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Lawn and garden equity

Want to get a big return on your home-improvement investment?

Look outside, not inside.

While studies show that you'll only recoup 80 to 90 cents on every dollar you spend to upgrade your kitchen or bath, professional landscape designers estimate that improvements to your lawn and garden can boost your home's value by 7 percent to 15 percent. Those findings have been confirmed by survey results from the Gallup Organization and the National Gardening Association, or NGA.

Lawn and garden equity is all the rage these days as homeowners continue to invest heavily in their property values. The NGA says U.S. homeowners spent a $36.8 billion on their lawns and gardens in 2004, $11.4 billion of that on landscaping.

Dorcas Helfant, general managing partner of Coldwell Banker Professional Realtors, in Virginia Beach, Va., and the first female president of the National Association of Realtors, says her fellow baby boomers have a far different aesthetic than their parents.

"Our parents were not as particular. In the '50s, you had this era of bomb shelters and fear, and the homes we grew up in had these high windows where you couldn't see in or out of them," she says. "Today we don't live like that. We want broad, open expanses and windows that look out on gardens and ponds. We're not willing to live as prisoners in a house."

The boomers also are embracing the environmentalism of their youth, according to Linda Engstrom, a landscape designer and owner of Garden Aesthetics in Portland, Ore.

"Some of the Chinese principles such as feng shui are coming into play more. As designers, we encourage doing away with your lawn in favor of more ecological plantings. Americans hate to give up their lawns, but it really is something that is not earth-friendly at this point," she says.

Homeowners are finding, however, that creating interest and harmony on the outside is far trickier than making upgrades to the inside. The sheer variety of trees (evergreen and deciduous), flowering plants (annual or perennial), and the walls, paths, benches, arbors and pergolas that landscapers call "hardscape" can create a dizzying array of choices and potential missteps.

Yes, you can get some creative ideas from popular HGTV shows such as "Curb Appeal" and "Landscaper's Challenge," but flash and dash from someone else's plan won't necessarily work to your home's advantage.

"There are a few people out there in the world who have an intuitive sense of how things should be put together, and everyone else doesn't," says Martin Maca, professor of landscape design at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "If you barge ahead on your own, you can make some horrendous mistakes and create some maintenance problems down the road that could have been avoided if you'd hired a designer."

Let's look at your home's landscaping with a designer's eye. There are trends out there that may help you paint your garden masterpiece.

Elements of style
Wherever you live, proper landscaping can enhance both your enjoyment of your home and its ultimate resale value. The first thing you probably noticed about your home was its curb appeal. Even though your home's appearance from the street is only part of creating the perfect outdoor environment, first impressions are often lasting ones for buyers.

Next: "If you're about to sell and money is tight ..."
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Make your home's landscape more bird friendly
Remodeling your yard
Areas to remodel - patio, deck, porch

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