How to get started with landscaping our yard?
September 25, 2012 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Ms. B and I live in our first house. We'd like to do some stuff in the yard, but don't know where to start. We're in the U.S. What do we need to know? [Some details inside.]

Our house is on a small plot. Less than 1/3 acre, I believe. We'd like to spruce up the back yard so it's more inviting and less maintenance. The short list of what we'd like to do includes:

1) build a screened porch over the current patio for an outdoor dining area, ideally with power for lighting and/or a fan;

2) install a flagstone or paver patio covered with a pergola for a shady sitting/entertaining area, ideally with power for lighting;

3) xeriscape the remainder of the backyard (we're in an arid climate), getting rid of the grass, replacing it with paths and mulch beds.

We'd like to have most of this done professionally (at least 1 and 2), but don't know how to begin estimating the cost. We're prepared to space it out in stages, if need be. We could probably handle 3 piecemeal over time by myself if it would save a lot of money.

Our questions:

Is there any way to get a ballpark cost other than having a professional visit and give an estimate? We have some money saved up, but we have no idea what it'll cover. We don't want to waste anyone's time.

We think our HOA will have to approve the porch and pergola. Do we need plans drawn for this?

Browsing online and Angie's List, it seems landscape designer will give a rough design and estimate for free. Estimates will be very approximate, though, unless plans are drawn. Drawing up plans seems to run around $100, which may discounted from the cost of the work if they do it. Does this sound normal?

If we don't need a drawn plan for the HOA, would we still need a relatively specific plan to compare estimates from different landscapers?

Would the xeriscaping be more cost effective to hire it done rather than buying equipment we might only use once (wheelbarrow, etc.)?

What else should we know about first-time landscaping?

Thank you!
posted by Boxenmacher to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're going to be adding a permanent structure to the home, you'll likely need permits. Unless your HOA has specific rules, and/or your rear portion of the property is visible to the community (for example, backs up onto a lake which is used/visible in the community or generally visible from community areas) you likely only need to formally inform them that your permit-approved plans will be implemented, and they rubberstamp that they are aware of the change.

I had to have some external work done. Had the contractor in, he drew up plans and proposal, we picked out colors/materials, pulled permits. Informed HOA, they said our choice was "fine" within the rules of our community (this was on a visible external portion of the home). They forgot about it and wrote me a letter complaining about the colors, but I told them to refer to their files and file this complaint with it. We just turned over a new batch of HOA runners and I expect another letter soon ...

A fee for drawing up plans that is later deducted from the entire cost of the project sounds very reasonable. When I've worked with home improvers, I've had quick drawings done with estimates that were included as part of the final fee paid for the work, or I paid for the plans/estimate in cash or in kind.
posted by tilde at 8:13 AM on September 25, 2012


We just went through this exact same set of projects last summer.

Is there any way to get a ballpark cost other than having a professional visit and give an estimate? We have some money saved up, but we have no idea what it'll cover. We don't want to waste anyone's time.

We had zero experience with this sort of project and had no idea what it would cost. We did have an idea about what our end goals were, and did our best to communicate them to 3-4 different companies that came out. Most of the companies were keen to deliver exactly what we wanted, but we ended up choosing the guy who had more design sense that us - he steered us away from a few things and towards others that we ended up liking a bunch. I wouldn't consider it a waste of time at all.

We think our HOA will have to approve the porch and pergola. Do we need plans drawn for this?

Every HOA is different - check with them to be sure. In our case, a detailed verbal description was sufficient.

Browsing online and Angie's List, it seems landscape designer will give a rough design and estimate for free. Estimates will be very approximate, though, unless plans are drawn. Drawing up plans seems to run around $100, which may discounted from the cost of the work if they do it. Does this sound normal?

Yes, totally normal. I've seen this with landscapers, too. They don't want to supply a plan, and then have you deliver it someone else for execution, so they're looking for a bit of skin in the game.

If we don't need a drawn plan for the HOA, would we still need a relatively specific plan to compare estimates from different landscapers?

I'd try to get as close as I could in terms of telling the folks what your'e after: we want areas X, Y, and Z, with the following buildings, etc. They'll rough-cost out the materials and labor and you should get pretty close. FWIW, our guy wasn't the cheapest, but he was the one with whom we felt the most comfortable, which is important, since these projects can be something of a pain while they're underway.

Once our budget was set, it was pretty hard and fast. We wanted as little maintenance as possible, so for the porch, any wood was going to be treated and then wrapped in painted Hardiplank. The screens we used were Screentight (you can see it at HD and Lowes). Durable, wide, and easy to replace when needed). For the pavers, they used polymeric sand. It goes in dry, then expands and sticks once it's wet. Seems to be doing the job just fine, though I've had to go and reapply extra now and again as it settles. Put outlets everywhere you possibly can, even outside. As for plants, just follow the right plant/right place philosophy. We drove around and stole ideas from yards that had stuff thriving in the dead of summer. We also used the project as an opportunity to move a water line out closer to the vegetable garden, so think about all the things you might want to do and use the disturbance as a chance to knock 'em out.
posted by jquinby at 8:16 AM on September 25, 2012


One way to get around the fee for initial plans is to ask the landscapers for references. Talk to those people about the fit between what they wanted, what they heard communicated, and what they ended up with (both aesthetically and cost-wise). You can also go look at, or ask for photos of, the finished work of the landscapers you're considering. But if it were me, I'd shell out the $100 for the initial plan to make sure we were on the same page. The plantings, hardscaping, and other work will be way more than that, and $100 seems like a good investment to make sure you're both headed in the right direction. Assuming the plan worked well, you could work with this person a few years from now on changes, tweaks, etc, and not feel like you needed a formal plan.

