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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - August 30, 2013

Concrete solutions

New materials give old, boring patios a second chance

by Rye Druzin

The 1960s and '70s were known for hippies, political upheaval and a hot Cold War. While these have come and gone, one relic of the era has remained: concrete-slab patios.

Laid thick and wide throughout the back of many ranch-style homes built during the 1960s, these easy-to-maintain concrete-slab patios leave much to be desired. Their drab, gray coloring and lack of individuality have created a challenge for homeowners who want to give their back patios more character while maintaining the functionality and easy upkeep that slabs offer.

Contractors now have many options for homeowners, from custom cutting the concrete to laying down flagstones or pavers.

Stephen Kovacs, the head contractor and CEO of Santa Clara-based Eni-ko Landscaping, has been working with homeowners since 1988 to transform their homes and patios into aesthetically pleasing living spaces. Concrete slabs are a great base for new material as long as it has not cracked, Kovacs said.

"It's already there, it's proved itself, it hasn't cracked," Kovacs said. "The condition of the existing concrete tells you exactly how well the front layer of the concrete is behaving. If it's not (seriously) cracked, if it's a solid piece (then) you are OK to put anything over it because it shouldn't deteriorate in the next 10 to 15 years."

If the concrete is in good condition, flagstone or sandstone can be installed over the slab. These materials cost between $22 and $37 per square foot, making them some of the more expensive options available to homeowners. While the price can be high, both flagstone and sandstone can give a patio a custom feel while disguising that old concrete slab.

Lower-cost options do exist, such as overlaying concrete slabs with concrete pavers. While covering concrete with concrete may seem counter-intuitive, pavers are cast-concrete bricks that come in a multitude of styles and colors. For homeowner Larry Baron of Los Altos, pavers were his choice to cover what he described as his "acres of concrete." Baron, who has owned his home since 1978 and remodeled it in 2011, used pavers from the front of his house to the back to give his house a better look.

"In the back I wanted to carry the same paver theme on the patio," Baron said. "So now there's not one square inch of concrete."

Mass-produced pavers are more affordable than flagstone, costing between $11 and $18 per square foot, while custom-made pieces can increase prices by more than 50 percent. As individual pieces pavers are easy to replace should they break, giving them an advantage over the costly and time-intensive process for fixing a cracked piece of flagstone.

Another option is staining the concrete, which involves washing the concrete with acid and applying a "stain," which will color it according to the homeowner's preferences. However, Kovacs said that one must be very good at staining concrete and that it does not last very long. The lack of permanence means that Kovacs refuses to do such work because of the likelihood that the customer would call him back in as little as five years to redo the staining.

The least expensive option is pouring a new concrete slab in place and modifying it to give the slab a custom look. Mountain View resident Andrea Ho and her husband, Michael Stein, did just this when they remodeled the patios at their house. The existing slab, which was concrete inlaid with pebbles, was covered with a layer of concrete and then bordered with pavers. This not only improved the design, but also added space to the patio and walkway.

While Ho considered having a wooden deck built over the existing concrete, she said that termites, the added cost and maintenance deterred her.

"We just went more with a clean look because of how our garden looks, but there's a lot of different options and we're really happy with it," Ho said. "It's easy to clean and there's less maintenance."

Kovacs said that laying down concrete ranges from $10 to $12 per square foot, making it the cheapest option for homeowners. Modern techniques also allow for new concrete slabs to be cut in different ways to give the patio a unique look.

The most expensive option for a homeowner is removing the concrete slabs. Demolition is a huge undertaking because of the size of these slabs (they range from 3 inches to 6 inches thick) and transportation of the material. If the concrete is in good condition, then it is much more affordable and more practical for a homeowner to overlay or cover the concrete with another structure, said Kovacs. The biggest issue for him is homeowners who are wedded to a piece of landscaping in their backyards. This can impede his job and add to the costs and headaches for the customer. Kovacs suggests that clients consider removing such installations in order to create a wholly new space that is natural and unbroken.

"Sometimes we tend to not see the forest because of the trees," Kovacs said. "And you have to step back and think differently. I think that part of my job ... is to relay these options to the client and see what their reaction is."

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