Rolling hills look majestic in photographs, but when it comes to your own property lot, most people would prefer a nice flat yard. Dramatic changes in elevation can make it difficult to maintain the grass or even create a safety hazard. So when you’re selling a house with a sloped backyard, it’s natural to stress over how buyers will perceive it.
“I had a house about a year ago with a sloped backyard, and I told the sellers that was going to be a challenge. When you walked outside, you had maybe a hundred yards, and then it went straight up,” says Valerie Hunter-Kelly, a single-family homes expert serving the Clarksville, Tennessee, area.
Your sloped backyard might feel as imposing as a mountain, but a buyer with the right mindset can view it in a positive light. What if you could help them see the landscaping potential, the sledding hill, or that you’ve addressed any and all drainage issues? We’ve got tips for how to do that and more so that your sloped-yard doesn’t get in the way of your sale.
Consider the unique advantages of the slope
A sloped yard offers several advantages. Although a buyer who foresees putting a playset in the yard could disagree, others will look at that slope and imagine the exercise, among other possibilities.
“It’s a great workout for somebody being able to jog or run up and down and walk up and down that yard,” Hunter-Kelly says.
She’s also had clients who love their slopes for the view and seasonal activities.
“When the weather gets crazy, one of the things they tell me is, ‘We love our hilly backyard. It’s a great place for sledding.’”
Jack Zunino, a landscape architect since 1980 and owner of JW Zunino Landscape Architecture in Las Vegas, Nevada, has built retaining walls, vegetable gardens, English box gardens, or flower gardens for clients with sloped property.
“We don’t look at slopes as being a nuisance as much as we try to turn them into something that’s an enhancement to your site,” he says.
Some clients like a “constant slope that rolls off into the distance,” similar to a golf course, he says. Others enjoy tiered planters with railroad ties embedded to prevent erosion.
One client had a yard that extended flat for about 20 feet and then sloped upward about 25 feet, which puzzled Zunino at first. But the client had envisioned just what he wanted: meandering stairs, a midway area with seating and a deck, and a Jacuzzi on top.
“We turned it into a really cool project,” Zunino says. “The Jacuzzi sits up high, so he has views over the whole neighborhood.”
Address drainage issues head on
Now that you know the potential of a sloped yard, let’s gather some facts about your yard’s topography.
First, what’s the grade? This isn’t like a letter on a report card. Rather, the grade is how the land slopes for drainage. If you’ve lived in your home during any precipitation, you already know if water rushes down the slope toward your home. (If not, then drainage isn’t a problem.)
To avoid water seeping into your home, the ground around your house should slope away in all directions, dropping at least two to three inches every ten feet, according to The Toro Company, an outdoor environment, landscaping, and maintenance company since 1914.
The U.S. General Services Administration recommends a 2% minimum slope, or a ratio of 3:1 for easy maintenance in planted areas.
A drainage system such as a French drain at the bottom of the slope that pipes water to the street is one way to handle any drainage issue, Zunino says.
You also could have the lawn regraded, which can be costly based on how steep the slope of your yard is. A lawn with steep downward turns or dramatic slopes requires more effort and money than one that needs a slight resurfacing. HomeAdvisor estimates that resloping a lawn costs anywhere from $400 to $5,000, with a national average of $1,925, because of how slopes can vary.
Even if you’ve never had a drainage issue, Hunter-Kelly recommends getting a pre-listing home inspection to eliminate buyers’ concerns about sitting water, flooding, or water damage. “That’s a big thing we look at, whether it’s a flat yard or a slope in our area,” she says.
How steep is the slope?
Knowing how steep the slope is can help plan your landscaping. The steeper the grade, the more likely you’ll need steps or tiered planters, for instance, to help visitors climb from bottom to top.
A landscape architect or designer can help you measure this, or you can try your hand at it if you’re comfortable with math, says Amy Fedele, a gardener whose blog, Pretty Purple Door, has been featured in Country Living magazine and other publications. You’ll need plant stakes, nylon rope or twine, a line level, and measuring tape.
