Don’t underestimate the power of your front yard. Whether you’re dressing it up for potential homebuyers or for your guests, your home deserves a great first impression. Learn how to launch your own home makeover.
The backyard is a private little space, a personal retreat from the world. The front yard, by contrast, is the public face of a home. It’s easy to forget how important that first impression is, for both guests and potential homebuyers. Whether or not you’re looking to sell your home, spring is the perfect time to update your home’s curb appeal.
Little Changes Add Up
Have you ever considered how neighbors and passersby perceive your home? Adjust your perspective, says Gwen VanSteen, manager at Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road, Woodstock.
“Stand out on the street and look at your house,” she says. “See if there’s overgrown or tired plant material. If you stand on your sidewalk, you can get one view, but it’s the people who drive by your house who see it the most. The people who walk by are your neighbors, and they’ve seen this view a thousand times.”
The simplest changes may be the easiest to accomplish. Consider whether your home needs a fresh coat of paint, some new light fixtures or updated shutters.
“I like to think of the best starting point as your front door,” VanSteen says. “You want it to pop. You want it to really stand out, and you can start by planting shrubs and plants – especially perennials that draw it in to your eye.”
Flower pots add another dimension. Fill a pot with bright, contrasting colors, pairing, for example, soft green ferns with bright gerbera daisies. At least one flower color should match the front door.
“One mistake homeowners make is the pots are too small for where they’re putting them,” says VanSteen. “Imagine someone going by at 30 mph. Are they going to see it? Bigger is better, and once you get plants, make them stand out.”
Also, make that color last year-round. A crabapple tree looks brilliant in spring, but drops brown leaves and soggy berries in winter. Adding a splash of evergreen bushes keeps the yard lively when other plants are dormant.
Just as paintings fill in bare spaces on your indoor wall, evergreens can fill in bare spaces on your outside walls, says VanSteen. “There are so many different heights and shapes. They’re no longer greens and blues. There’s one variety where the bright new growth is tinted yellow in the spring.”
Avoid especially messy plants, or those that are extra woody and rambling. Honeysuckles and weigela are on her “no” list. “You want a cleaner-looking plant that looks full even in winter,” VanSteen says. “We don’t think about it, but our landscapes are bare for much of the year.”
For the past several years, VanSteen has helped a homeowner in the Bull Valley area to transform her landscape, including the circle driveway. When she began her design, the driveway had a grassy patch, some groundcover, a tree and a flagpole. The tree was removed and a water feature added to the center. Around that is a New York bluestone walkway, and a mulch-covered area filled with knee-high shrubs. A wall of stone and a few boulders enhance the elevation change.
“We started with the pond, and then added boxwoods to get some lines,” says VanSteen. “Plants like coreopsis and perennial geraniums soften it, but add color to the ground.”
Many homeowners phase in a front yard update, adding features over several years. If a massive transformation isn’t in the plan, then simple, regular maintenance goes a long way.
Pruning dead wood improves a plant’s aesthetic appeal. Early fertilizing helps to revitalize plants that suffered from last year’s drought. Better curb appeal can encompass changes big and small, and small details really do count.
Rock and Roll
If the little things add up, then so do the big things, like rock and stonework. The 12-acre stone display yard at Lafarge Fox River Stone, at the corner of IL Route 31 and McLean Boulevard, in South Elgin, offers a wide range of options and ideas – from boulders and pavers to retaining walls and veneers.
Lately, stone is finding its way into gardens as “decorative groundcover,” a twist on the rock garden. Stones come in all shapes and sizes.
“It’s really nice for flower beds, a really easy way to upgrade the front of your house, and it’s a more permanent solution than mulch, because you have to update mulch pretty much every year,” says Scott Plourde, retail manager. “And rock won’t fade or blow away.”
When mixed with plantings, boulders add simple accents. Just as popular are retaining walls, which are ideal for sloped yards. Plourde finds that many homeowners enjoy outcropping stone: a long, flat, jagged rock that stacks well and looks like “a small piece of mountain.”
