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Property: Full frontal facelift

First impressions matter, so work that yard, says Jeff Howell
The British have a problem with their front yards. Intended to provide a buffer space between road and front door, perhaps in deference to the sweeping drives of stately homes, many front gardens are now little more than rubbish dumps. Even smartly restored city homes with neat patios and barbecue areas at the back are often fronted by clumps of grown-out privet and a couple of battered dustbins.

Road traffic is the main reason people spend less time in their front gardens, but a nicely-kept front garden can be appreciated from within the house and, of course, can add to the market value of a property; first impressions are the most important, so just as the front entrance and hall should be well maintained, time and money spent on the front garden is a good investment.

It is becoming common to use the front garden as a car parking space. Whilst frowned upon by building purists, this may at least be better than the litter-strewn bin store, but only if done to a professional standard. A featureless slab of concrete or tarmac is out; go for brick paving with a few raised flower beds or planters. If brick paving is to support the weight of a vehicle without sinking, it needs to be laid on a compacted base and concrete slab, with attention paid to drainage and rainwater run-off. Depending on the space available, a nice crunchy gravel drive is some people's idea of luxury, but it is not cheap; the ground must be excavated down to a firm sub-base, Type 1 road stone spread and compacted, and a thin covering of pea shingle bedded in tar.

If you are thinking of using your front garden for parking, you will first have to consult your local authority highways department. On minor roads there is usually no problem, as long as traffic will not be emerging on to the road in an area of restricted visibility. However, on a "classified" road - a principal road or bus route - planning permission may be needed. You will then have to pay the local authority to drop the kerb and rebuild the footpath as a ramp, and you will be liable for any costs incurred by the utilities companies for re-routing or ducting services. The whole cost could reach several hundred pounds, although some local authorities will offer special deals.

Even if you don't use the front space for parking, paving is an attractive low maintenance option. Second-hand bricks and York stone are the classiest - and most expensive - paving materials. If using bricks, make sure they are hard and dense enough to withstand frost damage, and laid and pointed with a mortar softer than the brick, otherwise the brick will weather first, leaving ridges of mortar standing proud. York stone can still be bought new from quarries in Yorkshire, but it keeps that new look for many years, hence the popularity of the more weather beaten "reclaimed" variety. Expect to pay around pounds 50 per square metre for either. And beware, there is a thriving market in stolen stone, which is easily lifted from city streets by gangs whom nobody thinks to question. A friend thought he had a good deal on a few square metres of York stone, but when it was delivered, very late one evening, he was perturbed to find some of it still painted with double yellow lines.

The cheapest paving is 45cm square coloured concrete slabs from DIY sheds for about pounds 10 per sqm. It does a job, but never looks anything other than what it is - cheap. A good compromise is one of the imitation York stones, which cost around pounds 20 per sqm. Made from coloured concrete, but cast in moulds taken from genuine stone slabs, it is easy to lay and looks like the real thing. It is delivered in a mix of sizes, which avoids the monotony of square slabs.

When laying any paving in the front garden area, you should pay attention to drainage. If you follow the DIY manuals and bed your paving on concrete or mortar, then you will have to allow a reasonable fall - or gradient - towards a yard gulley or out towards the road. Easier, and more traditional, is to use coarse sharp sand to bed the slabs and fill the joints; that way rain can drain naturally into the ground, and the resulting mosses and weeds growing between the joints will add to that authentic, it's- always-been-there look.