Home & Garden

Make Your Home Look Superb from the Curb

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Is your home ready for a refreshed look? Whether it’s lacking character or ready to sell, your home can benefit from some simple improvements. Here are just a ways places to get started.

Simple spruce-ups can have a big impact on your home and its value. Start with trees and shrubs, planters, garage doors and architectural elements.

Simple spruce-ups can have a big impact on your home and its value. Start with trees and shrubs, planters, garage doors and architectural elements.

Maybe you’ve lived in your house for 30 years and you know it’s time for a change. Maybe you just bought a newly constructed home in a developing area where all of the houses are beige and lack character.

Or, maybe you’re looking to sell and want to get the most bang for your buck with the improvements you make to the outside of your home.

Whatever the scenario, there are many reasons – and many ways – to add curb appeal to your humble abode, and you don’t necessarily have to reach deep into your pockets to do it.

Planting new trees and shrubs, changing the look of your garage door or even adding square footage are among the many ways to breathe new life into your home.

Tackle the Little Things

When deciding how to up the ante, the first thing you should do is stand in the street and take a picture of your home, says Gwen VanSteen, manager at the Gardens of Woodstock in Lakewood.

“All of a sudden, you will see in an actual captured picture if there’s a crooked window,” she says. “If you just stood out and looked at it, it might not catch your eye. But if you look at the photo, you’ll see it.”

Once you see what the neighbors see, a little elbow grease can go a long way toward transforming the look of your property, she says.

Simple tasks, like trimming overgrown plants, re-edging flowerbeds and renting a power washer to clean the exterior of your house, including under the eaves, around the foundation and the entire walkway, can make a tremendous impact.

Then, think about how you enter your home, and turn your attention there.

“One of the most important features of your house is your front door, and it should stand out,” VanSteen says.

Repainting and/or framing the front door with thoughtful plant arrangements that complement, but don’t detract from, the overall aesthetic, could be an easy solution. But don’t go over the top, VanSteen says. Too much color in plant material, in particular, can be disastrous.

“If you have every color of marigold and petunia planted in the flower beds in front of the front door, you don’t even see the front door,” she says. “That’s not the idea. The idea is that you want people to be able to walk into your house.

“I recommend a simple container that’s in good proportion to your front door or the size of your house – nothing so small that you can’t see it from the road, but nothing so big that it hides the whole front door.”

One way to find color balance is to think in threes: either three colors that mesh well, or three shades of the same color.

VanSteen recalls seeing a house with a creamy yellow tone and a dusty blue front door that was well served by pots of blue hydrangea on the stoop. Another home had a red country door framed with pots of red flowers.

“It blends nicely with what’s going on with the house,” VanSteen says.

The walkway leading up to your front door may be another project to tackle. Builder-grade sidewalks often have rigid lines and 90-degree angles, sometimes with only a foot-and-a-half left between the house and sidewalk.

Ripping out old concrete and putting in a curved sidewalk will look nicer and provide more room for plants.

“A curved sidewalk is a little more pleasing to the eye, and it’s more comfortable for your guests, when they come into your house, because they’re not cutting the corner of the sidewalk,” VanSteen says.
If new plants are in your budget, choose those that fit the scale of your house.

The common rule of thumb is to set rounder plants near a one-story house and taller, upright plants around a two-story structure, VanSteen says. A ranch, for example, doesn’t need a big River Birch sitting at the corner. A smaller Star Magnolia or Viburnum would suit the home better.

Similarly, don’t plant smaller, slow-growing plants around a big, two-story brick house.

“It’s better to spend a little more money on bigger plants and shrubs that have size instead of buying the wrong size plants that you won’t see grow in your lifetime,” VanSteen says.

Finally, don’t install plants too close to the house.

Most plants grow to 3 or 4 feet wide and need to be at least 2.5 feet away from the foundation, she says. Any closer, and the plant could eventually hit the house, creating issues. Also, if the home’s eaves shelter the plant, it might not get sufficient rainwater. Plus, soil closer to the foundation may have concrete mixed in, meaning higher alkaline levels – not a good thing for plants.

