Landscaping Trends: Just Add Water

Pools, spas, hot tubs, ponds, waterfalls, fountains, and creeks - all offer soothing sights and sounds that appeal to today's buyers.

July 1, 2008

Water can do great things for a back yard. Whether it’s rippling in a swimming pool, bubbling in a creek, or splashing down a fountain, water features can add a luxurious look, block undesired noise, and create a tranquil ambiance for home owners.

It can also add a “wow” factor that makes a home memorable in the eyes of a potential buyer, says master gardener Ann Robinson, who designed her urban St. Louis yard with a naturalistic looking pond with waterfall, rock, and perennial gardens.

“Visitors are surprised to find the serenity it provides in the city,” Robinson says. “Fish and frogs thrive with our largest koi, Moby. Occasionally, ducks, owls, and egrets come to visit.”

Water Works: What to Consider

When adding a water feature, home owners should make sure it matches the scale and style of the house and the neighborhood, experts say. Cost, safety, and maintenance are also top considerations that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Some home owners also want to be sure that they’re not out of step with good environmental practices. While a water feature may seem wasteful, there are ways to do it right, consuming less energy, using less water, and actually attracting wildlife. “A bird bath can be placed low enough to the ground so it also attracts frogs and toads,” says Cheryl Long, editor-in-chief of Mother Earth News.

Know the Trends

By understanding all possibilities, you can guide your buyers and sellers to make smart choices. Here are a few recent trends.

  • Emulating nature. Many home owners, particularly in luxury markets, are asking for natural-looking pools with rock outcroppings, waterfalls, built-in slides, sun shelves, and a pebbly bottom, says Barb St. Aman, ABR®, salesperson with Harry Norman, REALTORS® in Sandy Springs, Ga. Costs: Lagoons Inc.’s pools that mimic lagoons run $65,000-plus, says Barb Luehring, vice president of the Sarasota, Fla.-based company. A cover and fence increase costs even more.
  • Infinity pools. These “zero-edge” pools give the illusion of water disappearing into the horizon. Some home owners also favor saltwater instead of chlorinated water for health and sustainability, says Chris Cipriano, owner of Cipriano Landscape Design in Ramsey, N.J. Because of stiffer competition, some luxury builders and sellers will pay to install a pool to seal a deal, says St. Aman. Cost: Cost depends on size, materials, labor, and bells and whistles, but buyers should expect to pay at least $40,000 for a pool with a waterfall, says Cipriano. The cost to heat a pool monthly in the Northeast runs between $200 and $500, depending on the size of the pool, its use, and desired temperature. Maintenance and chemicals run between $150 and $350 monthly, also depending on the same factors, Cipriano says.
  • Hot tubs and spas. The popularity of freestanding hot tubs has waned in many markets, replaced by spas constructed adjacent to or part of a pool, says St. Aman. But Brian Somero, a partner with Thomas-Somero Design in Hollywood, Calif., says tubs remain popular among clients who like the idea of a quick getaway at home. In addition, tubs are portable if home owners move. Cost: These run about $3,500 and cost about $30 monthly to maintain.
  • Ponds full of wildlife. Natural is au courant, whether stocked with koi fish or Monet-style water lilies. Cost: A small 2-foott-by 3-foot pond with a waterfall, filtration system, recirculating pump, and some boulders averages $8,000 to $10,000, says Dave Duensing, owner of David B. Duensing & Associates, a firm specializing in water features in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Spring and winter maintenance can add $150 per visit; monthly costs may run $50.
  • Creeks. For an even more of a natural look, some home owners prefer a creek, particularly when they have large acreage or a second home, says St. Aman. Home owners in drought-prone areas can opt for a rock and plant bordered dry creek. Cost: A 20-foot long stream with waterfall, widened in parts for aquatic plants and bordered with rocks, starts at about $7,500, with price dependent on plants, boulders, and careful placement for authenticity, says Duensing. The biggest maintenance cost is running a pump, which may be $50 a month, he says.
  • Recirculating fountains. Home owners with smaller yards or those who are concerned about children’s safety may favor a large recirculating fountain or urn — and sometimes more than one — says Cassy Aoyagi of C&K Landscape Design in Los Angeles, who often uses several pots with colorful glazing to create a focal point. Cost: Large fountains or urns may cost from $3,500 to $15,000 depending on ornateness and the pump’s cost.
  • Water walls. Constructed to edge a pool or serve as a freestanding element, a 6’-8’-high x 6’-8’-wide wall offers an affordable solution to introduce the sight and sound of water flowing over an attractive surface, possibly built from slate or travertine. Cost: Somero estimates the cost with pump at $2,000, with an additional $50 monthly maintenance charge.

Maintenance Matters

At a time when heating and cooling costs continue to skyrocket and water conservation has become a priority, home owners find they can still enjoy a water feature while being good eco-citizens.

Gregg Steiner, partner in in Los Angeles recommends using a pool cover to keep water from evaporating, prevent leaves and debris from collecting, and avoid running a high-wattage filter.

He also recommends: a solar thermal water heater, or putting a conventional heater and lights on timers; salt rather than chlorinated water; plants and rocks to cleanse debris from water naturally; and xeriscape (drought-tolerant) materials and water-loving plants, since both thrive with minimal human care. (Also read Water-free Landscaping Ideas.)

Luehring, of Lucas Lagoons, suggests micro irrigation systems with tiny heads and rain monitors to cut water use.

Water is Not for Everyone

But no matter how attractive and well maintained, water features may not appeal to buyers who worry about children’s safety, costs, maintenance, and the potential for breeding mosquitoes, particularly if a house has been vacated, says Lance Walheim, horticulturalist with Bayer Advanced, a garden company in Raleigh, N.C.

If buyers prefer a listing without a water feature, sellers may offer to remove it. In fact, Brandon Green, GRI and principal broker of Brandon Green & Associates, Keller Williams Capital Properties in Washington, D.C., recently advised a client to remove a pool from a $300,000 house in a Maryland neighborhood where it’s an unusual amenity and considered a liability.

“It would cost only $5,000,” Green says.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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