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Buying Another House? Pay Attenton to Landscaping

By Susan Tweedy, master gardener, and Carl Wilson, extension agent, Denver County office of Colorado State University Cooperative Extension

The ad in the real estate magazine reads like a dream: Charming home, great location, ready to move in. What likely it won't tell you is the condition of the landscape around the home.

Poking into corners of the yard is as important as snooping in the closets and assessing the kitchen. Landscapes in poor condition detract from a home's value and may require a huge investment of time and dollars to repair or renovate. Conversely, a well-maintained landscape adds 10 percent to the price of real estate.

Many are the lessons learned from people who have purchased "previously owned" landscapes.

It takes money to hire a tree company to prune branches from power wires or to remove trees because internal rot makes them a hazard. Check trees for obvious signs of decay such as sunken bark, rotting stubs from poor pruning and cavities that don't show healthy growth of rolls of bark to close the gaps.

A few dandelions in the lawn are no big deal, but bindweed and thistle are scary. You'll need to apply a season's worth of repeated spot applications of dicamba weed killer to red the lawn of these invasive perennial weeds.

In addition to undertaking a "weed species survey", look for closely cropped lawns where weeds always invade. Lawns should be mowed at three inches and fertilized to grow dense grass that shades out weeds. Also look for patches of dead grass that can mean drought stress, disease or insect problems.

Flower beds overgrown with three-foot Siberian elm seedlings are obvious, but recently cut off stubs that will regrow weed elms are not. Fresh cut stubs should be painted with a 2.4-D type "dandelion" weed killer to kill the roots.

Beware of the ground-level tree stump hiding behind the peony clump. Using a pick and axe to remove tree stumps is no fun and hiring a company to come in with a mechanical stump grinder is expensive.

Worse yet are the people who wondered why the raised flower bed was randomly plopped in the middle of the yard. A year later they removed this design monstrosity only to find a 48-inch diameter cottonwood stump buried beneath it. It took five people two days to get the stump out, a load of soil to fill the hole, sod to cover the area and hiring someone to haul the stump away.

One yard featured a rose competing for space and water with a yucca plant. Odds are good that the yucca, with its deep tap roots, will win the competition. Cut it off and it grows back, as if its sharp, sword-like leaves are challenging you to a fencing contest. Painting stubs with a brush killer is a whole lot easier. It's going to be hard to get the seller to come back every spring and prune the roses. Do you want to invest the time in learning how to maintain them, or to rip them out and plant something else that you like and can handle?

Languishing flower and vegetable beds in the shade of mature trees presents a choice. Flowers and vegetables require full sun. Do you convert the flower beds to a shade-tolerant grass or groundcover, or do you remove the trees?

Some groundcovers and other plants are invasive. Dealing with bishop's weed or the mint that's taken over the flower bed and part of the yard can be a real problem.

Real estate professionals counsel ignoring interior decoration because wall can be painted and wall paper removed. Landscapes are the same way-- up to a point.

When the leaky old galvanized pipe type sprinkler system needs reaping out, the hazardous tree cut down and the soil regraded to slope away from the house for water drainage, costs mount.

Once you know what to look for in landscapes, the shopping process is the same as finding the house with the cut-up kitchen that needs the wall knocked out. Avoid surprises. Search for and recognize the problems and decide whether you're willing to deal with them.

Or set out again to search for another home on the market with fewer "previously owned landscape problems".

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010