In terms of comparing estimates, I think there are a few main categories to compare. You'll need to make sure each estimate accounts for them. There's design, building (leveling the ground for the path, building up areas, etc.), materials (wood, lighting, stones), plantings (a rough estimate of the size, age, and cost of major elements or groups of elements), and possibly maintenance over the first few months if anything needs to be tended to make sure it takes. Some landscapers/landscape designers will subcontract some of those jobs, others have their own teams to do the work. Just be sure that each estimate accounts for all the things you think are being done.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 8:19 AM on September 25, 2012


We paid $250 for landscaping plans for just our front yard (coastal Northern California), and then deviated substantially from them, but I feel like we got good value: We not only got some good suggestions for grading and layout, we also got a great plant list from it, and lots of detail on why those plants.

On #1: Get a copy of a relatively current (it's published either annually or bi-annually)Contractor's Pricing Guide: Means Residential Square Foot Costs (I believe that's RS Means), a sheet of graph paper, doodle up what you want (including sockets and light fixtures), and then go through the guide and figure out what each element costs. The guide is set up so that you can get an approximate (ie: residential construction costs $65/sq.ft. times your regional multiplier (number is an example only)) or detailed (Drilling down into that, bathroom costs are $85/sq.ft, drilling further that assumes N sockets at $whatever each, a toilet installed is $something, a sink is $something else), so you should have a full price of what your ranges are right up front, and when the contractors come back with bids you can ask why they differ.

And: You want to pull permits for as much of this as possible. Getting an extra set of eyes, in the form of the city building inspector, on your project is a good thing. And I say this as a homeowner who does my own work. Also, at the very least, get a copy of Taunton Press's Code Check Complete, and double-check your contractor with it as well.

On #2: It's quite possible that you don't need permits for the pergola, depending on its size. In my town, I think it's open structures without power under 200 sq.ft (may be 240) and closed structures under 100 or 120 sq.ft. (storage sheds) don't need permits, as long as setback rules and limits on total lot coverage and number of structures are met. This is something you can ask your local planning department on. Also, exterior lighting is often done low voltage, so you may be able to just plug in a power supply to a convenient socket.

I have done my own flagstone, and it's harder than I initia to lly thought to get it right, but also not so hard that you can't do it yourself. I borrowed a copy of the Home Depot's Landscape Construction 1-2-3 from a friend, the big deal is that you really want to rent or borrow a power compactor to tamp your sand, and once you're doing that you may be in the "let a contractor do it" territory. By the time you screed it level and tamp it, it's a multi-person job.
posted by straw at 9:01 AM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, two other things:

1. I think a good architect or landscape designer is a lot like a therapist. The value isn't in the finished plan so much as in the dialog that gets there. You're paying for their expertise, sure, but you're also paying for the mediation in the discussion between you and your wife about what you want.

2. Use story sticks. 2x2s and 2x4s are cheap. Get a battery powered drill or screwdriver, a saw, a box of deck screws, and a handful of 2x4s, and mock-up the things you want to build. When I started drawing up plans for my workshop we went through a bunch of iterations on paper that all came into focus when we took a couple of pieces of wood out there and mocked up the outline and realized that it just dominated the yard. A couple of feet off here and there, some changed geometry, and then I could re-draw the plans for real. Do quick mock-ups early in the process to make sure that awning and that pergola fit in to your yard in the way you think they will.
posted by straw at 9:36 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


xeriscape the remainder of the backyard (we're in an arid climate)

One word of advice: Lantana. Here in (relatively) arid Texas, it literally grows as a weed. You can't kill the stuff, which is a good thing because it flowers over and over and over during the growing season, and goes dormant in winter (which gives you an opportunity to spruce up growing patterns).
posted by Doohickie at 10:51 AM on September 25, 2012


You may have good luck with a "Landscaper". We found one on Kudzu and she's awesome. She lives in our neighborhood and when I get extra money, we discuss what we'll do.

She did a pretty drawing, and then, using stuff I already had, plus buying new things, we re-did our yard. We get tons of compliments and she worked within our budget.

You want someone you have a relationship with, someone who will come a few times a year and do the stuff that needs to be done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:06 AM on September 25, 2012


If you plan to do any digging around in your yard, make sure you call to have all utilities marked. Then you at least know what's there, and if you run into something not marked, it's probably not in use. It would be pretty terrible to do some landscaping and break a buried power line.
posted by klausman at 1:49 PM on September 25, 2012



If you plan to do any digging around in your yard, make sure you call to have all utilities marked


In case you haven't done this before, you just call your state's call before you dig number (or visit their website) and the utilities send someone out to mark the underground utilities. It's worth doing even just once (take photos!) to learn where things are, because some things can be shallow enough to hit during even basic gardening. (For example, I have a gas line in my yard that is shallow enough to be hit planting a shrub.)
posted by Forktine at 3:55 PM on September 25, 2012


If the development where you live is designed so that all of the houses are in similar styles, or have a similar look about them, there's a good chance that one architect designed all of them, or at least set the style. If you can find out who the architect for the project was, there's a good chance that said architect also designed several styles of auxiliary buildings designed to match the houses. These are usually designed complete with detail and engineering drawings, and copies can be made for homeowners in the development.

The heavy lifting may have already been done, since the HOA is virtually guaranteed to approve anything from the original design sets.

Also, please consider incorporating a storage building into your patio/pergola design. You'll get busy and use the pergola four times a year...but the storage building will pay for itself every day of the year.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:08 PM on September 25, 2012


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