Property: Come out into the garden, dear buyer: How much do the grounds that surround our houses contribute to their value? David Lawson reports

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MANY home owners watched weather forecasts with more interest than they showed in any Budget analysis last week. They reckoned, with some justification, that a few days of spring sunshine would bring in more potential buyers than fiddling with stamp duty.

At this time of year, visitors are less inclined to cluck over the kitchen fittings and bedroom sizes. They want to look around outside. Shrubs are blooming, soggy lawns drying out. The garden, stark during winter, suddenly becomes a prime feature.

But just what part is the garden likely to play in the value and saleability of your house? Who is likely to be swayed by this asset and why?

'About half the people I see are specifically interested in homes with good gardens,' says Andrew Ireland, of the agents John D Wood. 'But they are after very different things.'

Take a professional couple living close to the centre of town. 'They have high-speed lives which cannot cope with big, time-consuming gardens.' But they will still want a terrace or patio plot with their flat.

Later in life they may go for more ground, even if they cannot tell a magnolia from a marigold, and will rarely get farther than pushing a Flymo. At this stage it is important to have somewhere safe for children to run. That can be difficult in a cramped and expensive area such as central London. Any reasonably sized piece of grass can make asking prices soar.

In one Notting Hill street, for instance, Giles Hoskins, of Winkworth, has a four-bedroom terrace house with a 40ft (13m) garden for sale at pounds 395,000. 'There are several similar ones in the street without this sort of space that are going for pounds 25,000 less - and this one will sell first,' he says.

But size is not the only important factor. The most desirable homes have south or west-facing gardens that catch the sun. Others can turn into dank, drab mudpatches.

Some buyers will sacrifice more than mere money for the right piece of land. An American banker told me recently how a colleague plummeted from grace with visiting executives from head office. They had marvelled at views of Tower Bridge from his plush flat, carved from a Docklands warehouse. They drooled over the cachet of living next door to the window from which John Cleese hung by his heels in the film A Fish Called Wanda. They preened over the flat's location above some of London's smartest restaurants.

Then suddenly they stopped visiting the banker's colleague. It transpired that he had sold up and moved to an unremarkable semi in Chiswick, deciding that a garden for his children to play in was more important than impressing his bosses.

Housebuilders have learnt that gardens are high on the list for their potential buyers. A couple of decades ago, pristine houses were often left in a wasteland of builder's rubble. 'Today, all front gardens are automatically turfed and the back will have topsoil as well,' says Pauline Land, sales director of Laing Homes. Some firms even offer a ready-made garden.

'It is a myth that everyone wants a big garden, however,' says Ms Land. 'Cheap supermarket food and alternative leisure activities mean people spend far less time growing food and cultivating big areas nowadays.'

There are, however, magnificent exceptions to this rule among bigger homes, where the garden often becomes a status symbol.

The Chantry, near Wimbledon Common, boasts more than an acre of grounds laid out in grand style for Lord Raynes in the Twenties. But the latest owner went much further, calling in a gardener who learnt his craft at Kew to produce a stunning display involving more than 7,500 bulbs, 50 new trees and a Japanese water garden and teahouse. It all took two years to design and build.

It is difficult to tell how much the spectacular asset contributes to a price tag of almost pounds 3m for the six-bedroom mansion. The teahouse garden must have cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds, while the whole labour of landscaping, irrigation and planting can hardly have come to less than pounds 500,000.

'This is more of an attraction for a botanical enthusiast than your average gardener,' says Mr Ireland.

But for the more modest buyer, he offers one broad guideline to match ambition with wallet - 'The general rule of thumb is that a garden will cost around the same as the carpets, curtains and other fittings inside a house.'

(Photograph omitted)