- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

Well-designed landscaping can appeal to potential buyers as much as a fresh coat of paint on the inside of the house. The outdoor layout, color — even landscaping accessories — welcome or deter potential buyers who are forming their first opinion of the home.

The lines have become blurred between the inside and the outside of the house, real estate agents say. More homeowners are spending time and energy cultivating inviting outdoor spaces. Focusing on landscaping could be the key to getting a quicker contract while homes without the appeal that landscaping provides might languish on the market.

But what makes landscaping work toward a sale? It’s a matter of balance.

“There is nothing worse than a blank foundation on the front of a house,” says Liz Brent, a Realtor with Evers and Co. Real Estate in the District. Yet an overgrown or unmaintained outdoor area is just as unsightly, she says.

Ms. Brent says she often advises homeowners with mature landscaping that has outgrown its space to cut the shrubs and the boxwoods in order to showcase the house.

She says she has observed recently, however, that homeowners are getting creative and open-minded to suggestions as they craft their outdoor sanctuaries.

“What I find is that people are doing major renovations,” she says.

Ms. Brent says that, in downtown Silver Spring, homeowners are putting in screened porches and decks and integrating walkways and river stones into their outside design.

Landscaping experts say the trend is to shift entire “rooms” to the outdoors, integrating high-end fixtures, such as fire pits, into the design.

“Ten years ago, it was the gourmet kitchen inside. Now, it’s the kitchen outside,” says Ted Tidmore, CEO of Holloway Co. in Loudoun County, which offers a full-service package of landscaping and “hardscaping,” the addition of stone or wood elements to the landscape. Conversely, plants are sometimes considered “softscape.”

Mr. Tidmore says homeowners have been willing to spend more money on the outside, integrating into their projects everything from cabanas to putting greens.

“They aren’t simply looking for the lowest, cheapest bid, but a quality product,” Mr. Tidmore says. He says he believes homeowners want to get the best return on their investment, both for their own enjoyment as well as when it comes time to sell.

Simply put, professional-looking landscaping can be the reason your house gets an offer when your neighbor’s house doesn’t. Because there are so many variables involved, real estate professionals are reluctant to estimate exactly how much landscaping can add to the overall value of the house. However, they are certain that attractive gardening increases the chance that sellers will get their asking price.

Dennis Melby, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Bethesda, says that in the current buyer’s market, landscaping is a primarily a way to preserve your price with a standout yard.

“The neighbors without the great landscaping might have two or three price corrections before an offer,” Mr. Melby says. So, if your neighbor gets 10 percent less than the listed price, and you get the asking price because of your landscaping, Mr. Melby says, “I guess you could say the landscaping added 10 percent to the value of the home, even though what it really did was spur a better sale.”

Mr. Melby says he has also noticed a sharp growth in landscaping and an increased interest in high-end accessories, such as stainless steel barbecue centers built into the flagstone of a deck or patio.

He says he believes that, in addition to encouraging a quick sale, more homeowners are creating an outdoor oasis for their own enjoyment, as they accept the fact that they may be in the house for a while.

“We’ll probably see more of it as it becomes more difficult to sell,” Mr. Melby says.

Savvy out-of-state buyers who research area homes online are also drawn to the houses with the sparkle and curb appeal of polished landscaping.

Yanji Lama, a Realtor with ERA Elite Group in Fairfax, says buyers today have plenty of choices but little time. If a home does not look good the first time they tour it on the Internet, it gets crossed off the list of possibilities, she says.

“The biggest thing is that folks are seeing these pictures of the house online,” she says. “I have worked with [customers] who had only four days to find a home, so if they saw a house with an exterior that didn’t please them, forget it,” says Ms. Lama.

Homeowners undertaking upgrades outside for their own relaxation and entertainment are also spending more on the projects as they gather innovative ideas from different sources.

Ms. Lama says homeowners today are realizing that the upscale landscaping is not unrealistic and out of their reach.

“People are seeing things in magazines and thinking ‘this is do-able for us,’” she says.

She recently worked with a couple who chose a house with “gorgeous landscaping” — decks, impressive sliding glass doors and an arbor with wisteria. “The moment we pulled up, it wowed them,” Ms. Lama says.

Nancy Somerville, executive vice president with the American Society of Landscape Architects in the District, says more homeowners are realizing what a wise investment landscaping is and seeing that it adds significantly to the salability of the house.

“Landscaping provides the setting,” she says. “It’s the first thing you see. It frames the house.”

She says that, in the last five years, families have been trying to make the maximum use of their open-air space. “They are paying more attention to the back yard and are creating different areas for it instead of just turning it over to the dogs or the kids,” Ms. Somerville says.

In addition, she notes that, like other groups gravitating toward “green” options, homeowners are examining the environmental aspects of their outdoor improvements.

For example, they are looking at more environmentally friendly, native plants and asking about gardens that require less pesticide and water usage. Instead of opting for a huge expanse of lawn that would require pesticides to keep it well-maintained, they are choosing more ground cover, such as low shrubs and perennials.

“Five or six years ago, you wouldn’t have even heard them talking about that,” Ms. Somerville says.

Ms. Somerville says homeowners can get immediate gratification and see quick results by putting in plants and trees, but she recommends working with a designer who can come up with a master plan for the yard and phase in the various components.

“Landscape architects are better at taking into account how the yard will grow,” Ms. Somerville says.

Peter Dickens, owner of Washington Landscapes in the District, is one landscaper who has witnessed how working on the outside can have an immediate impact on a house.

Mr. Dickens says he is often called upon by agents who know that devising a strategy for the outside will help sell a particularly challenging home.

“The house will sell the next day, it has such a dramatic effect,” Mr. Dickens says.

The cost of landscaping expertise has a wide range. Mr. Dickens said Washington Landscapes has handled $30,000 jobs, but he also recently worked on a home in Alexandria and was able to make an impact on a small patio area with just $2,000.

He says water features, such as fountains, are popular with his customers and are usually incorporated into his master plan for the landscape.

His clients also want a smooth continuation from the inside to the exterior of the house, which can be accomplished by using the same colors and designs for both, with more durable fabrics for the outside.

Mr. Dickens says it’s rewarding for him to see people motivated about the outdoors and being proactive in making choices safe for the environment, as well.

“It’s exciting to see how many people are zoning in on it and feeling passionate about it,” Mr. Dickens says.

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