Don’t underestimate the lure of the open road. As landscape architecture becomes more important in home design, some homeowners are taking their driveway the extra mile.
Elegant tree allées become part of the architecture. Forks in the road are avenues for entertaining and for art displays. Winding turns can obscure a nosy neighbor’s view.
But appraisers say that building a long and pricey road to your door doesn’t always pay off at resale time.
Last year, 670 million square feet of residential driveway was laid for new homes in the U.S., according to Home Innovation Research Labs, an independent subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders. That figure is up nearly 80% from 2009, when the market was just recovering from the downturn.
The average length of a luxury driveway last year was 71 feet, the group said. Construction expenses can vary greatly by region, but remodeling site HomeAdvisor says gravel costs about $1.50 a square foot, high-end pavers about $15 a square foot. That doesn’t include landscaping or high-tech add-ons like hidden snowmelt systems, which can run about $25 a square foot.
In Solvang, Calif., a wine-country town in the Santa Ynez Valley, Steve Raftopoulos considers his driveway part of the architecture. His 6,574-square-foot modern mission-style home has an 800-foot approach road that begins with an 80-foot bridge overlooking vineyards and the Santa Ynez mountains. The chip-seal gravel road, a mix of asphalt and crushed limestone, is lined with 80 Italian cypress trees to match the rectilinear style of the home.
Designed by his sister Elizabeth Raftopoulos, the home and driveway were sited using feng shui principles. The road curves around the house; Mr. Raftopoulos and his family fish in the pond nearby. Completed in 2013, the 25-acre project cost $6 million, including land and construction—about 15% of which was dedicated to the road, pond and landscaping.
The home is now listed for $7.495 million. “It’s that panache factor,” says listing agent Sharon Currie, about the meandering drive, which she says can make or break a buyer’s decision before they see the home. Mr. Raftopoulos, a retired investment banker who started a Greek herbal-tea company called Klio, is selling because he spends more time at a Santa Barbara home and would like to start a smaller project.
Appraisers say driveways affect resale value, though the exact contribution is hard to measure. “You don’t wear a suit with a big ink stain on the front pocket,” says Michael Hobbs, owner of PahRoo Appraisal & Consultancy in Chicago, noting that shabby roadways can detract from the sales price.
Homeowners are paying attention to their surroundings. In a national survey of its members, the American Society of Landscape Architects reported that 81% of respondents saw stable or growing demand for work in the first quarter this year, much of it in residential projects. That is in line with the past two years and significantly higher than the same period in 2013, when 59.5% of firms reported the same.
Sometimes, real-estate agents explicitly pitch the driveway as a selling point. In the Beverly Hills post office area of Los Angeles, Lacey and John Williams are selling a 2½-acre double-lot property near Sunset Boulevard for $17.5 million. The two homes on the property, built in the 1920s, will almost certainly be demolished, says listing agent Ben Bacal of Rodeo Realty.
Until then, prospective buyers can admire the roughly 200-foot gated driveway surrounded by olive, lemon and palm trees, and blooms of plumbago flowers.
You would swear you’re in the middle of the jungle,” says Ms. Williams, 59, who is retired from a modeling agency. Mr. Bacal says a driveway of this length is unusual for the area and appeals to developers looking for privacy close to a major city hub.
The winding road is part of the sales pitch for Mr. Levin’s Stowe, Vt., compound. “It’s a bit of a magic show,” says listing agent Wade Weathers Jr. of LandVest. “The whole [ride into] the property is an event.”
Mr. Levin and his wife, photographer Petra Levin, bought the property in 1999 for $1.278 million and then spent years transforming the space into a family retreat with features like a minigolf course, a life-size chess board and trails for go-karting and snowmobiles.
The $5 million spent on landscaping and the driveway was just the start: Mr. Levin estimates spending $30 million on the property, including the home, an underground art gallery, photography studio and thousands of trees and shrubs.
Mr. Levin, former chairman of Gold Coast Beverage Distributors, acknowledges that, at $12.5 million, they are selling the home for far less than they put into it, but that his family enjoyed the compound. They are selling now that the children are grown.
Alan Wilzig, on the other hand, built a souped-up roadway to please his inner child. The ¼-mile driveway at his 275-acre property in Taghkanic, N.Y., detours onto a 1.15-mile, 40-foot-wide professional racing circuit.
Mr. Wilzig, 51, a semiprofessional race car driver and former bank chairman, built the Grand Prix track in 2010 at a cost of roughly $7.5 million—roughly half of the $15 million cost for the property. It can’t be rented for commercial use, limiting its ability to defray its cost.
To the average buyer, “one can say it’s a detriment” to devote so much space to the track, Mr. Wilzig says, but he says he uses it whenever he stays at the property. Although he lives in New York City, he hopes to move full time to his Taghkanic home by the end of the year to be closer to his children.
Should he decide to sell, though, he has his pitch: “What better place is there to teach your 16-year-old how to drive?”