables and things either. Take a look at the before and after pics below - check out the source for all the details on this one.
13. A great audio system
May as well do it properly - a good quality outdoor speaker system's a great way to make your balcony a better place to relax. A wireless, weatherproof speaker's a good compromise too.
14. A spa
You'll probably need some structural reinforcement and some new plumbing to accommodate it, but on the right balconies (in the right climates) a spa's a fantastic idea.
15. A projector or a TV
If you've got a spa and a sound system, you're obviously going to need a projector or a nice TV. If you're thinking this is something you might like, consider getting something that's designed for the outdoors (or a weatherproof enclosure at least). Brands like SunbrightTV and SealTV are a good place to start.
See also: http://sealtv.com.au/
16. A barbecue - or an outdoor kitchen
Obviously depends very heavily on how much space you have, and how keen you are to cook outside! If you're planning to have a fully-integrated barbecue area or outdoor kitchen (even if you think it's likely at some distant time in the future) it's worth planning for this when you're building. Your plumber and gasfitter can ensure that the necessary plumbing's available where it's needed, which will cost you far less than trying to fit it all in once the house is completely built.
Any other smart ideas? Tell us about them below!
Outdoor kitchen design
Outdoor lighting guide