Having a wedding at home is special — but not always easy or cheap
Event pros, plus couples who got married in their backyards, share what it takes to transform a family home into a wedding venue
By Hannah Holland
Updated March 20, 2023 at 12:06 p.m. EDT|Published March 14, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Picture this: You’re getting married at your parents’ house. It snows in California for the first time in decades, but the wedding planner shovels the brick walkway at no extra charge. Rose garlands dangle from the banister and doorways. String lights drape from the peaks of the tent in the backyard like a glimmer of stars.
Okay, yes, that is the wedding from the cult classic “Father of the Bride,” which has undoubtedly inspired countless real-life backyard nuptials. Even if Steve Martin isn’t in attendance, getting hitched at home has benefits: It’s meaningful, your venue will be unique and, in some cases, it can be more cost-effective. Rachel Leiner, a wedding photographer in Brooklyn, says she often prefers capturing at-home weddings, because “there is a layered sentimentality in the backdrop, versus a space that churns out weddings weekend after weekend.”
Still, it’s not nearly as easy — or cheap — as some couples might assume. The typical house is not a natural event space, after all, and turning it into one can be a complicated affair. “You’re creating something out of nothing. It’s basically like working at a raw space,” says Julie Lindenman, owner of Julie Lindenman Events.
Weddings at home generally require more effort, because there are more pieces of the puzzle that the couple, their families or a wedding planner must contend with. Extra bathrooms, parking permits, a flat dance floor and generators are just some details you might have to consider. Lindenman says one set of clients decided to forgo extra bathrooms and wound up having to call a plumber first thing the next morning. (Not the most romantic start to a marriage.) Many wedding venues cost well into five figures. Although the price of renting your parents’ lawn is zero dollars, once you add up the expenses of bringing in every fork and tablecloth to transform the home, the savings can quickly dwindle.
For Tara Patrina and Josef Nicorici, a fall wedding at Patrina’s family home in Simsbury, Conn., was a compromise: Patrina wanted an elopement, while everyone else did not. A casual backyard affair for family and local friends seemed just right. “My husband and I could feel more comfortable at home and keep costs lower while the guests could still have their fun,” Patrina says. The couple and their families planned and executed the 110-guest wedding themselves, including renting and measuring for the correct-size tent, laying a dance floor and coordinating a DJ. They took cues from the house’s gardens for their floral arrangements.
“There were certainly moments of overblown panic the day before and the morning of with some of the details,” Patrina says. “My mother, bless her, fielded most of that.” If they could do it all again, Patrina would go even more low-key, and “have everyone BYOB, make it a potluck and get some Bluetooth speakers. There were opportunities to spend less while still having a beautiful day, like asking friends and family if they had tables and chairs we could have borrowed.”
Practical ways to stay on budget while planning a wedding at home, Lindenman says, include limiting your guest list, hosting the nuptials offseason, celebrating on a day other than Saturday or, like Patrina suggests, tapping friends and family for supplies. One place not to skimp: lighting. It may seem obvious, but it gets dark when you’re outside and away from the glow of the house. “The tent and grounds must be lit for equal parts safety and ambiance,” says Rebecca Gardner, founder and creative director of Houses & Parties. “Tiki torches or lanterns can make a path to the restroom trailers. Candlelight is best on the tables.”
Nancy Taylor Holmes and Ryan Holmes called for coats and ties at their formal summer rehearsal dinner and welcome party at the bride’s family home in Mantoloking, N.J. About 165 guests mingled in a tent lit with paper lanterns and set with linens made by the groom’s mother. It was clear the tent was a necessity when rain threatened the party later in the night, but it didn’t ruin the mood. “It was surreal to have all of the people that we love not only in one place together, but in the place where I grew up, and where my relationship with Ryan grew as well,” Taylor Holmes says. “The biggest challenge was unexpected additional logistics: tent permits, parking and having the caterer in my parents’ regular, nonprofessional kitchen, to name a few.”
No matter the time of year, both Lindenman and Gardner say you’ll need a tent to keep from stressing about the weather. Which is not a bad thing, as Lindenman points out: “Tents photograph beautifully and feel romantic.” Gardner adds that if your guest list is above 50, you may need a second, utilitarian tent for the caterers.
For their winter wedding at the bride’s childhood home in Ridgewood, N.J., Elizabeth and Sean Whalen — along with their families — decorated the tent themselves. “We [made it] an extension of my parents’ living room, putting old rugs down over the patio stones and [using] large Christmas trees and wreaths,” Elizabeth says. “Everything was evergreen and large, so it was a little cheaper.”
Because of the pandemic, only 14 family members ended up attending. “It should have been a few more,” Elizabeth says, “but delta was raging, and it was down to the day, literally, for whether our grandmothers would make it.” (They didn’t end up coming, to be safe.) The intimate size meant a private chef could cook in the family kitchen. The couple spent a significant chunk of their budget on a professional photographer, which, Elizabeth says, “made it feel like a wedding and not a regular party in someone’s backyard.” One sentimental touch: The table was set with three generations of china — the bride’s, her mother’s and her grandmother’s.
The pandemic forced many weddings to be smaller, outdoors and held in family homes. But the homespun wedding was far from invented during covid. As documented in “It’s Our Day: America’s Love Affair with the White Wedding, 1945-2005,” by Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison, before World War II, couples were “either married informally or staged weddings that were a patchwork of home-produced and purchased goods and services.” And, generally, the bride and her mother would prepare the meal.
Backyard celebrations dominated until the 1980s, when “excess was in style” and everything went “bananas,” Jellison said in an interview with The Washington Post. The most famous one in American history was probably the wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in 1953. Their luxurious reception was held on the terrace of Jackie’s family’s 300-acre estate in Newport, R.I.
Though most couples probably can’t relate to very much about that lavish affair, it does underscore the staying power of wedding photos. As Jellison points out: “The photojournalism style — candid, more relaxed photos — really started at that backyard wedding.”
Hannah Holland is a news producer and freelance writer based in Brooklyn.
A previous version of this article misspelled Katherine Jellison's first name. This version has been corrected.
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