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Magazine Aug 29, 2008 - 1:48 AM

Curb appeal

By Sue Sweeney

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Thinking of selling your house? Here are some tips on how to quickly prep the outside of your real estate treasure to help you sell it faster and at a better price

You’re ready to sell the house and have been fixing it up inside. However, what about the outside? First impressions can be the edge in this tight market.

One would think that the best way to enhance “curb appeal” would be to upgrade the garden. Within reason, that’s true, but the experts say that overdoing the garden could actually detract from marketability, and that certain other upgrade items come first. Some of the items high on the experts’ lists may surprise you.

Whether or not you’re thinking about selling, why not maximize your curb appeal this fall with some quick and inexpensive changes? Inside or out, step one is getting rid of the clutter and trash. Next is sprucing up what you have to look its best. Lastly, a few strategic “quick fixes” can emphasize a good point or minimize a negative. This includes adding some pep now for fall, winter and spring gardens.


Clean it up: You want to convey to potential buyers that the house is well cared-for and easy to maintain. Simple neatness goes a long way. The basic cleanup list includes the following:

• Put away the hose, lawn tools, bicycles and other yard paraphernalia;
• Scrub the front porch, front door and mailbox;
• Wash the windows, shutters and screens;
• Refurbish old lawn furniture or replace it;
• Change the outside light bulbs;
• Remove anything dying or weedy from the garden; and
• Prune overgrown and dead material from the shrubs and trees.

It’s also a good idea to clean out and organize the garage. All that accumulated “might-need-it-some-day” stuff has to go. This can be a big job. However, you’ll like the results, and you’ll have a place to store what otherwise becomes yard clutter.

Keep it clean: During the sale process, you should keep the patio, driveway and sidewalk swept, the yard mowed, the garden weeded, the windows washed and the lawn furniture neatly arranged.

Hide the flamingos: Lastly, when “staging” a home for sale, it’s important that the decor be neutral enough that potential buyers can envision themselves living in the space, doing their activities with their possessions. You don’t want them distracted by something that they might consider an eyesore, no matter how much you love the item. Accordingly, put away outdoor decorations that might not appeal to all tastes.


Wash, paint, repair: Scrub or power wash the siding and trim. Don’t forget the deck, fencing, chimney and roof. Repair as needed. Consider whether to invest in major repainting and/or re-roofing.

While the ladders are out, check the chimney cap and look for other exterior openings that need to be screened or sealed to keep birds and other small animals out of the house. Remember, housework, especially on a ladder may be very dangerous and you should always seek professional help if necessary.

The gutters: It’s no surprise that the experts routinely recommend sprucing up the paint, but believe or not, a top recommendation of many experts is to also clean and repair, or replace, the gutters. New, straight gutters help provide a neat, well cared-for look.

The front door: The experts advise that the front door should be the main focal point of the house and clearly visible from the street. A visitor should have no question about which entrance to use and how to get to it from the street and the driveway.

Place a wreath or similar seasonal decoration on the door. Replacing the door mat is an inexpensive way to update. Remove all clutter from the front porch; however, a decorative basket can be a welcoming touch as long as it’s not in the way.

Garden and container flowers near the front porch can help frame the area and bring it into focus. Remember, though, to keep everything low-key and in scale; the goal is to get the visitor to want to buy the house — not the flowers.

The mailbox: The mailbox area should be in good repair and in keeping with the style of the house and neighborhood. The mailbox is another relatively inexpensive item to consider updating.


Pathways: Real estate sales experts agree that the front walk, driveway and alike should all look and feel inviting. All exterior paving should be in good repair — no broken stones or tripping hazards. Likewise, guests should not be required to dodge vegetation or objects. Prune the bushes and make sure that all objects, including potted plants, are out of the way.

Ideally, paths and steps should be at least four feet wide, with no unnecessary curves to navigate around. If it’s too expensive to widen the paths, you might be able to create the illusion of a wider path by bordering it with a foot or so of mulch on each side.

The driveway: There should be sufficient driveway space to walk around a parked car to the house without feeling crowded off the edge of the pavement. Generally, the driveway should be at least 10 feet wide for the cars with 3 feet of extra space for walking. Rather than resurfacing the whole driveway, you can get the extra width by adding a parallel footpath, using a contrasting material.

The patio and deck: The patio or deck should be spacious enough for guests to move around easily without having to squeeze past furniture. The fastest way to get more space is to reduce the amount of furniture. Also, consider replacing some large items with smaller ones.

Outdoor lighting: If you’re going to be showing the house at night, make sure that the driveway, paths, steps and doorsills are well lit. Home goods stores sell inexpensive solar-powered lights on short stakes that you can stick in the ground near the steps and along the driveway. The lights have light sensors, to turn themselves on automatically after dark.


Spruce up the lawn: The lawn need not be a single sweep of green velvet. Indeed, a too-perfect lawn can be a turn-off to eco-conscious buyers concerned about the use of lawn chemicals that they perceive as potentially dangerous to their children and pets. The lawn does need to look healthy and neat. For a “quick fix”: weed out crabgrass and other noticeable lawn weeds and seed the bare patches. Cover dirt paths and the moth-eaten lawn under the big tree with wood chips. Consider the cost of laying new sod, if it would make a big difference.

