These days, it might be easier to find a job as a landscaper than one pumping gas. That is to say, with a fill-up reaching about the cost of a night’s stay at a budget motel, people are opting more and more to vacation in their own back yards. And that, of course, requires having a back yard worthy of vacationing in.
“It started with 9/11,” says Craig Smith, owner of BR Design Build in Davidsonville. “People were reluctant to travel.” Next came lower interest rates and rising home prices, and the ready availability of cash through home equity loans.
“Lots of people who took out loans chose to invest in their homes,” says Smith. “When you go on a vacation, you’re just throwing money away. If you put it into your house, not only does it improve the resale value, but you get to enjoy it while you’re there.”
But how to make your home a place worthy of vacation? You may picture a spa with a gently trickling fountain, a yoga studio with mirrored walls, someone to make the bed each morning and fold down the sheets each night, and someone to deliver a cocktail to the side of the pool. But for the practical folks who can’t ship in massage therapists, yoga instructors, and, of course, chambermaids and pool boys, transforming a home into a vacation paradise generally begins in the back yard.
“My back yard is insane,” says Smith. The 2.5 acres comprise a swimming pool with a whirlpool, fish ponds, a playground for the kids, and two decks. The entire space is fenced in so his dogs can run freely. “We wanted a luxury space that the family could enjoy,” says Smith, who, with his wife, has two small boys. “We can still go on vacations, but at home there is always something to do.”
Smith estimates the improvements in his yard to be worth around $400,000, and says that, while high, that price isn’t unheard of. His firm does about 10-15 projects per year, all upward of $150,000.
He admits that he may have “over-invested” in his 13-year-old house, but, he says, “I don’t plan to move.”
When planning “a backyard oasis,” says Smith, “you can be cost efficient to maximize your equity, or you can go the route of complete luxury.” Most of his clients, he adds, “choose luxury.”
There’s also the practical matter of keeping tabs on the kids during long summer days. “A lot of parents don’t want their kids running around the neighborhood, going to 10 other people’s houses,” he says. “A great back yard is a way to tempt them to stay at home.”
The biggest trend right now is the outdoor kitchen, with homeowners adding sinks, refrigerators, and even granite-topped seating islands to their already over-the-top barbecue grills. Paul Levine, a landscape architect from Finksburg, says that about 80 percent of his design commissions currently involve kitchens.
“Two years ago it was trellises and pergolas. Last year it was fire pits,” he says. “This year it’s outdoor kitchens.” Levine, weary of barbecues, opted for a pizza oven on his own deck. “Making pizza is a great activity,” he says. “Everyone can have a glass of wine and get involved in making the dough.”
Levine’s design for his two-acre yard keeps the guests ever in mind. There are bocce ball and volleyball courts, two golf greens, and a swimming pool with a cabana. But the key to a good design, he says, “is not just all the stuff. It’s giving people a chance to watch others participate in activities.” To that end, adjacent to every active space in Levine’s yard is a passive seating area for guests to vicariously enjoy the fun.