Do you have a blah backyard? Or was it designed for someone else’s purposes and now you want to make it your own? This article is all about helping you move in the right direction to make your back yard your very own personalized living space.
There’s a lot to think about when considering a design for your plot of land. We’ve outlined some things below to help get the juices flowing and get things down on paper. I always like to get a plan down on paper so I can see where I’m headed and then later on, I can look back at how far I’ve come.
Here are the general Elements of Backyard Design that you will want to consider when taking on a backyard design or redesign project. We can’t cover everything here, but we hope this is enough to get you started down the right path to finding all the resources you need.
First Things First: How Will You Use Your Space?
What do you want to do with your space? Your plans will be unique to you and your family, so give this a good bit of thought.
If you are a family with small children, your ideas for what constitutes a fabulous backyard may be very different from a retired couple with no children living at home.
Ask yourself questions about how you intend to use your backyard.
- Do you have kids that need room to play in the grass?
- Do you want to have a pool? Or a hot tub?
- Do you like to garden in a big way? Or do you just want a small garden space?
- If you don’t already have one, do you want to add a deck or patio for outdoor lounging or dining?
- Do you like to entertain in your backyard? Would you want to plan for an outdoor kitchen?
Consider your space and existing features
Make a rough drawing of your existing space and features. Here are some things to include on your drawing:
One of the very first things you need to do is to figure out the total square footage of your back yard. Depending on how precise you like to be, you can get a good, close estimate, or you can do the math to get more exact figures. It never hurts to have a fairly accurate measurement at this point, because you will eventually need it.
You can do this in several ways. You can physically measure the dimensions with a 100-ft tape or a measuring wheel. (insert links) If you happen to have a plat of your property that is readable, you can use those dimensions to calculate your space. If you don’t have a plat of your property, this might be a good time to get one, especially if you intend to install or remove fences or your work will be near property lines.
You can find this information at your county courthouse in the deed room. The clerks there can help you find the information related to your property. However, there may not always be a drawing of your lot available. Sometimes it is only a written description with angles and distance measurements. You can still use this information, though. If you live in a subdivision, your lot may be part of a larger drawing called a subdivision plat and you can get a photocopy of the part that shows your property.
Measure the footprint of your house, garage, sheds and any other structures that will remain in place during your project.
Deck or patio
If you have a deck or patio, add these measurements to your drawing.
Do you have landscaping you want to keep during and after the project? Trees and bushes that will remain in place? Draw these in.
Do you have any concrete walks, basketball courts, walls or other hardscaping that you want to leave in place? Add these to your drawing.
Space for grass
Do you have grassed areas that you want to remain? These are easy to fix later, and will probably need reseeding so don’t get hung up about this.
Consider your existing access
- Can you get to your backyard easily from the street?
- Is it accessible from an alleyway or from the back?
- Can you get a vehicle through any gates in the fence, or will you have to remove a portion of the fence if you need to move large items through.
Depending on how extensive your project is going to be, you need to consider how you will get to your back yard from the street. You are likely to need to bring raw materials from a vehicle in your driveway into the back yard. If these are just a few bags of mulch or stone, you might be able to use a wheelbarrow and go through a gate in the fence.
However, if you need to do earth work you will need to have access to bring equipment to your back yard. If you have to remove a portion of fence, consider if you can get away with not removing the fence posts so you don’t have to reset them. Also consider if you need to secure your back yard with temporary fencing during the project in case it would be an attractive danger to neighborhood children, like a big pile of gravel or dirt, or a hole in the ground for a pool.
Consider your budget
Creating an outdoor living space in your backyard is an investment in your peace and happiness as well as a property investment. Even though it’s a really important to have a place you can enjoy, the financial aspects of a project are an important consideration. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- How much should you spend relative to the value of your overall property? If you intend to “get back your investment” when you sell, this might be a good question to ask a local realtor. If you are willing to spend the money for the sake of your own enjoyment the answer is somewhat less important.
- Should you take a loan to do a backyard redesign? This is a very personal question. As in most things, it is better to use money you already have and minimize debt. Depending on your credit, your bank may offer you a revolving line of credit with your house as collateral. Just be sure that the monthly payments are comfortable for you and will not increase your stress or make you have to work more and longer hours. That would defeat the purpose of having time to enjoy your backyard.
Consider how much time you will spend in your back yard.
If you intend to use your back yard regularly and enjoy it for a lot of your free time, you might feel justified to spend more of your income making it a special space to enjoy.