Reap the Benefits of Trees

Brian Ziegler, manager at The Davey Tree Expert Company in West Chicago, agrees that a mature landscape can improve the appeal of a home.

But there are also financial, environmental and social benefits to having trees and shrubs in your yard.
A mature landscape can increase a property’s value by 10 to 20 percent, especially if there are mature trees, Ziegler says.

In fact, research done by the Arbor Day Foundation found that 83 percent of realtors believe mature trees have a strong impact on the salability of homes, especially those valued at less than $150,000. For homes $250,000 and up, that percentage increases to 98 percent, says Ziegler.

From an environmental standpoint, most people understand that trees absorb harmful gases and release oxygen, Ziegler says. But trees also can deflect harsh winds, reducing heating bills; provide shade, reducing air conditioning costs; and absorb tremendous amounts of rainfall, decreasing the amount of soil erosion on a property.

Trees have social advantages, too. A study done in the 1970s found that spending just five minutes looking at landscaped scenery, especially mature trees, can reduce stress levels, Ziegler says.

“Hospitals actually have proven that they discharge patients with tree views quicker than those without,” he says. “And the retention of information of kids is increased by spending time outside in the landscape.”

So, how many trees are necessary to acquire all of these benefits? Every Midwest property should have at least two trees, if possible – one planted on the west side of the house and one planted to the south – to reduce those air conditioning and heating bills and create a windbreak in the winter, Ziegler says.

There’s no one tree that’s best for all landscapes, but most homeowners can’t go wrong with a maple tree or a Colorado Blue Spruce.

“The Autumn Blaze Maple is a hybrid of a Norway and Red maple,” Ziegler says, noting the tree can reach heights of 35 to 50 feet. “The Morton Arboretum developed it in the 1970s. It’s a pretty strong, pretty durable and rapid-growing tree, so for new construction, it’s great.”

His favorite conifer is tough and beautiful, with its Christmas tree shape and blue-green needles.
Be sure to remove burlap, wire cage or twine from the root ball before planting, he says, since “girdling” the tree robs it of nutrients.

“That’s setting the tree up for failure,” Ziegler says. “Could roots punch through burlap? Yes … but why give it only a 70, 80, 90 percent success rate? Why not give it a 100 percent success rate? Don’t leave that stuff on.”

Once planted, it’s crucial to water trees for the first three weeks, but don’t saturate them. Trees only need the equivalent of an inch of rainfall in 24 hours, Ziegler says, so don’t leave the hose running for more than 15 to 20 minutes.

“The best thing to do is look at the soil,” Ziegler says. “If it’s dry, water. And look at the leaves. If they look like they’ve lost their vigor, you can probably water.”

Then, make sure to properly prune your tree. First, remove any dying or diseased branches. If the canopy is still full, thin it by 5 to 10 percent, concentrating on lateral branches that cross each other.

And don’t forget to mulch. “Mulch is an awesome benefit to the landscape,” Ziegler says. “We, as a society, like to remove every single leaf off our property. But wood mulch will deteriorate over time, providing fertilizer, and it keeps the cold out of the root zone in winter. It actually benefits the tree.”

Groom the Garage Door

If you’re really looking to make an impact, consider tackling your garage door.

“The garage door is the largest fixture of a home when it’s a front-load garage,” says Aaron Poling, owner of A.S.A.P. Garage Door Repair in Huntley. “And it’s one of the biggest bangs for your buck when changing the curb appeal of your home.”

Replacing most average two-car garage doors can cost less than $1,000 or nearly $3,000, he says. And there are plenty of options to consider: insulated or non-insulated; with or without windows; wood, steel or heavy-gauge steel; and exterior decoration hardware.

People are often surprised to learn that they don’t have to replace the entire door to get a completely different look, Poling says. Swapping a top panel with a glass section works wonders.

“Adding windows, depending on the model, can be $400 to $600 to put some design on the front of the house, which also makes a good curb appeal difference,” he says. “I’ve seen some really good before- and after-projects … sometimes just adding windows to an existing garage door can really tie it together nicely with the home.”

