Landscaped front yard of a house with flowers and green lawn

For a backyard that will impress the neighbors, pick plants that will thrive in the local climate and be proactive about keeping your lawn healthy. (Getty Images)

Your home’s exterior appearance is important, whether you like to admire your garden from your living room window, host regular backyard barbecues or have a youth soccer team practice out front on the weekends. Planning the right landscaping – purely for aesthetics or utility – is imperative to help you achieve the right look and level of maintenance that works for you.

Homeowners’ use of the front or backyard can vary widely – and include everything from a patio spa or herb garden to a complete outdoor chef’s kitchen for entertaining. Despite the many options you have for making the most of your outdoor space, there are still a few cardinal rules for ensuring your landscaping is a success.

[Read: Is Outdoor Living Space Always a Good Investment?]

Here are 10 key rules that will help guide you to a flourishing, comfortable yard that suits your needs.

1. Consider the right plants for your climate. From grass to trees to the bushes lining your walkway, you have choices to make not just about the right aesthetic for your house, but also regarding what plants are best-suited for the part of the country you live in and how they'll fare outside your home.

Kris Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, stresses the importance of “right plant, right place,” which means taking advantage of local plant species that will flourish where you live and in the right part of a yard, and don't require too much water in a dry climate or grow too large and choke out other plant life. The type of grass you choose for your lawn based on where you live is just as important, as the wrong species will likely die or require more maintenance than it's worth.

“There’s hundreds and hundreds of species of turf, so you don’t want to put a lush Kentucky bluegrass in Southern California where it’s water-challenged – you want a Bermuda or a buffalo grass,” Kiser says.

2. Avoid overdeveloping your yard. Not every homeowner is looking for a secret garden in their backyard – and that’s OK – but it’s best (and more budget-friendly) to size your outdoor living area or patio appropriately to your house.

You may want a pool here, a fire pit farther back and a flower garden with seating off to the side, but you’re likely overextending your yard and your budget, explains Chip Wade, a master carpenter best known for his roles on HGTV shows like “Ellen’s Design Challenge” and “Curb Appeal: The Block,” and a consultant for Liberty Mutual Insurance.

“Keep the action close to the house, and focus more of your budget in one place,” he says. “It will make the overall final product more effective and higher quality.”

Additionally, too much pavement in your yard can cause runoff problems when it rains. Don’t install a backyard pool so large that you’ve removed all space for plants, which can help you avoid basement flooding issues.

3. Plan for the right professional help. Like with any do-it-yourself project, be aware of your limits and know what home improvements require a licensed professional to ensure the work is done properly. Expect to book work from a skilled contractor at least a few months in advance during spring and summer. Kris Holland, owner of Black River Landscape Management, based in Randolph, New Jersey, says that by early March, his company’s calendar is already full through part of May.

“If you can call somebody in March and they can say, ‘Hey, we can be there on your property tomorrow,’ then maybe you have to worry why they have the ability to do that,” Holland says.

4. Know your maintenance limits. As you select your outdoor living layout and natural adornments, be realistic about how much work you’ll be willing and able to put in on a regular basis.

If you’re not the kind of person who can maintain a garden of flowers that need to be planted annually, take a closer look at perennial plants that grow back year after year. Similarly, if you don’t see yourself cleaning an outdoor kitchen every week or skimming a pool regularly, reconsider those features as well.

5. Seed and aerate your lawn appropriately. Keeping a lawn alive is extremely difficult for many homeowners, and it’s important to be proactive about your lawn to keep it healthy year after year.

Most important, Holland says, is to seed and aerate the lawn at least once a year, preferably in the spring. “It opens up area and basically frees space in your lawn for your grass to get stronger,” he says.

If you tend to use your lawn a lot for entertainment or to play backyard sports, Holland recommends repeating the process in the fall.

Wade adds that regular tasks are also key to keeping the lawn looking healthy: “Fertilizing along with establishing a good watering routine and keeping your mower blades sharp is the best recipe for a beautiful lawn you feel confident about.”

[See: Don't Call the Handyman: 9 Quick Fixes You Can Do Yourself.]

6. Know what local ordinances allow and require. As you plan for a patio, pool or outdoor kitchen, read up on local ordinances and any restrictions established by your homeowners association (if you're part of one) to ensure you stay within the limits for development and know what projects may need a permit.

