One of the great divides among homeowners is gardening and landscaping. Those who love doing it really love it, and those who don't, really don't.
But a thoughtful backyard improvement will bring two undeniable benefits, one financial and the other personal.
First, it will provide a crucial positive first impression of your home as a well-maintained property if a "For Sale" sign is in your future. Second, unlike expensive investments in roofs, plumbing and heating, it will add a new dimension of enjoyable personal space to your property for you and your family.
Outdoor improvements have grown far beyond simple gardening. Even standard projects require the expertise of a landscape designer and must consider a well-blended mix of landscape architecture, softscaping (plantings), hardscaping (patios and stonework), decks, lighting and fencing.
Recent trends go well beyond the standard improvements to include outdoor family rooms and kitchens, fountains and water features, and the ultimate back-yard prize, a pool.
It's not surprising that the boom in home renovations would grow to include an outdoor component. The American Society of Landscape Architects says homeowners should spend at least 10 per cent of the value of their home on outdoor improvements.
"Our clients typically spend around 20- to 25-per-cent of their pre-renovation property value on their landscape renovation, with a larger range of 10 per cent on the low end and 50 per cent on the high end," said Brent Clark, president of the Clark Design Group.
The final verdict from experts and homeowners is that a well-executed, well-planned project is a good investment.
If you have plans to sell your home in the near future, a "cleanup" project is definitely worth the investment, according to Theodore Babiak, a Toronto real estate agent for 30 years.
"It makes a very strong first impression," he said. "If you're prepared to spend money on high-quality, longer term things like flagstone and wrought-iron railings, there's payback in that, too."
A good cleanup project would include laying down mulch, planting flowers to add colour along with boxwood shrubs and trees to add texture, and installing sod if the lawn is in rough shape, according to Mr. Babiak.
If you want to get more ambitious, he recommends up-lighting from shrubs and down-lighting from trees, and in-ground irrigation if you have a big yard as things that prospective buyers appreciate.
Pools and hot tubs are personal choices that won't necessarily add value to your home. A recent client of Mr. Babiak's had a hot tub removed and a deck rebuilt before putting the home up for sale.
"Don't expect to get payback for it," he said.
But if you have a growing family and an expansive backyard, pools get a thumbs-up from most homeowners.
Caroline and Andrew Mitchell undertook an extensive backyard improvement that included a 15- by 34-foot pool two years after buying their Georgetown home, in the outer northwest suburbs of Toronto.
The Mitchells, who have two children under seven, had a blank slate with a large yard that was just a big patch of grass.
"We did the landscaping now so we could enjoy it while our kids were small," Ms. Mitchell said. "If you're not going to own a cottage, you better have a nice yard."
Along with the pool, the Mitchells built an outdoor kitchen with a built-in barbecue and centre island bar, requiring extensive masonry efforts to ensure the brickwork worked with their home's exterior. Then there was a 400-square-foot patio, and extensive landscaping.
A landscape designer planned the entire project, but the Mitchells decided to do the planting on their own. "It's the only thing that you can really personalize," Ms. Mitchell said.
Not all projects turn out ready for a magazine spread. The biggest pitfall is poorly installed hardscaping such as patio and stonework and improper drainage around patios and pools, according to Mr. Clark of the Clark Design Group.
"Our industry is largely unregulated, and no one is checking up on the quality and safety of the work being done," Mr. Clark said. "We hire accredited landscape architects who have studied to acquire the technical know-how and design skills necessary to ensure the work is done expertly."
But there are other common landscaping mistakes unrelated to workmanship. The biggest error may be not trusting your creative instincts, according to Sara Jameson, owner of Sweetpea's, a floral studio and landscaping firm in Toronto's west end.
"People tend to play things overly safe," she said. "If you see something you like in the nursery, get it. You will eventually find a place for it."
Ms. Jameson would also like to see more homeowners undertake planting projects in shady areas. And like Mr. Clark, she warns that hardscaping installation is a common cause of frustration.
"Don't cheap out on hardscaping," she warns. "Stone work is not a do-it-yourself job. We pull up more stonework put in by homeowners than we put in ourselves."