Home prices throughout Southern California continue to fall. The median price paid for new and resold Southland houses and condos last month was $280,000, down 8.2% from a year earlier and the largest drop since September 2009. Don’t even look at home prices toward the end of 2007, when the average Southern California home was going for $500,000.

If a prospective buyer looked at your house today, what would they see? A weedy lawn, a maintenance and water headache, some big boring shrubs that look like they might swallow the car? When on your property would they have a clear view to a neighbor’s equally hideous scene? Maybe worse, would the neighbors be looking into your home’s windows?

According to research by MONEY magazine, “not all improvements will increase the value of a house by the amount they cost to perform.” But landscaping, MONEY concluded, had a return on investment of 100% to 200%. Compare this return to 75-125% for a kitchen remodel, 80-120% for a bathroom, and 20-50% for a swimming pool. According to a Gallup poll, homeowners felt that landscaping “adds almost 15% to the value of their property.”

Yes, landscaping is a good investment – a very good investment. Sell your stocks – buy plants.

According to research, “not all improvements will increase the value of a house by the amount they cost to perform.” But landscaping, had a return on investment of 100% to 200%.

Landscaping to raise your home’s value might require a slightly different approach. You are essentially landscaping for other people’s tastes — namely, the tastes of potential home buyers. With this in mind, it is important that your decisions not be arbitrary, or overly personalized. This is not the time to get in touch with your inner self. In making a $50,000 decision about a stock investment, you’d want hard, objective facts to guide you, right? You wouldn’t buy a stock because of a personal interest or because you liked what they sold. At the least, you would get expert opinions and advice, wouldn’t you? You should do the same research and ask for some sage advice from an expert when tackling your landscape as well.

Research indicates that a spiffy landscape design increased real estate values more than anything else, by an average of 7% to 15%. For the sake of this exercise let’s use the 15% number, even though it’s on the high end. For a home valued in the $500,000 – $750,000 range, an effective landscaping design could add $75,000 to well over $100,000 to its value. Wow! How often do you get to make a $100,000 decision? Get the idea? Your home landscape investment amounts to one of the major decisions in your life.

How do you determine how much of an investment to make into our landscape? Most experts say about 10% of the home’s value, but the first step is to do a thorough analysis and a preliminary plan. The analysis considers your intentions: Do you plan to sell fairly soon, or do you plan to settle down for a few years? How do you want to use your outdoor spaces? Do you want to reduce your heating and cooling bills? What about maintenance costs?

If you’re selling in a year or less, then cosmetic improvements may be your best investment. Edge the beds and widen those that look too tight. This will make the shrubs seem smaller and the garden larger. Remove any obvious sick looking plants. If you have a lawn, take extra good care of it; start fertilizing regularly, get it weed free and fix any irrigation issues.

Plant some well coordinated color throughout the garden. For as little as 50 cents a plant you can add areas of seasonal flowers like petunias, impatiens, begonias and other annuals that will bloom for months. But also invest in some larger perennials and shrubs. Simply dropping small annuals into an old, dull landscape is like putting lipstick on a pig, it won’t fool anyone. A few good-size plants have more appeal and can make more of an impact to perspective home buyers than 20 little plants that look like they were planted just for them.

Perhaps most important when adding curb appeal quickly is to use plants that coordinate, both with each other and with the rest of the landscape and home. Pink petunias in front of a yellow hibiscus at a Spanish style home with a tile roof won’t add value, just tackiness. But, a deep bed of healthy white petunias, backed by warm colored daylilies and a drift or two of soothing lavender plants will add value.

If you’re aiming to improve the landscape for a sale a few years from now, all the better, since landscaping is the one home improvement that actually appreciates over time.

Start by consulting with an expert, an experienced landscape designer. Like you would consult with a trusted broker or financial planner before making a market investment, your landscape investment deserves the same diligence. Tell them what your goals are and don’t be shy about letting them know that one of the objectives of your landscape expense is to create a healthy return on your investment. You’ll find professional advice well worth the cost.

With home prices continuing to decline, an investment in your home landscape is an important decision. Done properly, you may double the return on your investment. Not many stocks, bonds, mutual funds or t-bills can beat that.

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar