The hotter, longer days of summer have arrived, and homeowners are getting their outdoor living spaces in order – whether it’s to enjoy summer cookouts out on the porch or patio, swimming in the backyard pool, or freshening it up so that they can put their houses up for sale this upcoming fall selling season. This may mean long weekends of brave DIYers tackling their “honey-do” lists themselves or planning, prioritizing, and budgeting for those who are looking for a turn-key professional installation.

Either way, I speak to many people seeking advice on the approach they should take for outdoor improvements. A common question has always been, “What will offer the best use of this space, and what kinds of improvements will pay off when we sell the property?” Well, it all depends on your long-term goals and how long you plan to stay in the dwelling. There may be a much different approach if you are planning for pay-off versus personalizing the space.

As a general rule, many improvements that homeowners make are for their own enjoyment and personalization of the outdoor space while they are there. But when it comes time to put their homes on the market, their improvement needs tend to appeal to the “lowest common denominator” of buyers – the broader market. For those looking to sell, we often perform curb appeal treatments such as a once-over cleanup and property detailing, as well as pruning and the application of fresh mulch and the addition of seasonal plantings for eye-catching color. A well-manicured property will stand out and offers a nice first impression for prospective buyers. The goal here is usually more of a “spruce-up” for a faster sale rather than major improvements for a return on investment. Naturally, most don’t want to spend a lot on improvements they will not get to enjoy – but that “curb appeal treatment” could make the difference in the house selling quickly or sitting on the market a while.

I’ve found (and heard from several appraisers) that sprinkler systems add to a property’s value. Hardscape improvements such as patios, porches, outdoor kitchens, and fireplaces also add to value and appeal as they are extensions of homes’ indoor living spaces to the outdoors. Covered outdoor cabanas are a popular request for offering shade and protection from the elements, and retaining walls can turn an unusable slope into a functional, level area, further extending the useful living space on a property. If a property does have a slope, design-wise I might suggest a larger patio surface of a single plane. This offers more flexibility in how outdoor furniture may be arranged and a more flexible use of the space (as opposed to multi-level decks and terraced patios of smaller areas that tend to chop up the space – unless this is warranted by the topography of the land).

With plantings and turf, ongoing professional maintenance is the best way to maintain a home’s value and offer curb appeal. A landscape that was nice a decade ago but has become unkempt and overgrown over the years can be seen more as a liability to prospective buyers. Privacy plantings and buffers are also highly valued by many buyers, so it is good to get an early start with plant species that may be slower growing, giving them more time to fill out.

Outdoor lighting can greatly extend the time homeowners have to enjoy their outdoor living spaces during the shorter cold-season days. This also helps show off the house when many folks are driving around house-shopping later in the evening.

Proper drainage is a key component to any landscape improvement, but is often overlooked and treated as an afterthought once a problem shows itself. This should be addressed proactively – for instance, downspout piping should be placed away from the house, grading away from the foundation, foundation drains kept clear and exposed, etc. Drainage is very important, and home inspectors love to point out drainage problems. This is something that many homebuyers will not notice, appreciate, or consider because it is not always apparent on the surface, and not a “pretty” feature that contributes directly to the aesthetics. If the home is viewed during a dry period, there may be drainage problems that will not be known until it experiences a deluge or extended rainstorm. This kind of improvement may need to be pointed out to prospective buyers as a benefit that they may not realize now, but will appreciate during the next downpour.

There are so many improvements people request to help make the property “their own,” and adding to resale is not always the goal. When personalizing the space is really driving the improvements, it is usually for those who intend to remain on that property for many years. For some, they may only intend to stay for a couple of years but still “want what they want” while they are there, and are less concerned about recouping the improvement costs when they sell. Everyone has different goals, reasons, and values they place on the upgrades they make. Someone may want a unique or eccentric feature that they assume will be changed by a future buyer, knowing that they won’t get a return on investment other than their personal enjoyment of the space while they are there.

For those who are keen on improving their homes’ eventual resale value, I suggest improvements that will have broad appeal, plantings that tend to be more traditional, and hardscape colors that are more neutral and complement the finishes of the home and most outdoor furniture. They may still personalize the space for their own enjoyment, but with less permanent elements. Again, it’s a much different design approach when the goal is maximizing ROI and appealing to the “lowest common denominator” of prospective buyers.

I will suggest a fitting approach only after discerning a homeowner’s real motivations behind an outdoor improvement. Most are somewhere in the middle – there are plenty of solutions that find that happy medium between pay-off and personalization. If you are interested in making improvements to your outdoor living space, you need to figure out where you fit on that spectrum so that whether you are tackling them yourself or are looking to hire a professional, you will make the right decision for you and your needs.