“Depending on your state, depending on your township or county, there’s certain restrictions on the amount of area you’re allowed to cover,” Holland says. You may only be allowed to cover 30 to 40 percent of your property with pavement, a deck or other structure, meaning the majority of your plot – house footprint included – has to be free ground to absorb rainwater.



7. Ensure surfaces aren’t angled toward your house. On the subject of rainwater, take care to ensure any hard surfaces, like a patio, don’t slope toward your foundation. Otherwise, you risk runoff being directed right into your basement or under your house, which Holland notes is a common problem when less-reputable contractors are used.

“We’ve had to do emergency repairs where people tried to save a couple bucks,” he says. “And then we show up and there’s a puddle of water in the basement because their entire basement is pitched towards their home.”

8. Keep shade in mind as you plan. As you select the location for plants and structures in your landscaping plan, keep an eye on the path that the sun shines through your yard. If you place a bush that requires little sunlight in a spot that gets rays all day, it likely won’t last long.

“You could waste your money so quickly, have [all your plants] die on you, easily,” Holland says.

9. Contact your homeowners insurance provider. For any scenarios where you’ve built an outdoor kitchen, installed a pool or added a backyard shed, you’ll want to contact your insurance provider. “If you’ve added a section to your home that increases its value, be sure to ask you rep if you might need more insurance coverage to protect your investment,” Wade says.

While additional value for your home may mean an increase in the premium, the alternative is the new addition not being covered in the event of damage to your home. Or worse, an unannounced addition may even put the rest of your home’s coverage in jeopardy if you need to make a claim.

[See: 7 Ways to Cut to Dry Air in Your Home This Winter.]

10. Don’t restrict yourself to an existing layout. Knocking down walls inside your house can be an expensive and time-consuming process, but doing the outdoor equivalent doesn’t have to be. Kiser stresses that if you make a design flub and a bush dies where you planted it, or you simply don’t like how it looks, you can change the entire look of your backyard.

“The nice thing about a living landscape – you can grow another one. You can move this and move that,” he says.

You can still follow the basic rules for landscaping your yard and have plenty of room to experiment with color, structure and the overall look until you find something that flourishes and that you can enjoy.


9 Outdoor Living Renovations to Splurge on This Summer

Soak up the sun with a little luxury.

Laughing group of friends eating dinner on backyard deck on summer evening

(Getty Images)

There are few things you want to do more during the summer than lounge in the beautiful weather – and it would be all the better if you could do so in your own backyard. Forty-one percent of homeowners who plan on making home improvements in 2017 intend to invest in outdoor projects, according to a survey of nearly 2,100 homeowners from LightStream, a division of SunTrust Banks Inc. And upgrades for comfort or simply to outdo the neighbors are getting more intense, as backyards are becoming as luxurious as home interiors. Swimming pools excluded, here are nine outdoor living renovations to splurge on this summer.

Patio or deck

Patio or deck

Chairs on upper deck as it overlooks lake.

(iStockPhoto)

Many backyard aficionados will point to a patio or deck as a must for comfortable outdoor living. National stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s offer deck materials and installation services, although many homeowners hire local construction companies to design and build. Most homeowners will spend between $4,075 and $9,997 on a new deck, according to HomeAdvisor. You can stick to a tighter budget by designing a smaller space or opting for a material that may not be as weather-resistant, like wood you would stain or seal yourself.

Smaller scale: $9.86 for 1.25-inch x 6-inch x 16-foot board, Severe Weather Max, Lowe’s (price may vary by location)
Go big: $27.36 for 1-inch x 5.4-inch x 16-foot board, ChoiceDek Foundations, Lowe’s (price may vary by location)

Fire pit

Fire pit

(Getty Images)

Whether you want to extend your time outdoors into fall or you’re simply a fan of s’mores, a fire pit is considered a key piece in many modern outdoor living setups. “What’s becoming the norm now is not necessarily building [fire pits] in, but building a space for them, and that way that space can be opened up for entertaining when the fire pit’s not being used,” says Nick Hanna, owner of NRC Landscape Construction in Vienna, Virginia.

Smaller scale: $84.98, Fire Sense, Hayneedle Inc.
Go big: $1,179.99, Real Flame, Home Depot

Outdoor fireplace

Outdoor fireplace

outdoor patio deck bbq

(Getty Images)

For an alternative to a fire pit, take another step toward a true outdoor living room with a fireplace. In addition to the fireplace itself, factor in the cost of installation and, if it’s a gas or electric fireplace, keep room in your budget for the appropriate hookup away from the house. Of course, you can always really break the bank with a custom build from a local company. Hanna says a homeowner can spend as much as $20,000 on an outdoor fireplace if you really “go to town with the whole thing.”

