Out in the Open: Landscaping Key to Home Value

by Jennifer Garrett

The outdoor evolution

Once upon a time it was enough to plop a picnic table in the grass. A flagstone patio and path were a nice touch. Later a neat poured concrete slab and walkway to the front door cut down on maintenance and created an easy place to keep the grill.

Those simple times are long gone.

Today’s outdoor spaces are more varied, intricate, and personalized than their early predecessors. Now it’s not unusual to see combinations of decks, patios, water features, and fire elements such as fire pits and fireplaces, says Rick Meinzer of Platinum Landscapes in Provo, Utah. “Fire adds warmth and extends the usefulness of the outdoor space,” he says. “Some of the best hours to enjoy the environment are not in the heat of the day.”

Lisa Morano, accounts manager for Morano Landscape in Mamaroneck, N.Y., agrees that contemporary exteriors continue to become more varied and complex. Many include elaborate plantings and even outdoor kitchens. “The outdoor kitchen has been [making huge gains] in popularity,” she says “Besides being convenient, it adds tremendously to resale value.”

Evolving material selections also offer homeowners new choices. For example, composite decking, such as Trex, eliminates splinters and most maintenance. It can, however, cost 50% more than traditional wood. On the other hand, pavers and retaining wall components fashioned from concrete can trim costs and offer uniformity in color and appearance, which makes them an attractive alternative to natural stone.

Meinzer says business has grown steadily as homeowners invest more in their landscaping in reaction to the recession and housing market downturn of a few years back. When moving became financially less attractive, individuals and couples looking for improved living conditions began to rehab their existing homes. For many that meant turning attention to outdoor spaces.

“They want functional living spaces that they can enjoy, places where families can gather,” Meinzer says. “My clients want to enjoy the yard—not just mow it, but go out and use it.”

Although functionality is critical for many exterior projects, resale is another landscaping projects driver. Curb appeal remains the foundation of that critical first impression when selling a house. An attractive, well-maintained front yard invites prospective buyers to take a closer look and conveys confidence that current owners paid as much attention to the inside of the house as they did the outside, Morano says.

Basics include safe, even walkways, trimmed hedges, pruned shrubs and trees, and sufficient lighting. Driveways should be in good condition with any damage or defects repaired. “Flower beds should have flowers of seasonal color; the flower beds should be mulched. Weeds pulled and grass cut,” Morano adds.

Beyond that, homeowners without a deck or patio are wise to consider installing one before sale, says Kathleen Dangelo, vice president and general counsel of The Ohio Valley Group, a landscape and tree service contractor in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “Some kind of deck or patio is essential to resale,” she says.

Dangelo also encourages homeowners—whether they’re staying put or hoping to move—to keep in mind another landscaping element that often gets overlooked: lighting. “People don’t usually call and ask us for a lighting quote,” she says, “but they’re always thrilled with the result.”

Low-voltage lighting along pathways and in seating areas extends the usefulness of outdoor spaces and adds safety for moving around at night. It also provides an element of security, while decorative uplighting on specific plantings can add interest and drama, Dangelo says.

The professional approach

Hobbyists and frugal homeowners often tackle their own landscaping projects to stretch their dollars. Dangelo recognizes that homeowners can manage maintenance and pruning, but she encourages individuals to at least meet with professionals before taking on a significant landscaping project.

“Do-it-yourself projects always tend to look like you did it yourself,” she says. If budgets are limited, Dangelo recommends developing a phased plan to implement over a series of years to spread costs out rather than dividing the project between the homeowner and professional.

Meinzer won’t split jobs with clients due to insurance, but he also wants to control quality. “We won’t do anything where the homeowner is trying to do any of it. We just won’t touch it,” he says. “Many of the customers we work with have done their landscaping themselves once. They come to us because it never worked right and it never looked right.”

Of course, finding a good partner in a landscaper is critical. Costs, project timelines, material selections, and design styles will vary from contractor to contractor. It is important to consider all factors and to talk to previous and existing clients as well as any staff who would be assigned to your project. Homeowners also should verify that any contractor holds necessary licenses and insurance.

To narrow options, Morano suggests asking friends and neighbors for referrals. She also encourages individuals to inquire about discounts from companies already working nearby. “Often you will get a better price if your landscaper is in the neighborhood already,” she says.

Money talks

As with any home-improvement project, setting a budget is a smart step for homeowners who want to control cost and outcome. One option is to establish a firm budget ahead of time and then meet with professionals to explore options within cost limits.

That can be tricky, however. Estimating costs for materials and labor can be challenging for those who are new to exterior projects or renovations in general. Dangelo says coming in with a ballpark budget and general ideas about project scope and features is a perfectly viable approach. Landscapers can work with homeowners to review options in broad strokes and then together can home in on a plan and budget that meet the client’s goals.

Meinzer notes that every project is unique and there are no hard and fast rules about how much to spend. He points to clients who spent more on landscaping than they did on their actual home. “It might sound crazy, but these folks live outside,” Meinzer says.

An experienced landscaper can help clients determine how much to spend, whether they’re overinvesting and where they might make small trade-offs that cut costs. “[The budget] just depends on the situation,” Meinzer says. “That’s where a seasoned professional can make a difference. And if you have a good one, (he or she) can save you money, too.”