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Four Steps to More Curb Appeal

Columnist Kathy McCleary talks to design experts to find out how to makeover her home exterior and landscaping without spending a bundle.

I used to live in a quaint little house that literally made my heart leap every time I rounded the corner and drove up the street. But when I moved to northern Virginia last June, my husband and I bought a decidedly unappealing looking house that had been for sale for more than six months. We were shopping in a red-hot housing market where most homes sell within hours, often above asking price.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why the house — a well built, not unattractive brick cottage — had sat for so long. It was completely surrounded on three sides by an overgrown boxwood hedge and ancient, bedraggled holly trees. (My daughters referred to our new home as "the bush," as in, "Can we go home to our bush now?") The house had zero curb appeal.

We bought it anyway, and a year later it's amazing what a difference a little landscaping and the addition of a few window boxes and welcome mats has made. And we haven't even gotten to the repainting yet. We removed one of the two driveways, the boxwoods and the holly trees. We planted a small, graceful patch of lawn and a curving bed that slopes from the front door down to the street. We bought window boxes and loaded them with brilliant red geraniums and other annuals. The house is open and bright and welcoming now, easily visible at every angle from the street. Most importantly, it's a house that makes us feel good when we drive up to it.

That's the definition of "curb appeal," according to exterior designer Pamela Berstler, CEO of Flower to the People in Los Angeles. It's that something about a house "that makes you smile when you come home." Exactly what that something is differs depending on the home and owner, because different elements trigger that nurturing feeling in everyone, Berstler explains. The key to curb appeal is balancing what makes you happy with what works in your community, since your home's yard, driveway and exterior are both private and public spaces.Many magazines and newspapers often tout the financial benefits of boosting curb appeal, citing a 1999 Clemson University study showing that consumers valued well-landscaped homes at 11 percent above the asking price. A Gallup survey, also from 1999, found landscaping could add 7 to 15 percent to a home's value. In 2003, an article in SmartMoney magazine suggested that spending 5 percent of your home's value on landscaping could yield a return of 150 percent or more. But what if you're planning on staying put or just want your home to have curb appeal for you? Here's some advice from a variety of experts on the best way to increase curb appeal without bringing in the landscape architects, bulldozers and $50,000 budget.

Next: Four steps experts recommend for increasing curb appeal.

Come up with a concept
The first thing you should do is "walk as far away from your house as you can so that you can still see the whole front of the house," says exterior designer Berstler. "Now take a really good look at it." Notice what draws your eye right away. In most cases, the front door should be the main focal point; that's how visitors enter your home. If it's not, it's a good starting point for improvements.

Many landscape designers will come to your home for a consultation and draw up a plan for your front yard that could include paths, patios and driveway treatments as well as planting schemes, says Ann Nickerson, a landscape designer based in Hillsboro, Ore. The cost for such a consultation is usually $200 to $400 (and that fee is often credited to your account if you go ahead with landscaping installation through your designer). Other designers will include consultations on paint colors and even remodeling tips for the entryway.

You can find landscape designers through referrals from friends, and through groups such as the Association for Professional Landscape Designers. Landscape contractors, the guys who actually do the installation, are also a good place to turn for recommendations for designers. I hired a landscape designer I found in the phone book to draw up a plan for us after we ripped out the old hedges and trees and extra driveway. It cost $300.

Having a plan is important, says effects designer Jim Riley, because it means there will be consistency to the work you do, even if you end up doing it in phases. "Not that everything has to match," says Riley, co-founder of Effects in San Francisco, "but there should be a reason why something is done."

Next: Focus on the front door

"Make sure people know where your front door is, and then work on drawing people toward the front door," says landscape designer Nickerson. Berstler worked on one house that had two doors in front, one to the left and one to the right, so that visitors had no idea where to go. She created a curved path from the sidewalk to the house that led up to the front door, and a large patio outside the door that created an outdoor foyer for the home.

Not all fixes need to involve major — and expensive — work. "It can be as simple as painting the front door a different color," says designer Riley. "It's a quick and easy thing you can do yourself." Nickerson loves to paint the front door a bright color and "put out a really big welcome mat."

Tim Thoelecke, owner of Garden Concepts in Glenview, Ill., says you can create an outdoor foyer to welcome visitors and direct attention to the front door through the strategic placement of a bench or some potted plants. "You feel as if you're arriving somewhere rather than just stepping up on a stoop," he says. It's an important part of curb appeal, which he defines as "the entire experience somebody has from the time they arrive in the driveway until they pass through the front door."

Next: Dealing With the Driveway

Downplay or Dress Up the Driveway

Berstler says that for many newer homes the driveway is often the first thing you see. "Is that the most welcoming thing for someone coming up to your home? Not really. It might be the most welcoming thing for your SUV." Because the driveway is the largest hard area near the house, the material and look of the driveway and garage have a huge impact on curb appeal. "It's probably the number one thing I'm asked to deal with," says Berstler. "It's either, `How do I make this look better?' or `How do I direct people's attention away from the driveway and toward the front door?'"

Berstler's first choice is to reorient visitors away from the driveway by creating a path to the front door, either from the street or from the driveway. She also looks at the driveway itself. "A big old gray concrete driveway is pretty unattractive," she says. "But stain it and make it look more like stone, or apply one of these brush-on coatings that gives it a dimension like stone or even paint it with a sealer and a pigment in the sealer."

Riley and partner Keith Chinn once coated an old driveway with a thin coat of brick-design concrete to complement the brick chimney and porch. It wasn't inexpensive, "but you don't have to rip out all the old and put down a new driveway," Riley says, "and it was a great way to make a bunch of different surfaces match."

Pay Attention to Details

Curb appeal is also "the whole package," as Riley says, which means the small details are as important as the big picture. "The finishing details are what really pulls it together," says Riley, who once inserted small, colorful ceramic tiles into brick steps to carry through a color scheme.

An easy detail project that provides a big bang for the effort is simply edging the lawn, says Nickerson. "Just having a crisp edge on a lawn really has visual impact." Nickerson also uses pots to fill empty spaces in the garden, making sure the pots have a common look, such as a combination of terracotta pots and glazed pots with terracotta interiors.

Finally, don't forget to tidy up. Curb appeal also means a place that looks neat and clean, the kind of place you'd like to live.

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