The buyer says cherry, the builder says oak. The buyer says seed, the builder says sod. Flowering tree vs. hardwood? And so it goes.
Just how much flexibility and choice does a new-home buyer have when it comes to the landscaping of the property?
For the most part, new homes - whether townhouses or single-family - pretty much have a limited landscape menu from which buyers may choose."We have a standard landscaping package, and then there are also various landscaping requirements set by the county, such as street trees and landscaping with open spaces, that we have to pay mind to," said Rick Kunkle, president of Howard County-based Patriot Homes, a company that this year will build about 400 homes locally with an average sale price of roughly $250,000.
But, even with homes at that price, Kunkle is not inclined to offer a lot of leeway. "We're really not equipped to do customized landscaping - for our price range, we really don't get involved in changing things, although the more expensive custom-builders will work with the customer to individualize the landscape."
With a Patriot single-family home, buyers are likely to end up with two trees - one is likely to be hardwood, the other a flowering variety. "We plant 10 to 12 shrubs along the foundation in the front of the house, usually yews, hollies, junipers, azaleas," Kunkle said. "Then there are the street trees near the curb, which will vary by community."
Generally, Kunkle adds, buyers seem willing to live with the basic landscape package he offers, with the intention of customizing the yards on their own at a later date.
When it comes to determining which trees and shrubs are likely to flourish, a host of additional details must be taken into account. The neighbor two houses away might have the perfect location for azaleas, while another home with a southern exposure wouldn't be conducive to the health of this plant. "You'd never put azaleas in a southern or a western exposure, because they'll not tolerate the sun, and they also won't tolerate the reflective heat from the house," said Mike McWilliams of Maxalea Corporate, a landscape design, installation and maintenance company. Maxalea, for 70 years a popular nursery, recently closed its doors to cash-and-carry customers.
Another consideration for those making landscaping decisions is the time of construction. "One of the factors that limits a production builder's flexibility," said Kunkle, "is that certain species can only be installed at certain times of the year, which may not coincide with our building schedule."
When it comes to sodding vs. seeding, each season factors into the equation. "Summer and winter tend to be seasons when it's better to lay sod," said McWilliams, "while in the early spring and early fall, it might be better to seed."
Evergreens are especially common for camouflage, whether of a water tower or a next-door neighbor's home, or to simply soften the edges of a home.
As a rule, say builders, landscaping is given more importance in the South than in the Baltimore and Washington areas. "It's a regional thing," said Scott Brinitzer of Arlington, Va.-based Scott Brinitzer Design Associates. "In the South, landscaping is extremely important to the developer, even in garden complexes."
He is echoed by Greg Altieri, vice president of Altieri Homes."I think that's because the cost of housing in Baltimore and D.C. is so high," he said.
Kunkle said interest here in landscaping is increasing. Nevertheless, he added, "Most of our customers are happy with our basic package, and we really do not get involved in a lot of changes. I think that if landscaping was listed as an option, it'd rank far below a master bathroom or a sun room. What we try to do with landscaping is give the properties a finished look, particularly with the street trees."
McWilliams said the basic landscaping package he puts together for the James Keelty Co. runs Keelty about $2,500 to $3,000 per single-family home. If an owner wants to upgrade the landscaping, he'll contact McWilliams directly."For the basic package, however, we'll swap a shade tree for a flowering tree," he said. "Or change azaleas for some other perennials, maybe a woody plant. Not everyone likes traditional plants, and people often ask for something more exotic."
Buyers can choose from shade trees, such as red maple, willow oak and linden. When it comes to the flowering tree, the standard choices include dogwood and crab apple. "Then you also get the traditional five foundation evergreens, which go right up against the front of the house," McWilliams said.
In front of that, McWilliams adds five to seven, 15-to 18-inch flowering shrubs, such as azaleas, spirea or lower junipers.
While builders such as Keelty have hired Maxalea to do landscaping, others are doing the work themselves.
Said Altieri, who builds about 100 homes annually, "While we have a standard package of seeding, straw and plants, if someone said he wants an upgraded package, we will give them a price to do things differently."
Altieri does not have a nursery, but purchases from local growers."Landscaping is very expensive, and we're trying to keep costs down by cutting out the middleman," he said. He estimates that trees that could be purchased directly from a nursery might run in the range of $200 to $250. By the time those trees have been installed, the cost is up to $350 each.
Altieri estimates that it usually costs him $800 to $1,000 for the shrubs, plants and trees for one of his homes, plus another $1,000 to $1,500 for seed and straw."That's for a single-family, one-third-acre home," he said. "On the other hand, for a townhouse, the builder is probably spending $200 to $300 for four or five plants. ..."
But, for landscapers such as McWilliams, volume helps keep the expenses down. "The price isn't that high, because the builder is giving us a lot of volume," he said. "Plus, a lot of our plants are pretty small, some of them are still in the pots. A good crew of three men should be able to landscape two to three houses in a day."
McWilliams said that when new homeowners come to him for additional customized landscaping, the cost usually is anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. The difference is based on larger, more mature trees and more plants.
Not unexpectedly, in gated communities, it's virtually guaranteed that buyers will want landscape upgrades."And when people spend so much for a home in a gated community, they'll usually purchase maintenance for their yards," he said. "These are not people who have a lot of interest in pulling weeds."
In very high-ticket developments, McWilliams might get his foot in the door at the very beginning. "We often start working at ground zero with the architect and the builder," he said. "In that case, the landscape package could run $100,000 per home, and even higher, and might include the landscape design itself, as well as sidewalks, pools, gazebos, driveways, irrigation and lighting."
Although Brinitzer and Altieri agree that this area is not especially persnickety when it comes to landscape, that might be changing, Earl Robinson said."We do lots and lots of surveys," said Robinson, sales and marketing manager for the Ryland Group. "And when we ask our buyers where Ryland could improve, the only area in which we receive criticism is that people say our landscaping could be better."They also tell us that what they want is the option of landscaping upgrades, and landscaping that looks good and is very low-maintenance."
To that end, Ryland is working with a landscape design architect to develop two upgrade packages, which Robinson expects to be available this spring. Still, he said, this option will probably not be available for Ryland's townhouse communities."Nothing is written in stone, but we're developing a first upgrade option that would include brick patios, rather than concrete, and water features, such as small ponds or fountains, as well as other features," he said, adding that his estimate for such an upgrade will add $7,000 to $10,000 to the cost of the home.
The second upgrade will likely be based on shrubbery, he said."We are hearing more requests for specific species of shrubs, such as dogwood trees, white azaleas and zoysia grass," said Robinson. "And this upgrade would also include the option of built-in gas or electric grills."Of course, these upgrades will be tied to your mortgage, and everything will be completed when the buyer moves in."