Landscaping Considerations When Buying a House

Warning Signs in the Yard to Recognize: Wetland Plants

skunk cabbages
Skunk cabbages are wetland plants. David Beaulieu

Perhaps you've heard me say it elsewhere: "Planning before planting is the hallmark of effective landscaping." But first-time homeowners often do not realize that landscape planning ideally begins even before buying a house. That's right: if you care about landscaping, then buying a house entails more than just inspecting the ceiling for leaks and making sure the basement doesn't have flooding problems.

For instance, the presence of wetland plants in the yard could signal not only drainage difficulties, but also the potential for less obvious problems.

So when inspecting a property, be aware of warning signs in the yard, too, as well as other yard-related problems. I briefly explore a few such warning signs and problems in the current article, to help you avoid getting stuck with a piece of property that you may not be able to enjoy to the fullest (you may be able to apply some of these tips to the property where you currently reside, too). While none of the problems mentioned here will necessarily be deal-breakers for you when buying a house, they do pertain to quality of life and are therefore worth considering. Below and on the following pages I'll be discussing problems associated with:

  1. Wetland plants
  2. "Super" weeds, such as Japanese knotweed
  3. Living on the side of a steep hill
  4. Homeowners' associations
  1. Annoying neighbors

1. Wetland Plants

Many older houses were built before wetlands legislation began inhibiting house construction on wetland property. While such houses are themselves "grandfathered in," be aware that you may not be able to work the land they sit on in the fashion that your grandfather would have.

When we, as a society, became aware that our wetland plants and animals were endangered, we decided to take steps to protect them. And that involves a sacrifice, in the form of restrictions.

Don't presume, then, that just because your name will be on the deed to such land, you'll necessarily be able to do whatever you desire there in the way of landscaping. And that's OK, as long as you've already adjusted your mentality from that of "land owner" to that of "land steward." But I just want to make sure you go into the transaction with your eyes fully open. To that end, let me relate a story....

My father had maintained a brush pile at the same spot on his small property for as long as we could remember, at the end of a path maintained for an equally long period of time. The spot for the brush pile was at the foot of the hill out back, on the edge of a swamp. It was a fixture on the property. Our family had always loved the wetland plants and animals and never imagined the brush pile could be viewed as harmful in any significant way to the natural world (brush is, after all, organic).

The brush pile was a magnet for wildlife seeking shelter, and we always respected the surrounding wetland plants.

Well, when dad had a garage built, he had to clear some brush. The cut brush was placed -- you guessed it -- on the old brush pile. When the building inspector came onto the property, he took an "interest" in the brush pile and decided to walk down and take a closer look. Our building inspector, it seems, was also a wetlands officer.

Near the foot of the hill, a great mass of leafy, light-green wetland plants caught the inspector's eye. "You can't bring this brush down here," he said. Shocked, dad asked, "Why?" "See these plants here?" the inspector replied. "This is skunk cabbage. You're on wetland property. You can't have that brush pile over there." Dad had to drag the brush from the brush pile back up the hill, piece by piece. After doing so, he ended up renting a wood chipper to get rid of all the brush; there wasn't really any room for a brush pile in this part of the yard.

The moral of the story? Well, besides not building a brush pile near wetland plants (a minor issue, which I use only as an example), it is this: before buying a house, first walk the property, keeping an eye out for wetland plants -- indicators of a property's wetland status. When you buy such a property, you don't own it to the extent that you might think: someday (if not presently), there may be restrictions on what you can do with the property.

Those who already own homes should take note here, too: if you observe wetland plants on your property, be sure to check with local officials before you undertake any projects (however harmless they may seem) on your land.

It's important to understand, as well, the difference between "wetlands" and "swamps." When buying a house, you may see a swamp on the neighbor's land and be tempted to think, "Oh, I'm in the clear: the swamp is on the neighbor's side." The reality, however, is that, no, you're not necessarily in the clear. The "wetland" may not end where the swamp ends; rather, it may continue as far as the wetland plants extend. That's why it's important to be able to identify wetland plants when buying a house.

