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The great garden debate: Does size or design deliver the highest ROI for sellers?

Having more space is often a primary motivator when people choose to buy a new home, and the quality of the outdoor environment is as important as the indoor environment if sellers want to maximise their return on investment.


QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY: A modern urban garden needs to be more “outdoor living space” that is low-maintenance and well-designed than the great expanse of land that was expected to accompany a house in decades gone by. This Green Point, Cape Town, house shows how old and new can be combined in a compact space to make a stunning additional family living area.  

That’s according to Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty Director Sandy Geffen, who says sellers need to think of their outdoor space as they would a diamond.

“With a diamond size is always going to be important, but equally so is the quality of the stone. Severe flaws in a large stone will drag down its value and price, and the same goes for unkempt, unappealing gardens in a country like South Africa where we spend so much time outdoors.

“In our experience if two similar houses are on the market in a particular area and the only real differentiator is the state of the garden, the vast majority of buyers will choose the property with the attractive outdoor space.

“If you really lack a green thumb and you’re thinking of selling, it’s worth the expense of calling in a one-time specialist gardening service to at the very least neaten the grounds and put in a few attractive plants and pots.

“If you’re prepared to stretch your budget a little further, consider some basic structural changes that – surprisingly – don’t have to cost the earth.”

Geffen says relative to the total property purchasing pool in the country, there is a small group of buyers at the top end of the market who seek out expansive estates with gardens that exceed 1 000m², and they have the financial means to properly maintain the grounds once they own them.

“These are the buyers who will, for instance, house-hunt in Constantia Upper in Cape Town, or in the older suburbs in the north of Johannesburg like Bryanston, where majestic homes are still plentiful. They want to purchase properties with vast, well-maintained grounds and they’re prepared to pay premium prices for the space.

“By way of example, Propstats notes that the average sale price achieved for houses in Constantia Upper in 2015 was just over R10.3 million, with only 10 of the 78 sales recorded on the website being of plots less than 1 000m². By far the majority of the properties sold – 50 of them – were plots larger than 2 000m².”

But what outdoor spaces attract the most interest from the remainder of the buyers who comprise more than 90% of the overall South African market?

According to Geffen, the local answer is also the global trend: as cities densify smaller, interesting gardens that are easy to maintain and do dual service as additional living spaces are the order of the day.

“The catch-phrase that you see all over when desirable properties go on the market is ‘indoor-outdoor flow’, because functionality-wise gardens nowadays have to service many more needs than a patch of grass to kick a football and a place to park a car.

“That said, in our experience buyers find the most attractive outdoor spaces to be relatively minimalist and sleek in design.
“We live in a water-poor country so attractive indigenous, drought-resistant flora finds favour in terms of plantings, as do interesting pots. Among the newest trends internationally are miniature landscapes in pots and vertical gardens that make the most of the smaller outdoor spaces that are available to residents in urban environments. Potted vegetable and herb gardens are also very much on trend.”

But most important, says Geffen, is the nature of the “living space” a desirable garden provides.

“Extended patios with room to entertain, weathered multi-level decking with built-in planters and anything made out of sustainable material are right on trend internationally and also go down well with local buyers. Hard landscaping colours tend to be subdued to the point of monochromatic. And of course fire pits are incredibly striking because they create an appealing environment for outdoor spaces to be utilised all year round. “

Geffen says something sellers often forget is well-designed outdoor mood lighting, which can make or break the atmosphere of open-air entertainment areas. And this is an upgrade that shouldn’t be too costly, but adds a definite “wow factor” to a house.

“Gone are the days when a single lamp over the front door comprised the only lighting in your garden, no matter how big or small. Outdoor lighting is now very much a feature rather than a necessary evil and should be worked into a garden’s overall design plan.”

Geffen says while hard structural changes need to be carefully weighed up because they can be a substantial investment for a seller, this must be calculated against the potential increased return on investment when the property is eventually sold, “because the danger here is over-capitalisation”.

Geffen concludes: “The days of a facebrick driveway bordered by riotously coloured flower beds are a thing of the past if sellers want to make the most of their outdoor spaces and increase the value of their houses.

“As far as modern gardens are concerned that will make potential buyers come back for a second viewing, sellers need to apply a slight twist to the KISS principle – Keep it Simple and Sleek, no matter what the size of the outdoor space.

“Don’t pave over the whole garden, don’t let it become totally overgrown, try your best not to remove mature trees and add interesting visuals such as pots and feature walls that capture the imagination and make people want to spend time there. And whatever you do, if you happen to have a swimming pool ensure that it’s sparkling clean before any buyer comes to view the house!”
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