AT ROBSON COMMUNITIES in Sun Lakes, Ariz., the last purchase buyers make in the selections process is as likely to be a prickly pear cactus as plumbing fixtures. Robson built a sister landscape company from scratch five years ago to more fully serve its active adult customers and diversify its market reach. “We did it because Robson Communities is an entrepreneurial company,” says CFO Steve Soriano.

Landscaping offers significant profit potential for builders. Like interior options, a lushly landscaped model home captures the imagination, showing buyers how to make a house more livable with leafy views and well-organized outdoor spaces. Soriano says that of the 1,500 homes Robson closes each year, roughly 25 percent of buyers use its landscape services, parting with $20,000 on average. “We feel there's tremendous opportunity for growth,” he says.

MONEY TREE: Landscaping offers profit potential as buyers spend thousands on upgrades. But outdoor design also presents practical challenges for builders. Whereas paints and appliances are fairly straight-forward, a landscape design must be tailored to fit the site, and the materials are more fragile. Then there's the knowledge gap; design center staff typically can't translate the finer points of, say, Mexican poppies to customers. And for sales agents who just want to close the deal, bringing up garden options can feel like a burden, especially when buyers are already on sensory overload. Still, many builders, particularly those in temperate climates, are creating business models that benefit buyers and the bottom line.

Custom Fit Robson homes, which range in price from $200,000 to $800,000, are sold without plantings. However, the community's architectural review committee requires owners to install landscaping within 90 days of move-in. So although it competes locally for landscape business, the builder enjoys home court advantage and a motivated market.

Designed to be the last stop in the selections process, Robson's landscape sales center occupies the garage of a model home. There, customers can purchase an oasis of shade, color, sound, and scent, all of which are custom-designed by one of four landscape architects who double as sales agents. Buyers with smaller budgets may opt for a water feature, fireplace, or seating wall, or upgrade the standard hard surfaces. Soriano points out that individualized landscape schemes meet the needs of buyers from all over the country. “A guy from Chicago will have different expectations than a guy from California,” he says, adding, “It's a highly personal service. We meet them on the site when the house is under construction. If they decide to go ahead with a landscape, they can roll it into their mortgage even then.”

GREENHOUSE EFFECT: Landscaping beautifies homes and helps builders cultivate an earth-friendly image. In a competitive market—many local landscapers keep prices low by hiring illegal labor—Robson is savvy about suppliers and customer service. It works with a plant broker and a dozen wholesale nurseries to find the best prices. And with a staff of 120 and a construction yard in each community, troubleshooters are always on call. “We've built our business through a positive experience for our customers and a lot of word of mouth,” Soriano says. “On any given street, a quarter of the people use us, so if they're happy, we get the next customers.”

Package Deals When Del Webb opened Sun City Lincoln Hills in California six years ago, it too offered customized gardens for buyers in the active adult community, where 6,800 homes are priced from $400,000 to $550,000. But two years ago the builder decided to streamline operations by selling predesigned plans for the front and rear yards. Soon it will phase out the back yard packages, too. “Buyers want more of a customized back yard,” says Matt Lemos, assistant manager at the design studio in Lincoln Hills. “And we can build cleaner and faster with more of a standardized product.”

Still, Del Webb offers plenty of choices to buyers looking for one-stop shopping. The design center displays a handful of planting designs for each model, plus five hardscape plans for the front of the house and five for the back. Halfway into the house's construction, the sales team prints out CAD drawings of the house with the landscape buyers have purchased to help them visualize how their lot will look. At that point, buyers can add more plants or tweak the plan for a better fit.

While predesigned packages certainly speed construction, Lemos says some customization is necessary to accommodate terrain and lot-size variations. Competition for the work can be tough. “People always feel they can buy a plant for $4 at [The] Home Depot and put it in themselves,” Lemos says. “But then they forget about the warranty and the drip system.” But in an effort to stave off competitors, Del Webb insures the plants for a full year and installs drip irrigation to conserve water.

The hot housing market also contributes to a captive audience. “We're booming so fast, it's hard for people to find someone to put in a landscape after closing,” Lemos says. “The landscape must be complete within 90 days of closing, and our buyers don't need to worry about some guy in a truck not showing up.” Lemos notes that 75 percent of buyers upgrade their gardens, shelling out $12,000 on average for planting plans, larger or more refined hard surfaces, and waterfalls and trellises.