One of the most popular garage door upgrades is to create the look of a carriage door, reminiscent of old swinging stable doors, Poling says. The doors often feature overlays in X-buck, A-buck or V-buck patterns, which mirror the letter after which they’re named. Black iron handles and spade straps attached to the corners of the doors can complete the Old World look.

“On average, you can upgrade a regular subdivision house, where every house down the street looks the same, with a stamped steel carriage house door for about $1,500,” Poling says. “It separates it from other houses and gives it a more elegant look.”

This style fits best with a colonial house, but it can work with other styles, too, Poling says. Best of all, the look also can be achieved with an existing garage door by purchasing a $50 exterior hardware kit from A.S.A.P. or a local home improvement store.

Adding a set of shutters to the home, with matching black spade straps, to make them look like swinging shutters, can tie together a house and garage door nicely, he says.

Another option is a fairly new product: maintenance-free steel doors that look like wood, Poling says. From the street, the doors look just like mahogany or oak, but without the weight and added cost. This type of upgrade adds a lot of warmth to a home for between $1,000 to $2,000.

If none of those options sounds appealing, don’t underestimate the power of a coat of paint, Poling says.

“You can always take some of these drab steel doors and do some accent painting,” he says. “Just paint the inside panels, match your front door panels to your garage door panels and put some shutters up that match it. You can make small changes without spending a lot of money, and it’ll make a big difference.”

A bonus of updating your garage door is added security, Poling says. Many families access their home via the garage, not the front entrance, so having a strong garage door in place is an added safety measure.

Change Up Your Architecture

No one wants to own a home that’s identical to a home three doors down, says Andrea Korte, who owns Korte Architecture in Crystal Lake with her husband, Brian.

It might be worthwhile to hire an architect to put your visions to paper and have someone oversee any cosmetic or structural changes you’re considering.

“When you work with an architect to design something, most importantly, they need to fit the style and structure to the house that you already have,” Korte says. “We try to make sure it looks like it’s always been there.”

If you live in a newly developed area where houses have the same floor plans and elevations, adding a front porch may be just the thing to set apart your house from others.

It doesn’t need to be elaborate or even be a true “porch” that is posted to the ground, Korte says. A roof with brackets over the front door or a simple railing added to grade-level concrete can be enough to cheer it up.

“You could even make a pretty big statement with a porch that’s 20 square feet with a roofline and railing,” Korte says. “It could also be something that goes up to 100 square feet or more if it extends further along the house.”

One thing to keep in mind is what the porch space will be used for.

“If a porch is meant to be used, it needs to be more than your little 3-foot-deep setback,” Korte says. “That’s just decorative, and that works, too, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it needs to be at least 5 or 6 feet deep if you want to actually use the space for a swing or a table and chairs.”

Re-siding a house to update the vinyl or revamp the color scheme can increase curb appeal, too.

“We’ve also seen people add veneer stone, which is either a real product or a manufactured product, that gives another texture to the exterior,” Korte says.

A 4-inch thick brick veneer will require a larger, stronger foundation to hold the weight, but some veneers don’t need extra support.

“Manufactured stones aren’t as heavy. You can essentially glue them onto the house,” she says. “There are hundreds of different stones and patterns and shapes and types.”

Altering the roofline can completely change the look of a house. Gables – a roof design that features a triangle where two rooflines meet in the center – can be added over existing windows. Dormers, which extend out of the roofline, can add significant square footage and light.

Cladding those designs in contrasting materials, such as cedar shingles, is another way to rid a home of the monotony of siding, Korte says.

Before tackling architectural changes, remember that each municipality has its own zoning regulations. Before any structural work can be started, the proper permits must be gathered.

“Usually, the architect will check the zoning requirements and provide drawings to be submitted for permit,” Korte says. “But the homeowner can go to the village and find out what the setbacks are, so they know what’s possible. The way things are working now, even if you want to replace your windows, cities are looking for permits. Most websites explain what you need a permit for … but there’s pretty much nothing you do nowadays that doesn’t need a permit.”

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