By Robert Bundy
Driveways aren’t just parking spaces. They are the welcome mats for our houses, the home basketball court, the workshop extension, and the showroom for your garage sales. However, they do need care, and some materials are better choices than others. Let’s interview the contestants to find the best options out there.
Concrete is tough to beat, and can be treated to take on a wide range of colors, etched with acid for pleasing textures, or even stamped to resemble cobblestone or fieldstone. When properly installed and faithfully resealed every couple of years, concrete can last up to half a century.
On the other hand, concrete is prone to cracking over time, and oil stains can be hard to remove. Concrete won’t catch a snow-shovel blade like cobblestone surfaces can, but road salt can shorten its life span significantly.
Plan on spending anywhere from $5 ft.² for a plain-vanilla concrete slab, to as much as $10 ft.² for something with a snazzy, acid-etched or stamped finish.
One of the most common choices, asphalt is often a good option. Unlike concrete, it’s crack-resistant, and can be treated to give it a variety of looks, colors, and textures. It’s also easy to contour for a custom shape. With proper drainage, and if periodically resealed every year or so, it can last upwards of 20 years.
As for the cost, figure about $2 ft.² for the base coat, another $2 for the top coat, and considerably more for anything fancy. Asphalt is more forgiving than concrete as it can be re-layered when it starts to show age.
Gravel or Crushed Stone
Gravel is the most economical solution, the easiest to apply, and consequently the only one we’d feel comfortable suggesting an amateur undertake. No need for a base, just rake it into place and you’re good to go. It tends to scatter and compact over time, but you can just fill it in with pea gravel from time to time to restore its original appearance. For a 2-in. layer of gravel, expect to spend about $1 ft.²
It’s not all wine and roses with gravel, however. Shoveling snow is a real pain, as it’s impossible to remove all the snow without removing a fair amount of the gravel as well. Other negatives are that it is noisy to drive on, develops ruts quickly, and quick acceleration can throw up debris that can damage car finishes. Gravel also has a tendency to shift underfoot, can be uncomfortable to walk on, and makes your driveway worthless as a place for the kids to play. Other than that, it’s perfect!
Cobblestones and Pavers
A favorite of many, pavers last up to 100 years, and come in a wide variety of colors. As an added bonus, they are easy to maintain, as broken pavers are a snap to replace. They come in different interlocking shapes and sizes, and can be configured in a variety of patterns.
You’ll pay more for pavers and cobblestones—also known as Belgian brick—than any other commonly used driveway material. But, they offer a classic look and lend a sense of permanence to the landscape. In addition, their long life means that any replacement down the road will almost certainly be your grandchildren’s problem—not yours. Pavers run about a buck each, or roughly $5-6 ft.² Cobblestones can cost as much $10 ft.²
More than with any other material, experience counts for proper installation of pavers and cobblestones. Contractors should be able to show you examples of their work, so visit a couple of driveways done that have had some time to settle. That way, you can get a sense of the contractor’s competence and style.
Things to Remember
With the exception of gravel driveways, driveways are only as good as their base. Driveways have a much longer lifespan when installed with proper soil compaction, good drainage, and a gravel bed of an appropriate depth for the chosen material. Make sure your contractor applies a soil sterilizer beneath the new gravel layer to prevent weeds from rearing their ugly heads.
Once you’ve selected the material, choose an experienced contractor. A contractor that cuts corners or fudges on the foundation work can have you looking at repair or replacement years earlier than you normally should—and usually after the contractor is long gone.
If you’re still on the fence, hop in the car, and drive around. Take a real world look at how these different materials look in front of your neighbor’s homes. If you see something you like, take a picture of it, and show it your contractor. He can then break it down into dollars and cents for you.
Only you know what you can afford, but it’s never a mistake to take the long view, and saving money in the short term is not always the soundest financial strategy. Go with a driveway material you like, and a material requiring a level of maintenance you can work with. Now that’s a set of directions that’ll put you on Easy Street.