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Natural appeal

Lush gardens, with a bounty of flowers, vines, and fruit trees, can lure buyers' eyes, but realtors say they rarely result in pushing values significantly higher

Garden designer Frederick Rice says he has invested $150,000 in the grounds of his Manchester-by--the-Sea property, now for sale. Garden designer Frederick Rice says he has invested $150,000 in the grounds of his Manchester-by--the-Sea property, now for sale. (Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff Photo)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kathleen McKenna
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2008

It's a buyer's market, so Frederick Rice knows he can't afford to be choosy about who purchases his 81-year-old home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, on the market for $619,000. But he can't help hoping the buyer has a green thumb.

Rice is a renowned garden designer and lecturer, and the stunning English-style gardens at his Manchester home have been widely celebrated in the horticultural world. Scores of visitors from garden clubs and charity events have traipsed through Rice's grounds over the years. Two weddings took place here, and it's been featured in five magazines.

But beyond a proprietary interest in his plantings, Rice believes the gardens should add considerable value to his home price.

"In my mind, the garden should be a definite asset," in determining the house's worth, said Rice, who estimates that he's probably invested $150,000 on the garden over the years. "It has lots of outdoor living areas, it's got sun and shade, and it's definitely an extension of the house. And it's not just a summer garden. It looks fabulous 12 months a year. It's a real sanctuary."

His real estate broker agrees - to a point. Patti Cohen of Coldwell Banker said the garden has an "Alice in Wonderland feel," enhanced by a quaint teahouse with a huge picture window overlooking the garden's floral bounty, which includes heirloom fruit trees, trellises "festooned with vines and climbers," and more than 1,500 varieties of perennials.

In spite of all that, the broker said the garden did not really affect her setting the asking price at $619,000.

"The garden is absolutely phenomenal," Cohen said. "It definitely helps the house to show better. But a garden doesn't really affect price. A new kitchen, a new bathroom, location - those are the things that affect price."

Rice's home, which has three bedrooms and one bathroom, is priced a little higher because of its desirable location near Manchester's villages, and because there's potential for expansion, she said - not because of the garden.

The main selling season for real estate happily corresponds to the first big bloom of the year for gardeners. Yet despite the visual beauty and peaceful retreat that a garden can offer - often much more so than the inside of a house - they don't register much as an asset when it comes to selling a home.

One reason may be that a so-called "gardener's garden" is an amenity that would probably have great appeal for just a small percent of buyers, said Eric Berman, communications director of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

Indeed, brokers such as Greg Kiely of William Raveis insist that the basics - the house, its condition and location - continue to trump amenities such as gardens and landscaping.

"As long as there's opportunity for some green space, buyers care more about whether the home and its structure make sense to them," Kiely said. Buyers, he added, "say, 'OK, I can always hire a landscaper or do the work myself if I choose to. But I'm more interested in the nuts and bolts of the property. Flourishes such as home-staging and landscaping don't mean what they used to."

Another factor is people are just too busy to garden.

"Curb appeal is always going to be important, but no one is going to buy a house for its landscaping," said Chestnut Hill realtor Judy Moses. "If people are looking for a house in Brookline or Newton, it's usually because they have kids. And people with kids are too busy for yard work, even if they love to landscape."

Nonetheless, some brokers feel a garden intuitively adds value to a home for sale, although they do have trouble quantifying just how much. For example, another Coldwell Banker broker, Carole Perini, is selling a custom-built Cape in Harvard that's "surrounded by the most enchanting gardens" that she estimates are worth about $100,000. The house, which has been on the market for five months, is priced at $750,000.

Perini said she "couldn't really estimate" what the asking price would be without the garden, but said it would surely be less.

"In the case of this house, the gardens absolutely affect the price," she said of the acre-and-a-half property that includes a greenhouse, flower and vegetable gardens, and a bird sanctuary. "People have been captured by the setting and the ambience of the gardens and the walkways. It takes your breath away, and it's all part of what makes this a fabulous home."

She said it is unlikely that a similar garden would affect the price of a more ordinary home, such as a Colonial in a subdivision. Here though, she said the attributes of the quaint Cape and the surrounding gardens combine to make the property somewhat unique - and hopefully worth more.

For other home sellers in this slow market looking for ways to make their properties stand out, even simple landscaping can dramatically add to curb appeal.

For example, a house in Peabody that broker Glenn Thibodeau of Fine Homes North is trying to sell is priced "slightly higher" because of outstanding landscaping. The house is listed at $449,900, but has "landscaping you normally see in the $800,000 and $900,000 range." The landscaping, he said, has dramatically boosted the impression the house makes on prospective buyers.

"This house is an ordinary split level, but the landscaping is to die for," he said. For one, the abundant plantings, green lawn, and meticulous landscaping "soften the lines" of the square house, he said. Moreover, "the fact that it's impeccable on the outside," he said, "tells you that it's impeccable on the inside as well, and that the owners have taken good care of it."

Nan Shanahan of Shanahan Real Estate in Winchester believes that beautiful plantings so clearly add value to a home that she recommends sellers hire a "landscaping stager" - the outdoor equivalent of a home stager - if their yards are a little drab.

"I always advise people to plant things if they don't already have them," she said. "Everything looks better when it's green."

Indeed, about 10 percent of Hingham landscape architect Sean Papich's business these days comes from builders and renovators who want to increase a home's value by beautifying its exterior before putting it on the market.

"There's a new trend toward hiring professionals who can make landscaping an extension of the house," he said. "It brings a little cache."

Rob Thompson of Thompson Builders in Hingham often hires Papich to create and implement exterior plans that "set the house in a finished state," he said. "The landscaping helps to create the feeling that the house was already there." However, Thompson concedes that it is difficult to determine if the landscaping adds value to the home, or how much. But, he argued, "you'll always get back what you put in. And you'll absolutely sell the house faster."

When his Manchester-by-the-Sea house and its accompanying garden sell, Frederick Rice will convert his new home in Rome, N.Y., into a bed and breakfast. As for the property's garden, there isn't one.

"I plan to start over from scratch," he said. "I can hardly wait."

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