A Property's Value Can Grow on Its Trees

Inspect the grounds and plants  --  in daylight and after dark  --  before buying a property.
Inspect the grounds and plants -- in daylight and after dark -- before buying a property.
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, September 23, 2006

While many home buyers have house inspections, even the savviest often overlook the benefit of assessing the landscape. Ground isn't always as malleable as you might think. There are some elements that can be more difficult to change on a property than on the house, such as which way the water flows and the steepness of your slopes.

But with less pressure these days to make snap decisions about whether to buy a particular house, you have time to look over the entire grounds. Consider the landscape of your prospective home in terms of what the property can do for you. Mature plantings can add value. Sun will offer an extra bonus for a patio, flowers, vegetables, herbs and lawn. Will there be room for recreation and outdoor relaxation, vistas, visual barriers, storage and trees? Did you look at possible erosion, puddling or whether the grade of the yard runs toward the wall of the house?

According to real estate appraisers, landscape design is one of the main reasons homes sell, and beautiful plantings can increase property value 15 percent. Plants are a valuable addition to a home, especially trees. They increase in value as they mature.

Here are some ways to assess the landscape of a home:

· Inventory the plants. You're buying the landscape, too. You might discover a rare plant or two that can add to your enjoyment of the property.

· Appraise the health and size of trees. Full canopies on maturing shade trees, such as oaks, red maples, beeches and hickories, should stand above the property, with their lower limbs elevated to permit passage underneath with no dead branches. Large trees are the slowest to establish but add the greatest value to property. The most desirable shade trees are 30 to 35 feet tall, about half their maximum height. They are too big for you to afford planting at that size and large enough to offer shade, yet you can watch them grow for many years.

Old trees are wonderful additions, if they're healthy. Pre-existing large trees around a newly constructed house should be carefully scrutinized for signs of bulldozer damage, trenching and other construction activities at their roots, especially if the trees are one of the reasons you're buying. It takes about three years for construction damage to kill a mature shade tree, and removal is costly.

Small specimen or flowering trees, such as Japanese maples, paperbark maples ( Acer griseum ), flowering cherries, crab apples, franklinias, stewartias and dogwoods are desirable. They should be ornamental with full canopies and strong trunks. They should never have been topped or cut hard to renew. When any tree loses ornamental value, remove it unless it's a historic, venerable member of the community.

· Assess shrubs. Large shrubs can be valuable, but you might not recognize them if they're overgrown or planted in the wrong location. Pruning at the correct time or transplanting if necessary can rejuvenate most. Ask your cooperative extension service or local garden center for guidelines.

· Review perennials. If the owner has a perennial garden, ask to see photographs of plants during their showiest seasons. An avid gardener or smart home seller will have pictures.

· Look at the grounds, not just plants. Orientation to the sun, soil type, land contour, drainage, property lines, lighting, pedestrian circulation, paving and irrigation are also important to your buying decision. The more site analysis, the better. The most pleasant orientation to the sun for relaxing in the yard is southeastern.

Deciduous trees should shade the western and southwestern walls of the house. This cools the house in summer. In winter the trees lose their leaves and let the sun heat the structure. Shade trees should be planted at least 25 feet from the house.

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