Consider, too, that laws change, and the officers who enforce those laws come and go. So just because people get the OK to do such and such on wetlands today, that doesn't mean you'll necessarily have the same right tomorrow. It's a good bet that, in some regions, wetland laws will, in the future, become more robust and be enforced more vigorously than they are currently. Again, if you've adopted the role of "land steward" (as many of my readers have gladly done), that won't pose a problem for you. But if you stubbornly cling to some old-fashioned notion of "property rights," then buying a house on dry land would seem to be a better plan of action for you.

Skunk cabbage (see photo above) is just one of the many types of wetland plants. I discuss some other examples in my article on native wetland plants in North America; the next step would be to buy a good wildflower identification guide.

On Page 2 we'll consider another landscaping-related problem of which you should be aware when buying a house....

As mentioned on Page 1, none of the factors discussed here will necessarily be deal-breakers for you when buying real estate. But they do, nonetheless, pertain to quality of life and are therefore worth considering.

2. Japanese Knotweed: The "Super Weed"

On Page 1 I talked about the red flag raised by the presence of wetland plants. On the current page I discuss a different type of plant -- one that holds a different sort of problem for a prospective real estate buyer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the widespread yard weed, Japanese knotweed (see picture), the alarming tone with which I mention it in this context may be met with considerable skepticism. "What's the big deal about a weed?" perhaps you ask. Unfortunately, it's often only after it's too late that one discovers the truth: Japanese knotweed is no ordinary weed, it is a "super" weed.

Allow me to explain, then, why Japanese knotweed deserves the status of "super weed":

  1. Sure to make any thorough list of invasive plants, Japanese knotweed will spread to form a monoculture, effectively suppressing all competition.
  2. Japanese knotweed is not a small, inconspicuous weed: it can reach a height of 10 feet tall!
  3. When the current year's vegetation dies back in autumn, it leaves behind ugly canes that can persist for years. Each new year's crop adds to this unsightly jungle, as new canes push up to fill the spaces in between the old ones.
  1. Oh yeah, and for good measure, Japanese knotweed is tougher to get rid of than just about any other weed.

So when I warn you to be on the lookout for Japanese knotweed on a piece of real estate you're considering buying, don't think in terms of ordinary weeds such as dandelions, creeping charlie or crabgrass.

Even the dreaded poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac pale in comparison, in terms of being a stubborn nuisance. Yes, it's possible to eradicate Japanese knotweed, but only if you're willing to take the task on as a new hobby! To beat Japanese knotweed, you have to practice control measures with a persistence equal to that of the "super weed" itself.

If you already own a property plagued by Japanese knotweed and wish to attempt eradication, please consult my article on getting rid of Japanese knotweed.

I use Japanese knotweed as my example of a "super" weed, because I have personal experience with it. But unfortunately, one could cite other examples to be on the lookout for, too, including kudzu vine, known in the U.S. as "the weed that ate the South." The way I figure it, the presence of such weeds on a property raises its purchase price for me, as a prospective buyer. Why? Because in calculating the total cost for the property, I would be including the time, trouble and money required to eradicate the "super weeds" once I move in.

On Page 3 we'll consider another landscaping-related caveat of which you should be aware when buying a house....

 

3. Hillside Landscaping and Quality of Life

I used to live on the side of a hill -- a steep hill. Prior to living there, I never fully appreciated the extent to which living in such an environment can impact your quality of life. Hillside landscaping presents some unique challenges, and you should take those challenges into account before buying real estate situated on a hillside.

Mind you, living atop a hill that nicely plateaus where the house stands puts you in an enviable position.

Nor does real estate on a gentle slope pose much of a landscaping challenge. Property on hills (including steep hills) can also be beautiful: there's no denying their allure, visually. But as the severity of the slope increases, so do your potential problems. Your age and other challenges may exacerbate some of these problems, a brief sampling of which follows:

  1. Water runoff
  2. Soil erosion
  3. Difficulty with snow removal
  4. Difficulty mowing the lawn

In addition, take into account that many other landscaping tasks will be three times as difficult to accomplish on a hillside as would otherwise be the case -- for instance, pushing a wheelbarrow around to move mulch, soil, etc. And we won't even discuss how often you'll be chasing after rounded objects that have rolled downhill on you, like plastic pots and balls of twine....