Clear the foundations: While a foundation planting makes the house look settled, there should be a few inches of clear space between the shrubs and the wall. In addition, the windows should be clear of vegetation unless needed for privacy or screening.

To keep pests out of the house, there should be several inches of clear foundation between the siding and the ground. Remove accumulated weeds, leaves, soil and cobwebs; then level the earth with a rake.

Edge the garden: Planted areas should have a crisp, clear division from the lawn. The garden edge should follow a shallow curve that is easy to mow — avoid straight lines and sharp corners. A simple 4-inch trench, cut with a shovel, will do the trick. However, if it would help significantly with design, consider some sort of neat, low-maintenance edging such as brick. If you already have an edging, re-set it so that it looks new.

Mulch the garden: To appeal to the maximum number of potential buyers, the garden needs to look neat and orderly. It should not be overcrowded. If you can’t see the ground, at least in places, rip out some plants or do some major pruning. Spread 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the plants and shrubs. Cedar chips are good to deter some pests. However, don’t use the dyed mulch — it does not appeal to all tastes.

New garden plants: When you are preparing for sale, whatever plants there are in the garden must look healthy and mature. Any new plants need to be large and should be carefully transplanted so they don’t have that just-planted look or drop their flowers. Any new plants and all container plants need to be watered regularly to keep them looking their best.

Garden design: The garden should be in keeping with the style of the house and the neighborhood. Some color is good to add sparkle and emphasis to the house’s good points, but keep it simple. To appeal to most buyers, the garden, first and foremost, needs to be low maintenance. This means that shrubs and trees, rather flowers, should dominate the landscaping, and that flower gardens should be few in number. As noted, regular watering, weeding, mulching, pruning, raking and dead-heading are musts for the garden while the house is for sale, so you, too, will appreciate the lesser work of a simple garden.

Pick a simple color scheme that goes with the house, using only two or three colors per season, including the trim color. Fewer colors and types of plants are more effective than a “scattershot” approach. Sticking with a simple color scheme does, however, require extreme discipline at the plant nursery. The rule of thumb is to never buy fewer than three of the same plant. For a fast infusion of color, containers can work as well as planted flowers and are easier to change with the season.

Some pointers:

• Call attention to the front door by placing planting containers near the front porch or plant flowers in sweeps at the base of the foundation shrubs near the front door.
• Plant in naturalistic grouping of three, five or seven. Flowers are not soldiers — don’t make them march in rows, especially spring bulbs. Arranging plants in evenly spaced “polka dots” is also not recommended — while you might like the look, it will not appeal to all tastes.
• Blend flowers in at the base of the foundation shrubs, front porch, mailbox, etc. Don’t crowd flowering plants up against the house.
• To keep the emphasis on the house and front door, avoid scattered garden islands in the lawn and planting flowering plants too close to the garage.

Color for the fall: To show off the house this fall, choose big pots of blooming perennials that will keep flowering until hard frost. Great hardy natives include cone flowers (Echinacea), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), asters and goldenrod. Once fall arrives, stop dead-heading the spent flowers of these natives — let them go to seed for winter interest (and bird food!). Some other choices for late season color: chrysanthemums, autumn joy sedum, marigolds and pansies.

Color for the winter: Just before the ground freezes, stick branches of conifers, hollies and other evergreens in your planting containers and cover the soil with moss or wood chips. Add color with a red bow or outdoor ornaments.

In the gardens, don’t remove the summer mulch. Nothing looks more forlorn, I think, than bare, frozen earth. Cut back any vegetation that has become mushy, broken or messy; keep the rest for winter interest.

If the gardens and foundation plantings lack evergreens, or you have something that needs screening, early this October, consider adding a few shrubs, but only if you can afford more expensive plants large enough to look mature; pre-sale is not the time for inexpensive “starter plants.” Some good choices: juniper, arborvitae, rhododendron and mountain laurel. Red twig dogwood is great for contrast and winter color.

A trellis, fencing or large ornament grass can provide winter interest and screen off negatives like ventilation equipment and trash cans.

Plant now for next spring: This fall, underplant everywhere, including in the containers, with spring bulbs. Hopefully, the house will be sold by spring, and this will be your gift to the new buyer. However, you never know how things might go, and a few dozen bulbs will present a cheerful face come spring.

To get the most for your bulb money, plant in small strategic groups rather than massive sweeps. For example, groups of 10 to 15 daffodils on each side of the front steps, and another grouping at the foot of the mailbox, can have substantial impact — you don’t need hundreds of bulbs to provide seasonal accent color.

Get quality bulbs but shop the local plant nurseries for sales or buy the economical bulb collections from catalogs and online. Buy sufficient variety to cover early, middle and late season. Less expensive, hardy bulbs with showy flowers and long blooming times include glory of the snow, grape hyacinth, crocus, daffodil and narcissus.

To take the work out of planting, plant several bulbs around the sides of a single 6-inch to 8-inch hole; you can mix species with different blooming times but include three to five of each species. To get them a good start before the ground freezes, plant your bulbs before the end of October.

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