If you're trying to buy a home, you know you have to be aware of all the ways issues with a home can be covered up. One way to get some great clues about the house is to take a closer look at the landscaping. While the immediate curb appeal might look great, a more detailed look will tell you whether the house is worth considering further.
Sometimes the evaluation is rather easy. If a home has poorly kept landscaping, and if there are no extenuating circumstances (such as the homeowner working so many jobs that he or she just couldn't handle the landscaping, or a drought resulting in brown patches on the lawn), a poor landscape is an indication that the current homeowner might not have cared that much about the house.
What constitutes well-kept landscaping varies from person to person, so don't worry about little things like a bit of scruffy lawn here and there, a shrub that rambles a little more than it should, and so on. But do be cautious if the lawn is totally overgrown, if flowers do not look like they have been deadheaded, and if the landscaping in general looks like it hasn't been touched in weeks or months. That's an indication you need to really have the house inspected well (if the homeowner didn't take care of the lawn, did he or she take care of the house?) and get a separate landscaping inspection before agreeing to buy.
It's common real-estate strategy to spruce up landscaping on homes for sale. Seeing a landscape that looks very fresh is not unusual. If the landscape looks too fresh, though, like the entire thing was redone in the past month or two, that's when you should wonder. If the garden, even the trees, look new, that gives you no idea of how plants really handle the soil in the yard. Older plants that look healthy show that either the soil is good or that it's possible to amend the soil to let plants thrive. An entirely new landscape is a hint that you'll need to get the soil tested as part of the landscape and home inspections to see what you'll be dealing with.
Large trees and shrubs can be beautiful, but they can also block light and be potential nightmares for the home's foundation. Look at plant placement in the yards. Trees should not be right up against the house, and shrubs and other smaller plants should also have a few inches of space between them and the walls of the home. Plants that are too close can result in mold or mildew growing on the side of the house.
When you have the landscape inspected, ask specifically about the sprinkler system, if there is one, as well as the slope of the landscape. Installations and grading that are not to code indicate the house itself might not be up to code either.
If you live in an area with specific environmental issues—quakes, wildfires, and so on—look at how the homeowner has arranged the landscape to deal with those issues. For example, if you're looking at a home in California that sits at the edge of a canyon, look at whether the homeowners of the home you're looking at, plus the owners of the homes on either side, have cleared away the required defensible space to protect the homes from brushfires that start in the canyon.
Looking at these issues yourself does not take the place of either a landscape inspection or a home inspection, but they can save you the trouble of arranging for those if what you find is truly questionable. Your real-estate agent can help you check out the yard when you take an initial look at homes for sale.