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Landlords are some of the busiest people we know. Most have full-time jobs, and many manage their property portfolios with little or no professional help. They're on call for emergency repairs and tenant crises, and they must carve out time to show their rentals, and to meet incoming and outgoing tenants for the before and after walk-through tours.

The absolute last thing the average landlord wants to spend time on is grounds maintenance.

That isn't to say that no landlord cuts the grass at his or her rentals; in fact, many do. However, minimizing labor is essential in order to have time for other important chores, and to ensure that costs (including the landlord's labor or the fee for lawn care services) don't exceed profits.

As Houston-based property management company Green Residential puts it:

“From a landlord’s perspective, rental property landscaping is an awkward issue with minimal leverage. You need the landscaping to look good in order to attract tenants, satisfy the neighbors, and maintain a certain image. On the other hand, you don’t want to overspend because tenants rarely keep up on landscaping. And then there’s the issue of whose responsibility it is to cut the grass, trim the hedges, and keep the plants alive.”

Low maintenance is key, whether the landlord, a lawn service or the tenant is expected to take care of the outside grounds.  Easy measures, taken in advance, can help landlords get to that sweet spot – a nice facade that requires the least amount of upkeep.
What are the basic expectations?

Forget what you know about your rental's interior and its amenities for a moment. Get in the car and drive past it, or pull out a photo of the unit, to gain as objective a view as possible. Does the yard/lawn look inviting? Would a potential renter want to see more, based on that exterior view?

Overgrown grass, weeds and ruts are deterrents. Lawns that have been converted to bare stone or gravel lots aren't much better. Worst of all are piles of debris, broken bicycles, and other junk that the terms of a strong lease should have deterred.

Simply paving over a lot isn't permitted in most municipalities, because it keeps rain and runoff from returning to nearby ground and contributes to flooding and pollution. Besides, your tenant is unlikely to appreciate the lack of greenery.

Yet, natural turf lawns require watering and mowing. For small yards, grass mowing can be managed by a tenant who has a mower – typically supplied by the landlord. Larger spaces, however, may require the use of a service. Consider, instead, slow-growing, native shrubs and plants. Ideas for getting started are plentiful online. For instance, the California-based synthetic turf and paver specialist, Install It Direct, offers this advice:

“You can minimize monthly expenses and still have visually appealing rentals by taking simple steps like installing low-water, low-maintenance landscaping that will ensure curb appeal without expensive monthly maintenance costs.”

Stone and gravel areas can look appealing, provided they are anchored with natural landscaping, such as shrubs and plants, pavers that form a path, or a rock garden dotted with slow-growing perennials. If you go the route of hardscaping, check your local hardware store or nursery for durable products.  

How far should you go?
Some landlords feel compelled to provide an outdoor setting that meets the standards they hold for their own home. They worry that a “blah” lawn will hurt their property value. Experts say that the goal should be quality, not quantity.

If establishing a mature, elaborate vista is important, perhaps because the rental unit is in an upscale community, then budget for its upkeep. Tenants cannot be expected to maintain extensive landscaping; and, grounds-keeping is not something you can leave to chance. If plantings start looking bedraggled, it may be time to prune or remove overgrowth so that remaining landscaping looks tidy. 

Also, keep the theme neutral by sticking with popular native plants and accents that don't overpower. You could turn off potential tenants with landscaping or outdoor décor that is too personalized. Vacation properties, especially, will host many tenants with varied styles who likely will spend more time outside than usual; each temporary resident should feel comfortable in the setting you prepare.

Edging a pathway and adding soft berms of mulch can add depth and character to a property without adding upkeep costs.

What if there's a pet?

Nothing ruins a lawn faster than the family pet. So, the rental lease should require tenants to pick up after their pets. Still, few tenants will take the time to rinse Rover's frequently-used bathroom spots so that grass stays lush.

Address the pet issue this way: Set aside a section of the lawn for Rover's needs, either by fencing an area or simply marking it with a few pieces of pressure-treated timber. Include a description of the section in the lease. The tenant may have to use a leash to ensure that the pet uses this area.

This is actually one time that stones make sense for easy care, although bigger stones can be painful to pets' paws. As an alternative, use pea gravel, sand pebbles or even mulch so that fluids are filtered, solids are easy to scoop, and grass or other plants don't suffer from urine burn.

Should you allow the tenant to landscape or garden?

Many tenants prefer renting over home ownership because they want to escape the burden of outdoor maintenance. Others, still saving for their forever home, are itching to have their own flower bed or vegetable patch and want to start while still renting.

Decide in advance whether you will permit your tenant to garden or put in permanent plants and features, and make sure that the lease states clearly what you allow and where on the property you will allow it. Of course, homeowner association rules must be included. A tenant's creativity in the yard can improve your rental property's appearance, and quite a lot can be done on a small budget.

However, consult with your local conservation district to learn whether there are non-native plants that you should forbid your tenant to plant. Bamboo, for example, will grow in many climates and is popular for privacy screening. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to contain the plant and limit it to one area of a property. Bamboo can take over a whole neighborhood with its ability to grow more than a foot a day while spreading underground with aggressive horizontal roots. 

When the tenant wants to garden or is caring for the lawn, regular property inspections should include a check of the yard or lawn so that problems can be addressed before they get out of hand. Periodic inspections must also be conducted when a professional service has been contracted for property upkeep.


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