So what can you do to alleviate at least some of these problems, if you already own such a property?

You should certainly consider the wisdom of planting ground covers on the most precipitous parts of your hillside, to avoid having to mow. And retaining walls are sometimes installed to tame steep slopes, creating terraces.

Indeed, if you find yourself unable to resist the visual allure of hillside properties, terracing may be the solution to meeting the challenges of hillside landscaping.

Terraced hills are much more enjoyable to garden upon than are un-terraced hills. And some of the most striking landscapes I've ever encountered have been achieved through terracing. It's just a question of whether such beauty is worth all the hassle that comes with it (a personal decision).

On Page 4 and Page 5, we'll explore two more quality of life factors to consider when shopping for real estate. They're "people factors," and they can go a long way toward determining whether or not you'd enjoy your landscaping on a particular plot of land....

Okay, my final two quality of life factors aren't strictly limited to a discussion of landscaping considerations, by any means. But if you've always had big dreams of creating your own backyard oasis, a retreat tailored to what you want and not governed by someone else's landscaping rules, then you ignore the potential for problems from homeowners' associations only at your own peril! Nor should you ignore the negative impact that can be exerted by bad neighbors (Page 5).

4. Homeowners' Associations

In a 2004 story on CNNMoney.com, titled, "Hate your Homeowners Association?" it is reported that the Community Association Institute estimates one in every six Americans lives in a community managed by a homeowners' association. And even more telling, "An estimated four out of five houses built since the late 1990s" are governed by homeowners' associations. The article focuses on a suit and counter-suit between a family and a homeowners' association over the former's allegedly taking too long to finish their landscaping.

NOLO, a provider of do-it-yourself legal solutions, states that homeowners' associations "will probably exercise a lot of control over how you use your property." This includes "even the type of front yard landscaping you can do." Are you laid-back about lawn care? How would you like a stranger telling you how often you need to mow your own lawn?

Now, I'm not here to claim that homeowners' associations are evil. They do help keep property values up, and obviously, that's not a bad thing -- especially if you may be selling your house at some point. But what if you're shopping for a house that you plan on living in for the rest of your life, and all you ask is to be left alone to landscape your yard as you wish?

In that case, properties governed by homeowners' associations probably wouldn't be among your best options.

As in other areas of life, one of the challenges in the landscaping world is trying to reconcile conflicting goals, such as, in this case, conformity and freedom. Both have their good points, and the merits of each have to be judged on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, the conformity offered by homeowners' associations will be deemed beneficial: anarchy in the community's landscaping would bring down property values. Meanwhile, for people who cherish the freedom to experiment and inject personal creativity into their landscapes, homeowners' associations are bound to be looked upon less favorably. Only you can decide if homeowners' associations are right for you; I'm simply making you aware of potential conflicts.

But the "people problems" lurking out there for the would-be home buyer are just as likely to reside with the neighbors as with homeowners' associations, as the discussion on Page 5 suggests....

Despite the oft-spoken dictum, "Good fences make good neighbors," the fact remains that truly bad neighbors may still find a way to intrude upon the serenity of your backyard oasis and diminish your enjoyment of the great outdoors, even with the best of fences. That's why I'll take good neighbors over good fences any day!

5. Bad Neighbors and the Backyard Oasis

When mention is made of bad neighbors, I almost inevitably picture the overbearing Hyacinth Bucket in the classic British TV comedy, Keeping Up Appearances.

Specifically, I think of poor Emmet, the neighbor who tries to hide from her so that she doesn't "catch him" when he's out in his yard and start singing at him. What a way to live....

Again, this quality of life factor isn't strictly limited to a discussion of landscaping considerations. But I do think that the "neighbor factor" is especially pertinent to those who enjoy working in the yard. The more time you'll be spending outside in your new yard, the more you'll be exposing your life to your neighbors.

