Saturday, May 8, 2010

Homeowners still extending living spaces to the outdoors

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 8, 2010; E01

Jack Stein and Peter Meccariello had just finished renovating their narrow Victorian in Capitol Hill's Eastern Market neighborhood when they caught an episode of "Landscapers' Challenge" on HGTV.

On a whim, they applied to the show for a backyard overhaul and faster than you can say crabgrass, the show's producer called and the homeowners found themselves choosing among three garden designers to transform their jungle into an urban paradise.

"We wanted water close to the house that we could see and hear," said Meccariello, recalling their fantasy list. "And a grill area."

"And definitely space to relax," said Stein. They also wanted annual and perennial flowering plants and shrubs that could stand up to the frolics of their Jack Russell terrier, Pounce.

Both were intrigued by lighting and by how their garden would look at night through the row of French doors lining the back of the house, part of their newly extended kitchen and family room, a space designed to make the indoors blend with the garden.

The first plan they received was modeled after an Italian palazzo with a fountain and pergola in the center. The second looked like a Hollywood movie set: "Rudolph Valentino might have lived here," Stein laughed. "It had a moat!"

The third, designed by Guy Williams of DCA Landscape Architects in Georgetown, was perfect. "Guy provided a seamless transition from interior to exterior," Meccariello said. It was just what the couple desired.
Although the Capitol Hill garden was completed three years ago, it's still in line with many of today's most popular trends, including the built-in furniture and the waterfall. It is featured on this year's Capitol Hill House & Garden Tour, which will be held this Saturday and Sunday.

Williams created a dramatic waterfall with a "rain curtain" over a koi pond, and two semicircular patios rimmed with stone seating. A curving path meanders like a river between them, bordered by small trees, shrubs and perennials -- all very low-maintenance. Midway, and out of sight from the house, is the grill.
It's equally enchanting at night when subtle spotlighting at the top of a katsura tree dapples the garden with a pattern of tiny heart-shaped leaves.

Frills can wait

Such elaborate landscapes are now more likely to be completed in phases, thanks to the economy. According to a survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects, homeowners are emphasizing basics more than frills. For example, the most popular outdoor kitchen feature is the classic grill, which 94 percent of landscape architects rated as popular among their clients. Only about half said fancier elements, such as outdoor refrigerators or sinks, were popular.

"It's less about accessories and more about the functional space," said ASLA spokesman Jim Lapides. "People are still planning around the eventual purchase of all of the extras."

The bottom-line desire, at both ends of the economic spectrum, is for an outdoor room for lounging, entertaining and play.

Remember resale

Mark McFadden, who handles high-end houses for the Washington Fine Properties brokerage, calls outdoor entertaining "huge" in terms of marketability.

"The potential for outdoor enjoyment," he said, "definitely enhances the home's salability." But it's wise not to go too exotic when planning your outdoor room. Outdoor features should be "neutral and homogenous -- not buyer-specific," McFadden said. "Vanilla sells."

"A Santa Fe or 'Miami Vice' look in Northwest Washington -- even in Dupont Circle -- that's not going to fly," he said. Going too far out can even incur a penalty. People will negotiate a lower price, thinking, "They put it in for $100,000; I'll need $20,000 to remove it and $100,000 to reinstall it."

At the other extreme, a blank slate can leave house hunters cold. "People buy exactly what they see, not what can be," said Phyllis Jane Young, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker's Capitol Hill office.

While good design is a not necessarily a matter of spending a lot of money, she suggests that home sellers "pay a good landscape designer who understands architecture, the plants, the hardscape and the best way of combining them. If someone has done a really good job, people see it as a lifestyle, an ambiance. You can't quantify that. They buy the whole package," she said.

Real estate agent Jennifer Walker of McEnearney Associates handles many homes in the $600,000 and less range, low-priced for the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria where she specializes.

At Walker's end of the market, homeowners looking to upgrade their properties for sale will find that "fresh mulch is the number one help," she said. "You're not seeing a lot of built-in kitchens. I wouldn't have them spend the money on anything like that because they won't get it back."

After mulch, she recommends edging the flower beds, trimming overgrown trees and planting colorful flowers. "Pansies," she said, "make people happy."

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