Yard Cleanup Before Sale
July 21, 2004 2:48 PM   Subscribe

I own a house near College Park, MD and am renting it out to tenants now. The problem is the yard, which is in a real state of disrepair. Because I'm thinking about selling it next year, perhaps, I'd like some advice on taking a troublesome yard to a selling feature for as little money as possible. I assume I'll need to have the yard re-seeded, but I don't know what else is required or might help the situation. Keep in mind that I won't be there to do any of the work myself-- I'll be relying on 3rd parties to do it... Any words of wisdom from people who know something about this stuff?
posted by yellowcandy to Home & Garden (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Talk to the realtor that will be listing it and get his/her suggestions. That is part of their job. And yes, you can do this ahead of time.
posted by konolia at 5:18 PM on July 21, 2004

I just got done re-doing the backyard in a house we're renting, and it had totally gone to crap. (A foot or more of dead leaves, weeds 2 or 3 feet high, and vines as thick as your finger and wrist covering the whole thing under the leaves.)

The most important thing is that if it's going to work, you really need to take it down to a layer of good topsoil, and then re-build the lawn over that. We had some handymen come in and help us clear everything down to the dirt (which was actually great topsoil because the bottom layer of leaves has composted), and then rototilled it. (You can rent a decent rototiller for about $50 a day in most places.)

At this point, if there were a ton of weeds, you can either try and knock out the remnants and seeds with weedkiller, or go forward and deal with them when they start to come up with the grass. (We plowed ahead, since if you lay down weedkiller at this point, you've got to wait a couple of weeks for it to clear out of the soil, or it'll kill the new grass.)

If you don't have great topsoil underneath, it'd be worth laying down at least a thin layer before you go on to do the seeding. It's not cheap, but compared to just dirt, it'll be the difference between a lawn that's worth all this effort, and one that still looks like crap. ("Topsoil" is not just any dirt--it's got all sorts of physical and nutritive properties like drainage and minerals that really contribute to a good lawn.)

Once you're ready to seed, put down the grass seed with one of those little barrows that throws it in a circle, and then put a thin layer of peat moss over it. (If you don't, the birds'll eat the seed, and the rain'll wash it away. Some folks use salt hay, but then you've got a layer of hay making the thatch a lot thicker--peat moss just becomes part of the topsoil.)

After that, water, water, water. Let it grow out till it's pretty thick and high before you mow it the first time, and leave the mower _high_. If there are weeds coming up, mow it at least two or three times, as high as possible, to let the grass thicken in before you use weedkiller on the lawn, but once it's pretty much filled in, you can nail 'em.

In most parts of the country, this isn't a great time of year to start a lawn, actually, because it's too hot and dry. If you can, you're better off waiting till the fall, when the grass can actually thicken up under the snow, or next spring. You can actually get to a decent lawn in a couple of months here in the Northeast--I've done it more than once in different places.

(Finally, consult with a good gardening shop in your area on the best seed, fertilizer and weedkiller to use. Every region's different, and you want someone who really knows your climate to recommend what you're using.)
posted by LairBob at 5:38 PM on July 21, 2004

Oh yeah--in terms of cost, it ran us probably a total of $600 bucks for the whole thing, from labor to rototiller rental to seed/fertilizer, etc., but that was with a fair amount of elbow grease--we did the rototilling, etc.

If you wanted to go a much simpler, cheaper route, you could try just having someone de-thatch, re-condition and re-seed the lawn. The de-thatching will break up the mat of dead grass and roots that's probably choking off the soil. Add some fertilizer, minerals, and maybe punch some aerating holes before you put down new seed, you could probably get away with $100-200, and still have a noticeable improvement.
posted by LairBob at 6:37 PM on July 21, 2004

If you want a feature instead of a benefit, you definitely want to rototill and then seed. Lay down some hay, water like crazy, etc.
posted by yerfatma at 6:46 PM on July 21, 2004

Hmm. You say you want a selling feature, and you want to spend as little as possible, but you aren't there, and the lawn is presently in unspecified disrepair. Sorry, but in my experience, you can't get from there to a Damn! This is one fine lawn! unless you do it yourself, spend a lot of time at it, maybe some cash too, and work at it over two or more years. The only way to do it reasonably fast with somewhat reliable results is tilling under and sodding, but that costs, and it will show.

Because otherwise, you have to get to know your lawn, you see. That bare spot -- is it due to traffic? drainage? shade? high phosphorus content? Those weeds -- are they common broadleafs, easily killed, or insidious nutgrass? Is that fuzzy area invaded by ugly chickweed, or once-popular clover? Do I need a sun variety here, or perhaps an overtime mix? What's in the yard next door, and how do I keep it there?

You might be able to do well, absentee, if you are able to vet a good landscaper, but again, that costs. And there are plenty of lazy, ill-trained landscapers, and lazy, unscrupulous chain lawn-care franchisees.

Regardless of how you proceed, I recommend you think in terms of starting a fall lawn, after September 1. (Most people don't know, but northern "cool season" grass actually goes dormant during the summer.) This is especially good for shaded lawns, as they can steal back the sunlight as the leaves fall and liberate it from the trees. Cheapest will be "renovation", that is, responding to the lawn's repair needs. Begin now by having it mowed as high as possible, for strong, healthy grass (oh, and sharpen your mower blade, so it doesn't stress the grass as much as with a dirty cut). Throw down a "quick" mix (with annual ryegrass, which won't last) to immediately handle any erosion problem areas. Deal with weeds. For fastest results with the least labor, generously nuke it with a chemical weedkiller like Weed-B-Gone, delivered by hose, not fertilizer.

(If you're willing to spend a bit more, here's a spot where you can. Rent a dethatcher and use it to rip out the layer of old above-ground roots and cut grass that builds up in any lawn. Then rent a "core aerator" and have it poke holes all through your lawn, leaving the contents on top, where it will join the topsoil. The holes will allow your lawn to decompress a little -- breaking up packed soil -- and breathe, both air and nutrients.)

Till any bare areas, mix in "starter" fertilizer, and liberally seed. Then lightly seed the whole lawn with a consistent "premium" mix. Water, water, water. Continue mowing high until winter nears. Fertilize with a "winter" mix, then say bye to your lawn for about three months.

In spring, review your problem areas. You'll be able to tell by now if you have problems with grubs or fungus, as opposed to poor maintenance. Now is the time to deal with crabgrass, which requires a "pre-emergent" weedkiller. Fertilize, mow a bit shorter, perhaps 2.5". Do wait until it really is warm enough -- 55F -- for seed to germinate, before believing that it's all failed. Then retill, refertilize, reseed, as needed. Importantly, by now you'll have second-year growth, which will be stronger and thicker due to its established root system. Watch the lawn for signs of returning weeds, and spot kill, pull, as necessary, or Weed-B-Gone again if things are still all over.

By the way, pace konolia, one realtor trick is now sold as a way to get a deep green lawn for a party. Basically, you drop a load of nitrogen and not much else. The growth spurt you get will be verdant, but impermanent.
posted by dhartung at 1:04 AM on July 22, 2004

Yellowcandy, I live in the same area as your CP house and I am also in the process of selling a house (near Shady Grove Metro) and honestly, you will do just fine selling it "as is" in the area. Especially near University of Maryland where I am sure there are plenty of people hoping to buy a house that they can rent to students.

If you decide you still want more curb appeal, try contacting a local landscaper and let them know what you want to do. We did this with the house we are selling and got back a reasonable price for cleaning up old growth and cutting back trees, etc.

If you want a recommendation, contact me via email and I will be happy to give you the name of the group we used.
posted by terrapin at 10:27 AM on July 22, 2004

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