Natural stone may require more work to install, Plourde says, but it accomplishes a more natural, unique look. Concrete pavers and retaining walls, on the other hand, have a more even, consistent look. These durable, manmade products come in a wide variety of patterns, and some are built specifically for heavy vehicle traffic, suitable for use on a driveway.
“Most 8-centimeter-thick pavers are suitable for vehicular traffic,” Plourde says. “But proper installation is more crucial than simply the thickness of the paver.”
Natural stone works well on a home facade, as a veneer. It comes in two sizes: full-depth, which is about 4 inches thick, and thin veneer, which is an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick.
“Whether you want the natural stone to look like brick, where it has the horizontal lines, or you want more of a random pattern like the fieldstone look, or even if you want a boulder look, like pretty round edges – whatever you want, there’s a stone out there,” says Plourde.
Veneers are probably not a do-it-yourself project, but simple things like groundcover and boulders may be. Perhaps the most impressive DIY project Plourde has seen was completed last year by a customer in Warrenville. The imaginative DIYer was an auto mechanic who installed two retaining walls himself.
“We ended up sending two to three truckloads of outcropping stone directly to his house, from Wisconsin,” says Plourde. “He unloaded it, he placed it, he had friends with Bob-Cats, so he had all the equipment. He transformed his front yard, which was a long slope from his house to the road, and actually built terraces out of these stones, two or three levels with steps, all out of natural stone.”
LaFarge doesn’t install products, but it does deliver them and connect homeowners with contractors. A showroom and stone yard at the entrance to the company’s massive quarry highlights a diverse selection. “We pull from quarries in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana – all over,” says Plourde. Some stone even comes from Mexico.
It’s a lot to choose from, so Plourde recommends that homeowners bring ideas about what they like. From time to time, Lafarge shares new products and ideas during its “demo days” event. The next one is this April.
“One of the best things to do is get people out here and get them walking through the yard,” says Plourde. “You can hear them say, ‘Man, could you imagine that stone in front of our house?’ or, ‘Imagine how that boulder would look next to the tree out front.’”
Trust the Pros
For all of the DIY landscaping that can dress up a home, some things are best left to a professional.
“If you pursue a design plan by a professional, or get a proposal by a landscape professional, it’ll be the least expensive part of your landscaping,” says David Reithel, owner of D. Reithel Landscaping, 11N680 IL Route 47, in Hampshire. “You can always erase that plan or start over, and if you don’t like something about it, you can draw something else. Don’t do something off the top of your head and be sorry for it later. Professionals should have a lot of knowledge of plants and landscape materials.”
The curbside appeal of his home, located just up the hill from the company’s nursery, is a touch of the master. The home’s sloping circular driveway winds down a hill, past a landscape of pavers and shrubs. A pergola stretches from the front door to the driveway, covering a long, L-shaped walkway. Even in late winter, evergreens contrast with the red-and-orange brickwork.
It’s not just aesthetics; a good design pays off in the long run, when a home is sold. Despite today’s uncertain housing market, Reithel says, the longstanding rule of thumb is that a good landscape is worth anywhere from 3 to 15 percent of a home’s value.
The extent of a landscape job often depends on the grade, or slope, of a yard. If a retaining wall is necessary, its placement will dictate certain plantings. In an upcoming project, grade changes could make the difference between a simple or complex update.
“Railroad ties were placed too close to the driveway, so when people drive up to this house and open the door to the car, the door hits the ties – that’s annoying,” says Reithel. “Plus, there’s very little space between you and the railroad tie wall, and if it’s raining, people are rubbing against that. When we redesign it, we’re going to do a wall again, because of the grading, or we can go way into the yard and slope it down.”
