- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Even the most impressive homes lose their charm to potential buyers if the setting or backdrop for the house is not maintained. Imagine finding a listing for a house with all of the amenities you had been searching for but then driving up to see a lawn that has not been mowed in months, dandelions and weeds growing haphazardly, and a front gate that gapes toward the sidewalk. Would you even care to see the inside of the house?

Definitely not, local Realtors say. The outside of the home, especially the landscaping, creates an immediate first impression on buyers. With spring on the way, Realtors advise sellers that it pays to invest the time and to hire a professional landscaper, if necessary to dramatically improve the curb appeal and value of their homes.

Don Wiggins, principal broker at RE/MAX Choice of Fairfax, points out that, although homes sell rapidly in the current market, landscaping is still imperative. It can make the difference between selling your home immediately or having it stay on the market indefinitely.

"In this market, landscaping might be overlooked," he says, "but it still gives an idea of how well a house is maintained on the inside. I've had people drive up and say that they didn't want to go inside the house" because the outside setting was not inviting.

Cheryl Kurss, a Realtor with Long & Foster in Chevy Chase, agrees that most buyers believe that the terrain surrounding the home reflects what is on the inside.

"Chevy Chase has old majestic homes, but if they don't have that immediate appeal, clients will just drive by to the next house," Ms. Kurss says. "Having a fresh look a fresh pot of pansies, a nicely mowed lawn attracts people."

Ms. Kurss says sellers can dramatically increase their profit by working on the landscaping, and she believes they will get their money back on investing in a professional landscape designer if they spend within reason.

"You don't need to spend enormous amounts of money," she says. "It can be pricey, if you put in large trees or shrubs."

She advises sellers against large plantings or mature trees but encourages a basic "sprucing up." Ms. Kurss gives her clients handouts with tips and encourages them to make simple improvements such as trimming the hedges, mowing the lawn and planting flowers.

Cathie Gill, owner of Cathie Gill Inc. Real Estate in the District, says she has seen properties transformed by landscaping and it possibly "triples the value" of a home. She points out that potential buyers in the area are juggling busy schedules and want things in place when they move in, so they will not have to worry about working on the outside appearance of the home.

"People want a finished product," Mrs. Gill says. "They want to say, 'This is my home,' so that everything they like is in place."

Mrs. Gill says that, "For city people especially, it is nice to see something in bloom all of the time." She says she has seen designers create magical settings, such as putting up hedges of evergreens or holly to make homes more private.

Home buying is an emotional process, and sellers can effectively push buyers' buttons with an attractive, colorful landscape.

"Most people know within five minutes of seeing a house whether this is 'the one' or not, on an emotional level," says Dave Savercool, a Realtor with Long & Foster in Silver Spring. "People are making those judgments before even walking in the front door."

A potential buyer who sees dying plants and overgrown hedges changes his perspective on the home, he says, because the buyer starts tallying up the cost to upgrade the scenery.

Although most Realtors believe that sellers can do some of the basics, such as mowing the lawn, raking leaves and trimming the hedges, they agree that landscaping is like any other decorating if you don't have an eye for it, hire someone who does.

Trudy Goodwin, chairman of the board for the Dulles Area Association of Realtors Inc., says creating an inviting setting for the home is not just a matter of sticking shrubs in the ground.

"It requires the right eye to put things in the right place and it's knowing what to do down the road," Mrs. Goodwin says. Sellers need to know about the growing habits of the plants, flowers or trees they plan to incorporate into the landscape, and professionals can help with that planning.

Chris Dougherty, owner of Gardens by Designs in the District, says many homeowners need a professional to help them visualize how the landscape will look after it is in place for years.

"Many people don't realize that the landscape is a living organic thing that changes every year," she says. "It's not just like moving your furniture into a room and leaving it there."

The amount of money required to create an inviting landscape depends on the condition of the terrain and the scope of the work. While putting in overflowing pots of exotic plants and flowers and waterfalls would be nice, if you don't have a large budget for landscaping, you can still make a dramatic difference with about $2,000 to $3,000, Ms. Dougherty says.

This price would cover spiffing up the front flower beds, taking out any old plants, and planting a few perennials and shrubs.

Kenneth Kuhn, co-owner of Kuhn's Tree and Landscaping Inc. in Silver Spring, says that landscaping can make a home stand out from others in the same neighborhood and that, once one homeowner starts sprucing up, others in the area will follow.

"It lifts up the entire neighborhood. It's about pride, and a positive mental attitude," he says. "Nobody wants to have the crappy-looking house on the street."

Mr. Kuhn says landscaping is an investment that sellers can make and get 100 percent back.

He says that for $1,500 to $2,500, sellers can have basic changes made that would dramatically enhance the home's curb appeal.

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