- Place one stake in the ground at the highest point of your yard. Place another at the lowest.
- Connect the stakes by tying the rope or twine between them.
- Slide the rope or twine down on the highest stake and up on the lowest stake until you have a level line.
- Measure the height from the ground to the string on the bottom stake. This is the “rise.”
- Measure the distance between the stakes. This is the “run.”
- Divide the rise by the run to determine the slope. Multiply by 100 to convert into a percentage if necessary.
Anything steeper than 15 to 20 degrees will be difficult to mow. Lawn experts say that you should never mow a slope greater than 20 degrees with a walk-behind mower, or greater than 15 degrees on a riding mower. Even when mowing side to side (across the hill) instead of from a high to low point, hills can cause a loss of traction.
If the yard is that steep, let your real estate agent know so that they can advise buyers they’ll likely need a lawn care professional for upkeep.
How to make a sloped backyard appealing to buyers
If you live in a hilly area, buyers might expect some slope to the yard, making it less of an obstacle than you might think. Here are a few other ways a sloped backyard can be appealing to buyers:
1. Landscape it for aesthetics and erosion
A good landscaper will know how to work with the grade of your property, Zunino says. Beyond any concerns about drainage or erosion, the rest is up to you. A “meadowy look” with rolling hills can be soothing, he says.
So can formal planting beds or box gardens designed with places for seating. “Design it so it picks up the slope instead of imagining it as something flat,” he says.
Hunter-Kelly recalls several homeowners with sloped yards adding tiers of landscaping, including a pond, wildflowers, and sunflowers. The arrays looked lovely through the home’s rear windows.
A terraced backyard that includes several flat sections of differing heights can range from $1,000 to $10,000. The average cost is about $3,800 depending on grading, retaining walls, sod removal, and other labor.
But a garden isn’t your only option. You could install a cascading water feature such as a waterfall with paths and walkways, notes Paradise Restored Landscaping and Exterior Design of Portland, Oregon, a landscape design company since 1995.
A large sloped yard also allows for different levels of outdoor living, so to speak, where you can separate a grill and a seating area from a more secluded portion with a spa, these landscape designers say.
2. Work with your agent to sell the possibilities
If you don’t want to take on such a landscaping project because you’re concerned about the return on investment, talk with your agent about virtual staging.
Hunter-Kelly works with a virtual staging company, which has presented her with images of redesigned yards so that potential buyers can picture what they might look like.
“We can even go so far as to get estimates from somebody to do that, so then they know that upfront: … This is what it would cost to have a backyard like the one we’ve virtually staged.”
3. Gauge whether it’s really a problem — and price it right
Let potential buyers address whether the sloped backyard is an issue, Hunter-Kelly suggests. If they like everything else about the house, then she asks what they had in mind for the yard.
It may not work for them if they’re eager for a flat space for their pets or children to play. “But if it’s just something that we can help them dream of what it would look like with their lifestyle, then that’s what we focus on more.”
That’s where staging, advice about lawn care, and a fair price can help.
“When you know that’s going to be a challenge, address the challenge head-on,” she says. Let’s say the market analysis says the price should be $200,000. She might price it at $190,000 or $195,000 if few buyers have been interested.
“People are willing to trade off what could be considered a challenging thing for them because they’re getting a better price than they would on another house,” she says. With the money saved on the purchase, they’re more likely to invest in redoing the yard the way they want.
She also ensures that the interior is “immaculate” so they won’t add in the cost of other improvements as well.
Lastly, if you’re selling a house with a sloped backyard, talk up why you bought the house in the first place. Don’t forget to include the good times you’ve had in the yard, as well as any lawn care tips to help your agent in crafting the best pitch.
“I always ask sellers when they have a challenge, ‘What made you buy this house?’ If they bought it, somebody else is going to buy it also,” Hunter-Kelly says.
Your happy experiences could be just what a buyer needs to hear to get over that hurdle.
Header Image Source: (Scott Webb / Unsplash)