Green with Envy


Painted lawns keep foreclosed properties from browning out

As foreclosures continue to rise, new techniques are being used to keep these vacant properties from becoming a blight on neighborhoods. Painting the lawns is one way to keep up appearances.

The City of Perris, Calif., has hired lawn painting contractors to help improve the appearance of unkempt lawns at foreclosed properties. The innovative effort has made neighbors happy and attracted worldwide media attention.
Photos courtesy of Joe Vargo/city of Perris, Calif., unless otherwise noted.

David Milligan, a former landscape contractor and currently owner of Alliance Environmental and Compliance in Murrieta, Calif., got into the lawn painting business when one of his neighbor’s homes went into foreclosure. “It was something like a $700,000 house, and they just walked away from it,” he says. The result was an uncared-for, browned-out lawn that became an eyesore. “There was a rash of foreclosures all around the area,” he adds. “I was talking with the code enforcement person, and she told me that if I could figure out how to make those lawns green, I could make a million dollars. That got me thinking.”

Milligan talked over the problem with the landscape supply company in town, and they had a product called Green Longer, a dye used mostly on golf courses, that they suggested he try. “I got a gallon, came home, made the mix and tried it out on the foreclosure next to me,” he recalls. “The other neighbors thought I was out of my mind. The first coat didn’t look too good, but after a second coat everyone started to get excited, because it looked great.”

Sensing a business opportunity, Milligan formed a small division ( within his company to rehab and paint foreclosed lawns. In the summer of 2009, he was approached by the city of Perris, Calif., also hard-hit by foreclosures, to transform the grass at those abandoned homes. The resulting efforts in that location attracted national and international media attention, with film crews from Fox News, ABC News and even a German television outlet, as well as reporters from the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers to document the lawns being painted.

Those who have had success painting lawns advise that it’s important to choose the right paint/dye in order to ensure long-lasting results and meet environmental rules and regulations. The proper type of sprayer is also needed, along with a large tank of water.

The cost of the service was about $500, paid for by the city, but then recouped once each property was eventually sold. “This is a great program, and it’s particularly good because it doesn’t cost us a cent in the long run,” explained Perris City Councilman Al Landers. “We did not start the home foreclosure situation, but we are taking the lead to address it in a creative and forthright manner. I think that is why our efforts have garnered national and international recognition and praise.”

Milligan painted about 75 homes for the city, and the media attention resulted in more work, but also more competitors. “Suddenly, people started coming out of the woodwork, they all claimed they could do it, and do it for less,” he explains. Like any business, there were those who took shortcuts in order to come in with a lower price. “We’re heavily insured, uniformed and a true, professional company. These other guys were just clowns with pickups. We took the time to cover sidewalks and driveways and houses with plastic so we didn’t spray them with the paint,” says Milligan.

In addition to making browned-out lawns immediately look better, Milligan said the lawn painting tended to have longer-term benefits for the neighborhood, as well. “Once others on the street saw us show up with the code enforcement personnel, and watched what we were doing, they followed suit. Within a week or two, you could see they had begun to mow their lawns more regularly or hire a lawn maintenance firm, and the whole street would start to look better. It was really good to see.”

Milligan says even when the foreclosure crisis subsides, there still may be a market for lawn painting services on city medians and other high-visibility areas. “The challenge is that when everyone is worrying about water use and they stop irrigating, eventually the grass will die and you’ll lose your base for painting. It would be better to limit irrigation to a couple times a week. The grass will turn yellow, but that’s OK because we can make it green again. You need grass that’s alive, though.”

Nick Terlouw founded Greener Grass Co. in September 2007 when he realized that his town, Stockton, Calif., had one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates. “I was watching a football game, and wondered how they painted the end zones. Stockton was number one in the nation in foreclosures at the time, so I thought there might be demand for that here,” he says.

He already owned a pressure washing/window washing business, and he researched biodegradable, environmentally friendly lawn paints. “I had to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations in order to put paint on the grass. There are strict codes you have to abide by,” he says. “For example, the paint has to be permanent, so it doesn’t wash off into storm drains.” He settled on paint from Gempler’s, as well as an orchard sprayer to deliver the paint, which was mounted on a trailer to make the whole system portable.

The next step was to market the service. “I know a lot of realtors in town, so I got ahold of one of them,” says Terlouw. “He was selling a foreclosed house, so I talked him into cleaning up and painting the lawn in order to make the property more attractive.” That landed him on the cover of the local newspaper. Terlouw appeared on a number of local television stations, as well as the national CBS Evening News. “Painting lawns was a concept that nobody had ever heard of, so there was a lot of interest,” he says.

That type of publicity led to calls from local homeowners’ associations and other realtors, as well as the city of Stockton. Homes that had been vacated and found to be in violation of code for the condition of the lawn were first cleaned up by city crews and then painted by Terlouw. He said that, depending on the weather, the paint jobs last about four to six weeks—in the winter much longer. In the beginning, he covered adjoining sidewalks and driveways, but eventually got so skilled with the spray gun that the prep work could be eliminated. “In the winter, demand dies down a little, because you can’t paint wet lawns. In the summer, the demand is strong,” he explained.

Terlouw has never had a problem getting paid by realtors or the city, and, after some growing pains, has found the work to be profitable. (For example, he originally charged by the square foot, but found the billing to be far too complicated, so he now operates on a flat-price basis.) He’s even started consulting with others around the country interested in starting their own lawn painting operations.

Perhaps painting lawns is a perfect fit in California, or it may be a passing trend. Terlouw, for one, feels that a lawn painting business can only succeed in an area where foreclosure rates are high. “Like any business you start up, you have to do your homework first. You don’t want to just jump into it. If you think it’s easy and you’ll just make a ton of money, it won’t work. You have to find out how it works and how to market it. I did a lot of things wrong in the beginning, because I didn’t know.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.