A nice green lawn? Forget it

Young, professional tenants demand outside spaces which are easy to maintain, says Chris Partridge
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The Independent Online

Andrew Gilbert, of Winkworth in Ealing and Acton - areas where most properties have small gardens - says: "A garden does not add much to the rental, you might be able to get five per cent more, but more importantly it will let quicker and you will get shorter voids." Larger gardens should be tended either by the landlord or by a professional gardener, to ensure the job gets done.

"If you do have a large garden, get a gardener you know and trust to go in every couple of weeks and charge it to the tenants," Gilbert advises. "If you leave it to the tenant, they are likely to fall out with the gardener and the garden is left, which can be expensive to bring back when the tenants leave."

Every so often, landlords can get lucky if the tenant really does have green fingers. "We had a property that was rented by a gardening mad tenant for three years, who bought the garden up from a desolate place to a lovely green spot," he recalls. "The landlord was very pleased."

Gilbert recommends shingle instead of grass and slow-growing shrubs. Pot plants are out. "They will never get watered," he says with brutal realism.

Despite the reputation of England as a nation of obsessive gardeners, some city areas seem to be populated by horticultural illiterates. Trendy inner city areas filled with young professionals seem to be the worst.

Alexander Jones, of Copping Joyce, is cynical about the gardening capabilities of tenants in his area - Islington. "When considering outside space from a landlord's perspective, there are a couple of important considerations based on what type of tenants your property is likely to attract," he says. "In Islington, your typical tenant are young professionals, either couples or singles. Invariably, they won't maintain the garden at all."

The upside to this is that Islington yuppies don't seem to require the same high design standards in the garden as they do in the kitchen and bathroom. "Generally speaking when a tenant asks for outside space, they are not usually fussy as long as it's not in a terrible condition," Jones says. "In Islington, outside space is at a premium and most potential tenants appreciate this, so we very rarely get a specific request for type of garden."

But when young professional couples start producing children, they immediately demand the most difficult plant to keep under control and looking nice: grass. "If you are targeting families as potential tenants, then you do need to allow for an area of lawn, especially if young children are going to be living there," Jones says. The cost of getting someone in to mow it twice a month in the summer is unlikely to be compensated for in increased rent.

Television gardener Joe Swift, a presenter on Gardeners' World, has addressed the problems of urban gardens with his company, Modular Garden. They will design and build low-maintenance gardens for fixed prices, for house-owners and major developers, such as Bellway and Laing Homes.

"Landlords can set a budget of as little as £6,000, and we design and build a garden to that price," he says. "We have tried to put it all together to make a garden as easy to buy as a car, with contemporary, traditional, formal and informal designs. As with a car, every garden comes with a maintenance manual to tell the owner how to look after it."

A professionally designed garden improves the instant appeal to prospective tenants visiting the property, and is intended to get the most out of the space available, something amateur gardeners tend to be bad at. "We are still amazed at the amount of wasted space in most gardens," Swift says.

All the latest technology is used to bring maintenance down to a minimum.

"We use landscape fabric and plant through it, with a stone or pebble mulch on top," Swift says. "We never use lawns, which need regular mowing and aerating - we use all hard surfaces, such as paving and decking. Attractive gravel set off plants nicely."

The burden of watering is taken off the tenants' shoulders by automated irrigation systems run by computer to ensure plants remain healthy and vigorous through the summer.

"The choice of plants is key," Swift says. "We use evergreen shrubs and perennials that don't need staking, and only need cutting back two or three times a year."

The result should be an asset that appeals strongly to tenants, but only needs attention three or four times a year - with any luck, at the times the landlord needs to go into the property for routine maintenance inside.