Many of us seek a backyard oasis from our landscaping, a haven where we can commune with nature and experience a feeling of serenity. But there's nothing like bad neighbors to send serenity packing. Having compatible neighbors is the ideal, folks whose company you enjoy; short of that, an absence of bad neighbors, at least, is a realistic goal.

While you can gain some privacy from neighbors by building privacy screens, be forewarned that the worst types of neighbors would find a way to bother you even if your two yards were separated by the Great Wall of China.

 Fences, after all, can be circumvented, unless you wish to barricade your property and live like a hermit. So it pays to "interview" your prospective neighbors before buying a house. If you see any of them out in their yards, offer a friendly hello -- and try to get a quick read on their personalities.

I don't know about you, but I can tell quite a bit about someone from just a brief encounter. For instance, strike up a conversation with a prospective neighbor about the lawn, flowers, shrubs and trees already present on the two properties. Here are some warning signs to look for in such a conversation:

  1. The neighbor complains about how messy the pine trees are next door. Warning sign: could be a chronic complainer. No tree is always completely mess-free. The most you can hope for are trees that are relatively clean, such as Canadian hemlock trees.
  2. During the whole conversation, the neighbor is yelling at the kids, who pay their parent no mind. Warning sign: speaks for itself -- no analysis needed!
  3. The neighbor's dog is barking during the entire interview. Warning sign: how much of this racket will you be able to stand over the long haul, if you value peace and quiet?
  4. The neighbor doesn't seem to listen when you're speaking, but rather interrupts you in mid-sentence and fails to answer (or even acknowledge) direct questions. Warning sign: indicative of a poor listener. Poor listeners will often pay you a visit and "talk your ear off." They're not in tune with what others are feeling, so they're likely to keep you from doing what you came out into the yard intending to do. And since poor listeners won't reciprocate and listen to you, the diversion has no redeeming value.

    The importance of this last point is not to be underestimated, especially if you seek a feeling of serenity from your landscaping and from being out in your yard. Poor listeners who are also braggarts and "big talkers" are the worst of the bunch: they'll prattle on and on forever, not only keeping you from your landscaping, but sapping your energy to boot!

    Real Life Stories of Bad Neighbors

    I asked my readers to submit true stories of how bad neighbors have kept them from enjoying their backyards (particularly cases relating directing to landscaping issues). Many of the stories submitted were more general in nature and of the sort that you would expect:

    1. Neighbors letting their yards go to pot
    2. Children, dogs, or cats allowed to run amok
    3. Squabbles over parking practices
    4. Runoff diverted from neighbor's yard onto one's own property
    5. Leaves or snow purposely blown from neighbor's side to one's own side of the border
    6. Neighbors guilty of playing loud music, trespassing, vandalism, littering, excessive nosiness
    7. Even lawsuits, bullying, and physical violence

    But a few of the stories pertained more directly to landscaping, so I decided to include four of them here:

    1. "The saying 'good fences make good neighbors' is so true. Even though I don't care for them myself, I have to erect one because of my bad neighbor. We live in the country with an empty lot between us (2-1/2 acres which we own). It has a 1/2 acre pond on it. Our bad neighbor seems to think he owns it. He fishes it, put ducks on it, planted duckweed in it, put pond lilies in it -- all without asking us. He was planting trees about 20-30 feet onto our property, so I decided to run a double row of pines between the properties so he would get the hint that it wasn't his. I ran a line along the property stakes and planted the first row of trees 6 feet or so inside our line. This would give them room to mature and still be within our property. He did take all his trees down but he planted them on the property line right where I am going to put the fence. He knows I am putting a fence up and is not happy about it. He's really going to be mad when I have the fence contractor remove all the trees in the way. ~ silverbullettwo
    2. "I installed a beautiful split rail fence around the backyard of my new home, and planted sweet peas the full 100-foot length of one side, anticipating a complete covering of blooms by summertime. Before they had a chance to get more than a couple inches tall, I spotted my old, retired neighbor just finishing up spraying RoundUp along the entire base of the fence. He managed to kill every one of my plants. At the time, I figured he was thinking they were weeds and thought he was helping me out. Later, after I got to know him better, I realized he knew full well I had planted them (and that he had probably watched me plant them). He was showing me what he thought of my new fence in his spiteful and crotchety manner. He proved to be the worst neighbor I've ever had, and he ruined our family's backyard fun countless times. I lived there for 18 years to the day, and I am so happy I'm no longer his next door neighbor." ~ Peggy
    3. "The person who lives next door to me is a bad neighbor only in the sense of being incompatible with me. What I mean is, this 'bad neighbor' is a nice enough person but just happens to have a different idea than I do of what a yard is for, making us something of an Odd Couple. For me, the yard is a place to admire plants (and the wildlife they draw) and just enjoy yourself. In the summer, I like to lounge around in the shade cast by my two big trees (one maple and one pine). But my neighbor is a neat freak, and for her, her yard is some sort of trophy that has to be kept immaculate. So she complains that maple leaves and pine needles blow over from my yard into hers. Now, I'm not a slob, and I do rake up my yard (within reason), but a certain number of leaves and needles will inevitably blow over there. I think it's the mark of a bad neighbor not to understand that sort of thing." ~ private_I
    4. "The neighbors have running bamboo that would run into my yard. It was not much at first, and I was told to just knock the canes over when they first came up. First a few started, then hundreds came up, and after seven years I could hardly dig in the ground. They would come right up next to the foundation, in the middle of shrubs and other plants and be 12 feet tall or more within days. I asked the neighbor to help me control this mess, but, hatefully, she would not, and she did not want her bamboo harmed. She did not want to see her 'ugly neighbors' faces'. I found the property line and proceeded to cut down the bamboo between my fence and the property line and place a bamboo barrier to help separate the growth on my side from the mother plant. With help from my son and others I have been able to largely get rid of a the bamboo. But it takes a strong back and sturdy pick to get it. I don't understand why people will not to be good neighbors in a neighborhood where the houses are less than 30 feet apart. Don't want neighbors? Then move to a farm!" ~ gardenmadness

    Paradise Lost: Winning Back Your Backyard Oasis

    What if you're already stuck with a bad neighbor -- for example, a gabby neighbor who's a poor listener? Well, you may be forced to assert yourself, thereby dashing all hopes of singing "Kumbaya" together anytime soon, perhaps. But if you value your serenity, I suggest politely letting such a neighbor know that you come out into the yard to enjoy your garden, not to listen to monologues. Perhaps propose an alternative venue for socializing, such as a weekly card game (assuming you want to stay on good terms with this neighbor).

    The earlier in the relationship you thus assert yourself, the better: one-way talkers tend only to be emboldened by continued passivity on your part. So the longer you allow their advances to go unchecked, the more difficult it will be for you to convince them that the sight of you wearing garden gloves and pushing a wheelbarrow around is not an invitation to commence a rant. And if they're the type who will bristle at your assertion of your right to serenity, putting off the "break up" will only make it harder for them when it does come (increasing the likelihood of bad blood between you).

    Don't get me wrong: friendly, two-way chats with compatible neighbors are wonderful, especially if they, too, love gardening and nature. Such chats build happy communities. But bad neighbors are another story altogether. Do you really want to have to steal furtively out of your house or barricade your property just to enjoy a tranquil moment in your own backyard oasis? Do you want to be reduced to crouching behind a large bush for cover, to avoid the assault of your own Hyacinth Bucket? Remember poor Emmet.

    Of course, horrifically bad neighbors (such as those who inflict property damage or even bodily damage) are another thing altogether. That's a matter best handled through lawyers, the police, etc. (or even moving, if feasible).

    Hopefully, if you're moving into a new neighborhood, you'll have great neighbors who won't spoil your backyard fun. Wouldn't it be great to build a fence not out of a desperate need to isolate yourself from the neighbors, but primarily because a fence can be just the design element you need to perfect the landscaping along your property line?