The interest in having some kind of outdoor space is not limited to affluent single-family home owners and developers of large multifamily dwellings. Small apartment buildings and even modest homes that each represent a good investment opportunity will appeal to a wider audience with the addition of square footage to extend indoor use as well as bring forth the healthy benefits of fresh air, sun, and greenery.
Constructing a swimming pool, large lawn panel for yoga, croquet, rooftop deck or even a child’s playscape may not be possible given the size of a site, its terrain, and the owner’s budget. But planting flowers, setting aside an area to grow vegetables and herbs, installing a small water feature, and paving a nicer walkway all can do wonders to improve the outside of a building or home and create a stronger first impression when buyers or renters approach the property. This is why stagers so often include outdoor furniture in their packages, says Bobby Montagne, CEO of Walnut Street Finance, a real estate private lender that focuses on the $56 billion home flipping market. “Many buyers like to think of having an extra ‘living room’ outside. So make it feel like one,” he says.
Winter is a good time to decide which improvements to make and plan for installation. Interview a designer or builder, look at soft- and hardscape materials—in person or in pictures—get estimates for construction costs, as well as ongoing maintenance, and schedule installation for when ground is no longer frozen. By spring, many landscape designers and architects and contractors are swamped with work, so the early bird does catch the worm. Joe Raboine, national design and training specialist for Belgard, a manufacturer of paver stones, retaining walls and hardscape based in Atlanta, suggests that the following outdoor projects can improve the look of your dwelling and offer a good payback. “The idea of having an outdoor living space has moved from a trend to a norm and cuts across all demographics,” he says.
Paver overlays. Forget the need always to rip out existing pavers and a base when you want a new, fresher look. Manufacturers now offer thin pavers that can be overlaid or installed on top of existing concrete slabs. Techniseal’s DriBond Product, for example, permits owners and landlords to improve their rentals without breaking the bank. Depending on the quality of the existing substrate, doing an overlay can save as much as 40 percent versus a typical paver you use for new installation. The overlay price range may run between $7 and $11 a square foot, depending on location. Besides the price saving, another advantage is that installation is quicker. One caveat to consider is the quality of concrete that you plan to cover since
if it’s in terrible shape—cracked or settling—it may not be worthwhile for long-term success. Your contractor should weigh in, or you should make this determination if you’re an experienced DIYer. If it’s only one section that’s bad, consider ripping that out, replacing it, and then covering the entire area, Raboine says.
Seat walls and columns. Adding a small seat wall for sitting and a column or two for vertical height can dramatically improve the aesthetics of a space. It also impacts the perceived value of the rental since more people can be accommodated. Raboine estimates that a small patio area with seat wall and columns may cost between $1,200 and $2,000. These can be added atop a gravel base and along a patio. However, be sure if they’re installed on a property’s downside where drainage is needed, you leave a gap or some kind of hole for water to seep through. Raboine suggests any seat wall not be built higher than 2 feet. If it is, it could be too high to sit on comfortably.
Fire features. Many rentals and some communities won’t permit a wood burning fireplace or fire pit on site because of the liability of a user inadvertently starting a fire that could spread. A gas fire pit is easier to contain. Before you make this improvement, ask your municipality’s building department about its rules on how far the feature must be set from a home or building—and from what materials it needs to be constructed. A small propane fire pit may range between $1,500 and $2,500 and is usually constructed from a tumbled block system, iron or stainless steel. So many design options now exist—oval, rectangular, square and round as well as with and without decorative motifs. There may be an additional cost if a gas line is added that runs to your home, which could mean another $1,000 or so. Raboine suggests raising this feature about 18 inches off the ground so anybody walking by won’t trip.
Common areas. Whether the property is a large multifamily building or a single-family home on a small lot, there should be some type of outdoor space. Larger buildings with bigger budgets and more acreage or even a big rooftop can be transformed with a deck and possibly an outdoor kitchen, water feature, pergola, and choice of seating, or just one of these amenities. A nice grilling station with some hardscape underneath, a 6-foot island and stainless-steel grill may add up to $2,500. A propane tank makes it easier to operate but will add an additional cost of about $1,000. A water feature can be as modest as a raised fountain that recycles and gurgles for $1,500. A pergola can shade a lawn or rooftop with seating and a dining table for a pricier $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the material used, furnishings, pre-construction work needed plus extras such as lights for night-time use. To extend use, Raboine suggests constructing instead a pavilion that may cost a slightly higher $10,000 to $15,000. The biggest caveat is to make your outdoor common area large enough so enough people can sit, eat, and move around. “Try not to go smaller than 14 feet by 16 feet,” Raboine says. And the better the job you do, the better your return on investment (ROI), he predicts. “If well designed and nice looking, you may be able to increase rent,” he says.
Community Gardens. Healthy cooking and eating enthusiasts like Alice Waters and Michelle Obama have inspired builders and home owners to plant gardens at their homes; fruit trees and orchards are the latest buzz. Most landlords can set aside some turf for a shared garden where everyone can dig and plant, possibly with trellises attached to the building if there’s not much horizontal space. The key is to use the right materials for the climate. Plan for maintenance so what you plant and grow won’t become a straggly mess. Also, add a water station close by, so you won’t need to install an expensive sprinkler system or lug a hose about. This feature can be relatively inexpensive—about $3,000 for pots, planting beds, plants, soil, and maybe some fencing to keep out animals. Raboine expects the trend to increase since he’s seen Millennials show interest. “It’s definitely a way to rejuvenate an old property or start right with a new one,” he says.