One exciting thing about grade change is that it often necessitates the use of accent lighting, so guests can better see steps and walkways at night. New, superefficient LED lighting, which runs on just 12 to 24 volts, is increasingly popular. “Those bulbs last practically forever, and now they’re power-saving,” says Reithel. “Now that they’re not so white-looking, they’re much warmer and more inviting.”
Lamp fixtures come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and placements. Up-lighting casts a glow from a low spot, often shining on plants or a house. Downlighting offers a spotlight. Path lights gently illuminate walkways.
One of Reithel’s new favorites is the well light, a can-type device buried in the ground. It’s most effective when pointed up at trees. “Even in the winter, you can light up a tree that has a very nice branching habit and it’s very picturesque,” says Reithel. “Or if you have a row of architectural trees with straight upward branching, you can light them very attractively.”
These lights are also effective when set up to shine on a house or bounce off a walkway.
New systems also allow these lights to direct-connect with a power source, meaning that if one wire is accidentally cut, the entire system won’t go down.
So what’s appropriate for your house? “It depends on your house and the size of the project,” says Reithel. “How would you know for sure? You’d have to rely on the professionals. Call them out and get a proposal.”
Top It Off
An often-forgotten part of the home spruce-up is the roof. Its impact on a home’s aesthetic appeal isn’t to be underestimated. “A lot of times, a roof can be more than half of the visual appearance of a structure,” says Bob Raleigh III, co-owner of Renaissance Roofing Inc., 2331 Hawkey Dr., Belvidere.
The company specializes in historical roofing, especially the slate or clay tiles found on older homes. Updates to these types of roofs are especially noticeable.
“They add an architectural element to the property, and they help add to the overall appearance,” Raleigh says. “When a home has a tile or slate roofing system and it’s removed and replaced with an asphalt shingle, people immediately recognize that something is changed about the house. The character of the building is drastically changed.”
Some easier projects include clearing gutters of debris, and inspecting the roof and gutters for signs of damage.
“Inspect the flashings – most roofs fail at transitions from one roofing system to another, or from a wall to the roof, from the chimney to the roof, from a skylight to the roof,” says Raleigh. “As a do-it-yourselfer, you can inspect the roof to make sure there are no obvious signs of damage or failure.”
The historic roofs Raleigh works on can last for 80 to 100 years, but occasionally, they show damage and need a spruce-up. The benefit is that historic roofing is easily dismantled and updated.
And, it’s easy to spot signs of distress on all types of roofing.
“Look to see if the roof is falling into disrepair, if there are lines on the roof or staining, if it’s missing shingles or tiles, if pieces of the roof are gone,” he says. “When the neat and tidy appearance has left the roofing system, it’s time to fix it.”
Raleigh warns that roofing isn’t a DIY project. Along with safety concerns, warranties and engineering matter.
“It’s the skill level of the person installing the system that will affect the long-term performance of either an asphalt or specialty tile or slate,” says Raleigh. “The most important day of your roof is the day it’s installed – that’s the old cliché. You can have the best materials installed, but if it’s not installed properly, the manufacturer’s not going to back the warranty, so it’s worthless, then.”
Product weight also matters. Raleigh finds that homes from the Depression era and earlier can withstand the 10 or more pounds per square foot that slate or tile add. By contrast, modern asphalt shingles add just 6 to 7 pounds per square foot.
“You always want to check with a professional, an engineer, to determine whether or not your home can support slate or tile,” says Raleigh. “We can make that evaluation.”
Specialty materials are an added bonus for newer homes, but are imperative for older homes. Removing them can decreases home value.
“If you take off those tiles and put on an asphalt shingle roof, you’ve now removed some of the historical character of the property,” says Raleigh. “It’d be like taking off the brick and putting vinyl siding up. You wouldn’t do that, so you shouldn’t do that when you have a slate or tile roof.”
Spruce it Up
It’s never too late to improve the way others see your home. Big or little, front yard updates say a lot about what’s inside. Maybe it’s time to look at things from the other side of the street.