Smaller scale: $2,942.55, Cal Flame, Home Depot
Go big: $9,625, American Fyre Designs, Woodland Direct

Couches and chairs

Couches and chairs

There’s nothing like vacation – and no place like home. Good thing you don’t have to choose

(Getty Images)

Make your backyard feel just as comfortable as the inside of your home by leaving those lawn chairs at the curb and opting for outdoor couches and chairs worthy of applause. Your seating choices can transform your outdoor space into an area where everyone will want to spend as much time as possible. Especially when the furniture is situated around a fire pit or outdoor fireplace, your family will see little reason to stay inside when the weather's nice.

Smaller scale: $680 for sofa and two one-seat sections, IKEA
Go big: $6,495, for sofa and two lounge chairs, Restoration Hardware

Master grilling station

Master grilling station

Modern outdoor living:

(Getty Images)

Everyone loves a barbecue, so if you’re really looking to impress your guests, why not show off a built-in grill in your outdoor kitchen? “Spending $70,000 on an interior renovation for your kitchen inside is a no-brainer now, and spending $20,000 on an outdoor kitchen is almost the norm now,” Hanna says. An outdoor kitchen budget can easily get out of hand with trash compactors, plumbing connections and the like, but you can manage costs based on how crazy you want to get.

Smaller scale: $1,687.49, Blaze Outdoor Products, BBQ Guys
Go big: $4,747.26, Cal Flame, Amazon

Table for entertaining

Table for entertaining

A group of mature friends are sitting around an outdoor dining table, eating and drinking. They are all talking happily and enjoying each others company. The image has been shot from above and taken in Tuscany, Italy.

(Getty Images)

An evening or weekend afternoon with perfect weather will make just about anyone take their meal outdoors, whether that means dragging out kitchen tables or laying down blankets to eat picnic-style. While an outdoor dining set is common in many a backyard, take it up a notch with enough seating around the table to host an entire dinner party. Outdoor tables can be purchased to match most outdoor living setups, made with wood, wicker or glass and metal. You can even invest in an outdoor table that extends to fit the party size.

Smaller scale: $589, IKEA
Go big: $3,247, Pottery Barn

Outdoor sound system

Outdoor sound system

Modern Luxury House With a Teak Wooden Terrace, Modern, Luxury, Teak, Wooden, Terrace, Green, Grass, Windows

(Getty Images)

Hanna says an upgraded outdoor sound system, complete with buried subwoofers and speakers installed in trees, is seen as a logical next step for many homeowners who’ve already got the pool, deck, outdoor kitchen and fire pit. But an elaborate sound system isn’t just for those who have a lot of parties in their backyard. Hanna says these kinds of upgrades often come from homeowners who like to impress the occasional guest, too. “It’s pretty crazy how keeping up with the Joneses is getting very expensive,” he says.

Smaller scale: $1,699, Origin Acoustics, World Wide Stereo
Go big: $11,500, Sonance

Gazebo or pergola

Gazebo or pergola

Inviting Backyard Patio Deck With Pergola

(Getty Images)

You’ve got the deck and comfortable seating, now why not add a little shade? A gazebo or pergola make an ideal addition to many outdoor living spaces for both a cool spot to get away from the sun as well as a more finished look. The solid roof on a gazebo can make it possible to enjoy your outdoor living space even when it’s raining, and many brands that make manufactured gazebos, pergolas or cabanas offer covers to block the sun or mosquito netting to keep out bugs.

Smaller scale: $271.99, Threshold, Target
Go big: $3,769.99, Best Redwood, Wayfair

Water feature

Water feature

Water fountain with plants on an outdoor patio. Horizontally framed

(Getty Images)

A backyard swimming pool is a different beast, but if you’re simply looking to enhance an outdoor living space, consider a calming water feature. The relaxing sound of flowing water can help drown out traffic noise, create a great atmosphere for meditating or simply help spice up an otherwise boring space. Just make sure the water continues to flow to avoid inviting more mosquitoes to your backyard.

Smaller scale: $255, Sunnydaze Decor, Wal-Mart
Go big: $1,039.99, Henri Studio, Hayneedle Inc.

Read More

Tags: real estate, housing, home improvements, home insurance, plants


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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