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The first house my husband and I bought looked like a dud. On a corner lot in an old Florida neighborhood, the ficus hedge that surrounded the property was thin, gangly, and well over 12 feet high. Someone's great idea of using areca palms as foundation plants grew into a ridiculous mistake -- the mature, feathery palms now obscured the windows and masked any incoming sunlight.

The grass was blotchy with brown spots; a hardy, weedlike plant had taken over a third of the back yard; a peculiar 3-foot-square cement cube sat in the side yard; and the small Mediterranean house itself probably had the same coat of dirty beige paint it got in the 1920's.

For the sellers, the exterior was a big black mark; it prevented them from asking a higher price. For us, it was love at first sight; we knew the cosmetic needs, which weren't going to be terribly expensive, would make a huge difference in the appeal of the home.

But a house's appearance doesn't just matter when it comes to buying and selling. It makes a statement about what kind of homeowner, and what kind of neighbor, you are. Most of us go through times when our homes aren't as perfect as we'd like -- we're away on vacation or you're refurbishing a little bit at a time. But if you leave your home looking disheveled for more than a month or so (whether leaving a broken-down refrigerator in your back yard or ignoring waist-high weeds in the swale), you're broadcasting that you don't really don't care -- about your neighbors, your neighborhood, your house or yourself.

Dumpy looking homes bring down property values not just for you, but for the people surrounding you. It also creates plenty of ill will from neighbors who can't understand why you don't seed the lawn so dirt stops blowing in their windows or those who are sick of looking at your nonfunctioning "junk" car right outside their kitchen window.

Is your home's exterior a clue to the real you? Find out now:

  • Is the house in good shape -- no peeling paint, no tired colors, no missing shutters, no broken windows?
  • Is your front door inviting -- with the door painted a welcoming color, a welcome mat below, and potted plants or landscaping that pull people in?
  • Is your house number clearly displayed? That not only helps the pizza delivery guy, but it also aids police and fire/rescue personnel in finding your house quickly in an emergency. If your house number blends into the walls or door, paint it or change it to a contrasting color. If you haven't done so already, stencil your house number in black paint on the white curb in front of your home, if you have one.
  • Do you care about your yard? If you don't like yard work, buy a condominium or choose a community with an association that handles it for you. Or hire a lawn service or teenager to do the dirty work. Otherwise, at a minimum, commit to keeping your lawn mowed regularly, the sidewalks edged (free of encroaching grass), and the grass watered. Ideally, you'll put some thought into your landscaping. Specialists at home and garden centers often will consult on a personalized plan for free, allowing you to add drama (or at least cohesiveness) to your yard a little at a time or all at once. If weeding flower beds isn't your idea of a great Saturday afternoon, ask about native plants that don't need as much attention as annuals.
  • Have you put the kibosh on clutter? Don't use your yard as a storage area. Get a shed or use your garage or basement. If you can't shield larger items like campers or boats with landscaping and attractive fences, store them elsewhere.
  • Have you shined light on your pride and joy? Exterior lighting not only helps ward off burglars, it makes a home seem more inviting. Choose attractive fixtures above your garage and by your front door. Install lighting along walkways, edging plant beds, or pointed toward an architectural detail of your home. The latest solar lights -- just push them into the dirt and you're done -- make it simple.

These details really make a difference in your house, its value, and the way your neighbors feel about you. And they also make it more than just a structure; they make it a pleasant, comforting place to come home to.

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