Balancing the Scales: How to Achieve Harmonious Split Level Landscaping for Better Curb Appeal

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“No one wants to go look at 30 houses anymore. They want to go see five and pick one. Don’t be eliminated because you didn’t do the easy fixes,” says Ashley Luther, a top-selling real estate agent in Nashville area.

The stakes for curb appeal are already high with 99% of Realtors agreeing your yard and home exterior need a refresh before you put up the for-sale sign. As a seller, you must make your property enticing for those driving by or viewing your home online, otherwise you risk them moving onto the next listing without giving yours any notice.

Throw in a split-level to the curb appeal mix and things get more complicated.

Landscaping a split-level home requires special planning you don’t have to think about with a single-level. It calls for different considerations when it comes to drainage, and because a split-level looks different from the street, it even means you’ll get to put that high-school geometry knowledge to use.

HomeLight chatted with a landscape architect with 35 years of experience and a vetted real estate agent who’s sold every type of property in the book. We also consulted dozens of articles on landscaping websites like Landscaping Network and Architectural Digest. Let’s walk through why split-level curb appeal is different and several ways to make your unique home attractive to buyers—whether it’s from the street or the Zillow listing.

When you’re putting in landscaping on your split-level house…

Make drainage your no. 1 priority

Split-level brick home on a hill with curb appeal.
Source (resized): (Aqua Mechanical/ Flickr via Creative Commons Legal Code)

After it rains or post-sprinkler session, where does that water go? While your focus as you landscape might be on steps and pretty flowers, professionals are thinking about drainage and grading as their top issues. This is true for any yard, but a much more serious concern for split-level yards.

If water pools against a wall of your home, or drains into your basement window, you’re in for bigger problems than just unsightly puddles.

According to the Land Development Handbook: “Proper grading prevents wet basements, damp crawl spaces, foundation damage, eroding hillsides and muddy stream waters.” Water damage—when it happens—is prolific and expensive to fix.

Tracey Adams, landscape architect of Duo Design Group, which has been designing landscapes in the Phoenix, Arizona, area for 20 years, recommends hiring a professional to make sure the water aspects are handled correctly. “Grading and properly handling the water is not something you can guess at,” she says.

Plan for some hardscape

Split-level landscaping is likely to need more than just plants and flowers. Depending on the grading of your yard, you may need a retaining wall to properly contain the higher level, terraces, placement of boulders to retain soil, or outdoor stairs to transition from one level to the next. Consider University of Nevada’s suggestions for analyzing your grade and stabilizing steep slopes.

Any time there is a significant grade change, plan on some increased costs to add walls, drain pipe, stairs, and other hardscape items.

The Better Homes and Gardens’ Network suggests adding visual interest and slope functionality with a mortared retaining wall built from recycled concrete, brick or stone.

Stabilize the slopes

Depending on the slope of the yard, homeowners might be able to get away without hardscaping, however for slopes 3:1 or greater, you’ll need various means of slope stabilization.

Plants that are good for soil stabilization include large trees with extensive root systems and low plants that provide ground cover.

Find plants that are native to your area with a Google search. Conservation societies often have lists of stabilizing plans available for download. For example: Here is a list for Western Washington and another for California.

In addition to stabilizing plants, soil retention fabrics (like these from Agricultural Solutions) can help keep dirt from sliding and eroding.

Before you put your split-level house up for sale…

Do general yard maintenance

This is a necessary task for every home about to go on the market, but is particularly important for split-level homes where debris has the opportunity to collect in extra nooks and crannies, and the landscaping tends to look messier, faster.

Adams warns sellers to avoid the “hodgepodge” look. Don’t just add flowers, she says. Luther adds to this idea: make the home photo ready.

Consider how your home will look in photographs—for example, you would not want garbage piled up in the trashcan in the corner of your pictures, or scooters strewn across the driveway.

Through the winter it’s easy to neglect home maintenance but mind the season! Luther says overlooking simple things because it’s winter time is often a home seller’s biggest mistake. If there are no leaves on the trees and the grass is brown, those little touches (like the garbage and the deck) make it feel fresh. Don’t skip them.

Plant tall trees in the corners

A split-level home can feel very tall from the street—almost like an optical illusion. To balance it out, plant some tall trees on each corner to minimize the height of the home. Luther suggests well-groomed evergreen varieties such as Arborvitae or Cryptomeria.

This helps balance out the height, so your home looks more like HGTV and less like a house out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Soften the transition between levels

Landscaping in front of split-level home with curb appeal.
Source (resized): (Nyttend/ Wikimedia Commons)

Soften the transition between the two levels with cascading plants from a flower bed and out over the retaining wall. SFGate, the home improvement section of sister publication to the San Francisco Chronicle, recommends Sweet Potato Vine or Creeping Thyme.

Leave no part untended (don’t forget about the basement!)

Landscaping on the side of split-level house.
Source (resized): (Cole Camplese/ Flickr via Creative Commons Legal Code)

If a home has a basement window, it’s very close to ground level, and homeowners often to forget to landscape in front of it. Put a low-lined juniper or some azaleas that won’t cover it all but will give some visual interest, says Luther.

Make sure the front of house is completely landscaped, including the corner where the garage is. Don’t leave voids.

Flank the staircase with plants to minimize the focus on steps

Split-level house on hill with landscaping to increase curb appeal.
Source (resized): (Lebuert / Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Legal Code)

Stairs can scare potential homebuyers. Whether because of mobility concerns or just being overwhelmed with the idea of kids and heavy backpacks and hauling groceries. If you have a lot of stairs, flank the staircase with shrubs or trees to soften their look.

Luther suggests cypress to minimize the number of stairs seen from the street.

See your split-level house with fresh eyes: from the viewpoint of a homebuyer

Split-level house with landscaping in front to create curb appeal.
Source (resized): (Briget Murphy/ Flickr via Creative Commons Legal Code)

As a homeowner, it’s hard to consider what your house might look like to someone else. You love this house and you have so many memories of playing catch in the front yard and having dance parties in the living room.

But take a step back and think about the house as a prospective buyer. Wander out to the street and take a look at it as if YOU were driving by it for the first time. If you were going to rebuy your house today, what would be objectionable? What do you like and not like? Be objective and then address these things on the front end.

Make simple, inexpensive front door curb appeal fixes

There are a few easy, inexpensive fixes everyone can do. Whether you live in a split-level, a single level… or a shoe.

Paint the front door. No one is welcomed by grime and chips out of the front door. Give it a quick coat of paint.

Mulch. Fresh mulch shows the house is taken care of. Go with whatever type—black, brown, pinestraw, pea gravel—is customary in your area. Just make sure whatever you choose, it’s fresh.

If you’re stuck on where to start, here are some of our favorite brands of mulch you can find in Home Depot:

Put out a new doormat. Don’t ruin a beautiful porch with dingy doormat. And don’t let your doormat give hints about pets. If a viewer walks in on a mat that says “wipe your paws” but they’ve got allergies, they might turn around and leave before you ever get them inside. Luther recommends an oversized jute mat.

You knew when you bought this house it was unique. Be sure to give it the attention essential for split-level homes to reach their curb appeal potential. Ask an agent for more tips for prepping your home to sell.