This article is the third in our four-part series exploring the ways that the natural setting of a community affects its desirability, attracts residents, and sustains value over time. To gather the most informed opinions for this Q&A style set of articles, we’ve been contacting experienced real estate professionals who work, and sometimes live, in these areas.
This installment focuses on the distinctive topography and landscapes of Great Falls. Since this an enormous area of some twenty-five square miles, we can’t possibly cover every detail. But we will do our best to present the highlights that make Great Falls communities so attractive to home buyers.
Here is what Jane and Dianne had to say in answer to our questions:
Are there aesthetic attributes built into the landscape/topography of an area that add value?
Jane Phillips: The most obvious features in Great Falls are the old growth trees that line the winding roads. That creates a rural vibe despite being so close to DC. Great Falls tends to be a bit more open as you head west, not as hilly and rocky as areas closer to the Potomac River.
Dianne Van Volkenburg: A lot of buyers are attracted to a road with twists and bends in it, and topography with rolling hills. That type of setting is associated with value aesthetically. It speaks to them on a sensory level. Whereas, a flat, straight road isn’t talking to them. For example, there are a couple of subdivisions done by the same builder (Gulick) that have the same style of house in them. One subdivision, Autumn Wood, has rolling hills. The other, Grovemont, is flat. I see many more buyers gravitate towards Autumn Wood just because of the topography.
Do constructed elements such as the shape/size of lots, positioning of homes on the lot, or the layout of streetscapes affect desirability and value?
Dianne: If a lot is long and shallow, some people will pass on it even if the house is gorgeous. But I’ve also seen someone buy that type of house and, with a good landscape architect, turn what some see as a negative into something really appealing. If you are buying a vacant lot, the layout of that lot is even more important. What it abuts to or if it has trees in the yard—that makes a big difference.
Jane: The positioning of homes on a lot can have a big impact on both desirability and value. The angle in which a developer orients a home impacts light, and its position in relation to other houses in the neighborhood impacts privacy and sightlines. Most of the lots in Great Falls are large, many more than five acres. However, I recently sold a home that was just over a quarter acre. Although small by Great Falls standards, it was an easy walk to River Bend Park with ten miles of running trails. Proximity to a park can offer the advantage of a large lot and wooded property without having to maintain it.
Is the greenscape of a neighborhood a factor in the decision to buy an individual home in it?
Jane: Many buyers are attracted to established neighborhoods with surrounding hardwoods. The natural greenscape is very important. Some homes have river views and access to river trails. That’s invaluable.
Dianne: It makes a big difference. Buyers always want to see that a community is well-kept, has trees, and lush lawns.
From your observations of how buyers react, what makes a great neighborhood?
Jane: I think a great neighborhood has a balance of privacy and connection. Many Great Falls neighborhoods have informal organizations where neighbors cooperatively get together to solve neighborhood issues and also to encourage a sense of community. Being relatively close to a village center such as the Village Green is also a plus. In addition to shops and restaurants, it is a place for concerts, and Halloween and Fourth of July events, and other gatherings.
Dianne: The Finger Lakes community has ponds and great topography with rolling hills and curvy roads. I’ve never taken a buyer into that community who hasn’t fallen in love with it. And there is South Down, the horse community. Everybody likes that. It has large open fields for horses. It’s tranquil.
Does the landscaping of individual homes in a neighborhood help to “sell” the overall community experience?
Dianne: That always helps. Anytime an owner has done more and taken their basic landscaping to the next level, it makes the surrounding properties more valuable, more desirable. It gives the sense that there is pride of ownership.
Jane: People want to be surrounded by homes that are at least as nice as theirs. In addition to influencing property value, there is an emotional impact — homeowners want to look out on attractive surroundings.
For individual homes, which is more important to a buyer: front yard landscaping or backyard?
Dianne: Regardless of neighborhood, once you hit $1.5M there is a high expectation of amenities in the yard and outdoor living space. In the $900’s to $1.3M, homes that have the screened-in porch or patio and fireplace—those homes sell fastest.
Jane: I think the backyard is probably a bit more important to many buyers. We’re seeing more outdoor kitchens and extensive backyard hardscaping. And for buyers with children, the backyard is usually a key feature on their checklist.
What are your favorite Great Falls neighborhoods? Why do you like them?
Jane: I really love the area close to Colvin Run Mill. There are a number of small clusters of houses close to the historic mill and park, and the homes are easily accessible to Route 7 and Tysons Corner.
Dianne: Aside from Finger Lakes, I’d say Cornwell Farm for its low density, five-acre lots, privacy, and seclusion. You feel that seclusion when you drive into the community because it’s at the end of a private road. People don’t know it’s there, but once you get into it you see the expanse of open fields, and at every turn, you see beautiful houses on large lots with beautiful landscaping. And the location: It’s further east, closer to DC, and has great access to Georgetown Pike.
Great Falls is an area that is blessed with natural features that home buyers find attractive: woodlands, rolling hills, winding country roads, and open expanses of farm fields. It also has preserved large tracts of native landscape in public parkland near the Potomac River. There are a fair number of homes that are set back from the main roads on long private driveways. But it isn’t all country roads and secluded homes. As you drive, you’ll find places where suddenly it’s suburban for a moment and then it’s not. And the terrain changes significantly as you go west away from the steep, rocky hills bordering the Potomac. The landscape levels out and opens up to views of the foothills of the Appalachians in the distance.
If you’d like to find out more about how natural topography influences the quality of life in communities and neighborhoods, read the previous two installments in this series: The Landscape of Neighborhood and Community in Potomac and The Landscapes of Aspirational Neighborhoods featuring Chevy Chase.
And if you’d like to get some ideas for beautifying and bringing balance to your property, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.