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Lawn and garden equity

Want to get a big return on your home-improvement investment?

Look outside, not inside.

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While studies show that you'll only recoup 80 to 90 cents on every dollar you spend to upgrade your kitchen or bath, professional landscape designers estimate that improvements to your lawn and garden can boost your home's value by 7 percent to 15 percent. Those findings have been confirmed by survey results from the Gallup Organization and the National Gardening Association, or NGA.

Lawn and garden equity is all the rage these days as homeowners continue to invest heavily in their property values. The NGA says U.S. homeowners spent a $36.8 billion on their lawns and gardens in 2004, $11.4 billion of that on landscaping.

Dorcas Helfant, general managing partner of Coldwell Banker Professional Realtors, in Virginia Beach, Va., and the first female president of the National Association of Realtors, says her fellow baby boomers have a far different aesthetic than their parents.

"Our parents were not as particular. In the '50s, you had this era of bomb shelters and fear, and the homes we grew up in had these high windows where you couldn't see in or out of them," she says. "Today we don't live like that. We want broad, open expanses and windows that look out on gardens and ponds. We're not willing to live as prisoners in a house."

The boomers also are embracing the environmentalism of their youth, according to Linda Engstrom, a landscape designer and owner of Garden Aesthetics in Portland, Ore.

"Some of the Chinese principles such as feng shui are coming into play more. As designers, we encourage doing away with your lawn in favor of more ecological plantings. Americans hate to give up their lawns, but it really is something that is not earth-friendly at this point," she says.

Homeowners are finding, however, that creating interest and harmony on the outside is far trickier than making upgrades to the inside. The sheer variety of trees (evergreen and deciduous), flowering plants (annual or perennial), and the walls, paths, benches, arbors and pergolas that landscapers call "hardscape" can create a dizzying array of choices and potential missteps.

Yes, you can get some creative ideas from popular HGTV shows such as "Curb Appeal" and "Landscaper's Challenge," but flash and dash from someone else's plan won't necessarily work to your home's advantage.

"There are a few people out there in the world who have an intuitive sense of how things should be put together, and everyone else doesn't," says Martin Maca, professor of landscape design at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "If you barge ahead on your own, you can make some horrendous mistakes and create some maintenance problems down the road that could have been avoided if you'd hired a designer."

Let's look at your home's landscaping with a designer's eye. There are trends out there that may help you paint your garden masterpiece.

Elements of style
Wherever you live, proper landscaping can enhance both your enjoyment of your home and its ultimate resale value. The first thing you probably noticed about your home was its curb appeal. Even though your home's appearance from the street is only part of creating the perfect outdoor environment, first impressions are often lasting ones for buyers.

"People will drive by a home when the grass is uncut, it looks a little unkempt, and they don't even want to stop," says Helfant. "But if it is a well-manicured, well-maintained yard, they'll say, 'Oh, that's a well-kept home!' Automatically, we connect well-kept interior with well-kept exterior. If I see a home that is not well-maintained on the outside, visually, then I'm going to wonder how that owner has maintained its interior, and more importantly its systems. It may not be verbal, but we can't help but think it."

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If you're about to sell and money is tight, your best investment is to hire a full-service maintenance company to trim, edge, prune and primp your yard and beds. Even humble landscaping, if well tended, will do more to sell your home than elaborate plantings that have run wild.

Designers first consider function when developing a landscaping plan. Do you need a large unobstructed lawn for flag football games? Do you like to watch birds from your breakfast nook? Do you entertain outdoors? Are you crazy about water features? Are views your thing?

Next, they'll "age" the existing plantings and hardscape five, 10, 15, even 20 years into the future. Are there problems already in place: a tree that one day will block the view or even threaten the structure, a pool that the kids have outgrown and that no one is using now, obstacles to mowing that, over time, will become eyesores?

Now and into the future, your best design will be one that is a) functional, b) maintainable and c) in scale with your house.

"One thing that is particularly challenging for us as landscapers is scale," says Maca. "There are huge homes now, and to try to bring those into scale with the landscape is real hard. With smaller houses, we can work with plants in scale, but with these larger houses it takes forever to get a plant up there that is the size of some of these houses. How do you begin to reduce the impact of a four-stall garage?"

Engstrom finds herself frequently employing large arbors and pergolas to span the distance between large box and small foliage.

"A lot of our newer houses don't have a lot of character, and a pergola can help bring the house down into the garden. If you have a high two- or three-story deck as we have here, we will use the supports to build an arbor or pergola below the deck to help break the height and then put plants on them to help pull the garden up to the high deck."

Do you swim?
Pools used to be the water feature of choice, but not anymore. The explosion of water-burbling options, from dramatic waterfalls to gurgling pottery, has made water features the hot trend in landscaping throughout the grounds.

"What's nice about them is the flexibility," Engstrom says. "You can have a water feature for a small amount of money, or you can have an infinity-edge pool and fountain. You can have a pot or rock with a bubbler just for the sound of water that doesn't involve a lot of maintenance or safety issues. It's scalable. I think people love the sound and look of water with soft planting."

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Maca agrees: "Whether it be ponds or waterfalls or statuary with water attached, water is a magnet in any landscape. It becomes a focal point."

Not that swimming pools have fallen completely out of favor, mind you. Realtors have reached an understanding with this love-it-or-leave-it amenity.

"People love pools, but it depends on the people," says Helfant. "There are people who wouldn't have one, wouldn't care for one, and would avoid properties with them, just as there are people who go specifically looking for homes with pools. Some people are neutral and will take one if it's there. It's not an item you put in for resale; you provide for it."

That means that if pools are hot in your area and your lot can accommodate one, have a pool company quote you a price so that you can make that available to potential buyers when you go to sell. That way, they can roll a pool into their financing package.

Trees add tranquility

Trees are another major aspect of landscaping that add instant character to any home. While water may mask some of the noise from a busy street, trees can actually muffle it by up to 50 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There is another reason mature trees are popular: reduced energy bills.

"People are going to start becoming more conscious of shade trees, because you can lower the internal temperature in your house 15 degrees," Maca says.

Another coming trend: a return to patios.

"With decks, most everyone had one, and most of them were designed on one level, rectilinear and not very exciting," says Maca. "Now we're putting in combinations of walls, stone and patios that connect to a deck, and you have three or four interesting spaces. When we talk about creating that outdoor living area, we talk about several subspaces, one for cooking, one for visiting. Fire pits are popular for these. The indoor-outdoor connection is really important, and a designer can help you make that connection."

Designers vs. architects
If you're all thumbs when it comes to landscaping, you may wish to consult a professional who does it for a living. For quality help in arriving at a landscaping plan that will make your home pop, you have two choices: a landscape designer or a landscape architect.

Landscape designers often come from other design disciplines (Engstrom worked eight years in interior design, for instance) and are unregulated; that is, they are not required to pass a certification test to work in the field. Designers tend to be a cost-effective option for most residential projects that don't require heavy engineering expertise. For this reason, they typically charge less; most are in the $50-$100 per hour range. Professionals such as Engstrom have earned voluntary certification from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. The association's Web site is a good place to look for APLD-certified designers.

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Landscape architects, by contrast, have four-year degrees in their discipline; serve a lengthy apprenticeship; must pass the Landscape Architect Registration Exam; are licensed in 47 states; and typically work on commercial and public works projects as well as larger residential projects. They may be a good choice if your landscaping challenge involves unusual grade changes or extensive hardscaping, where some engineering expertise might come in handy. But be prepared for steep fees: Top landscape architects fetch anywhere from $150-$250 per hour or more. You can find one at the American Society of Landscape Architects Web site.

Engstrom says she spends about 30 hours and bills about $1,500 for the average residential landscape design; $2,000 if it involves acreage.

Maca says if you're considering using a landscape designer, hire them before you build.

"Many times, people don't contact a landscape architect until after the sidewalk is poured, the driveway is poured, the deck is built, and the landscaper comes in and says, 'Oh wow, we could do this if this wasn't already done.' You should contact the designer early; they can turn that rectilinear straight walk into a nice curving path. We can use brickwork and stone to give it a higher aesthetic quality than just concrete."

You just might save a few trees, plants and other foliage in the process.

"Hiring a landscape designer can help you see the future and design for the present," he says. "I have yet to find a client who was not happy they did it. Most of them say they wish they'd done it years ago."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.


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