Redesigning your backyard can be an expensive proposition, so good planning can keep the project on time, on budget, and on target for your needs.
Consider ways to save money
There are lots of ways you can save money on your project and make it more affordable. One of those ways is doing the work yourself or having your friends and family help out. Some advantages to do doing the work yourself is that you can do the work on your own schedule. You can do the work in phases so you can build up your financial resources in between phases. You have more control over the schedule of the project. You have more control over the outcome of the project.
Here are some thought questions for saving money:
- Can you do the design yourself?
- Can you do any of the trade work yourself?
- What about the physical labor?
- Do you have friends or family that have trade skills?
- Do you have friends or family that can help you with the physical labor?
- Can you barter your skills for someone else’s?
Will you do the work yourself?
If you plan to do some or all of the work yourself, you have a lot of options, but there are more questions.
What kind of equipment do you have access to?
- Owned – Make a list of what you personally own:
- Do you have a pickup truck to move materials like sand, stone, pavers, mulch, compost, plant materials, wood for decks, etc?
- What about hand tools?
- Good shovels, rakes, hoes
- Measuring and marking tools: tapes, scales, squares
- Typical hand tools: screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, saws
- Power tools
- Saw, compound miter saw
- Large equipment
- Bobcat mini loader
- Ditch witch
- Tractor with loader or grader box
- Do your friends or family own any of the tools that you need for your project?
- Perhaps you can offer to trade the use of your tools or labor if they will share their tools.
- These days, you can rent almost any piece of equipment you need, if you are willing to pay the price and learn how to use it.
- Most big-box home improvement stores rent everything from power tools to hauling vehicles on a per-hour or per-day basis.
- Local large equipment stores will also rent bobcats, ditch witches and other larger equipment. You can have these delivered to your site for a fee, or you can rent the trailer to attach to your vehicle’s hitch or use your own trailer. Some states require a commercial driver’s license to haul very large trailers and equipment on public roads, so keep that in mind before planning to rent large equipment. Your local rental store will also want to make sure you are familiar with the operation of the large equipment.
- When considering rental versus hiring a contractor that owns the equipment, make sure to take into account the learning curve and time it will take for you to do the work. Even if you can learn to use the equipment, you may not be as efficient as a professional so this may eat into your savings if you have to rent the equipment for a long time.
- On the other hand, you may enjoy learning a new skill and becoming competent while working on your own project. This may be useful for future work you wish to do or helping a friend or family member on their project.
- Renting can also be beneficial if you can share time and costs with a friend or family member who may also need to use the tool or equipment.
Which trades are you handy/competent to perform?
You can often save money by doing some of the trades on the project yourself. Consider what you are good at doing, what you enjoy, and what you feel you can competently learn to do yourself in a reasonable amount of time.
There are many resources to learn how to do the work yourself, including classes at the local home improvement store, books from your local library or YouTube videos online. Make sure you consider your source and better yet, refer to multiple sources including forums of professionals online. You can often ask questions and get great feedback and help on your project.
- Are you a hand at landscaping?
- Do you enjoy putting your hands to the earth and planting green things?
- Do you like to decorate with nature?
- Are you building a deck?
- Is woodwork something you really enjoy?
- Does the smell of freshly cut lumber excite you and get your creative juices flowing?
- Do you have a knack with a saw or hammer and nails?
- Doing an outdoor kitchen? Do you know how to do wiring or plumbing?
Will you hire the project out?
This is not an all or nothing proposition. You can do parts of the project yourself and hire some of it out. For example, you can have the landscaping professionally designed and then install it yourself. Or vice versa.
If you decide to hire contractors, there are lots of things to consider.
- If you have your project designed by a professional, be sure to consider the previously discussed topics in this article before you hire a designer. The more time you spend up front deciding what you want, the less professional time you will have to pay for. They will need to know your thoughts on use, your desired budget and how much of the project you can do yourself, so they can create a design that fits your parameters.
- Whether you design the project yourself or have a pro designer, if you hire a contractor to install your project, you’ll need to have clear plans to present to them. You will need to communicate your schedule and budget as well.
Finding a contractor
- Good references are the best source for finding a good contractor. Ask your friends and family who they have used and what their experience has been and whom they might recommend.
- You can look at online resource sites like Angie’s List.
- You can call your local home improvement store for recommendations or ask your local homebuilder’s association for references.
- You should be prepared to seek three estimates or bids for your project. You should give each contractor the same information so that you can make an apples to apples comparison. You shouldn’t always take the lowest monetary estimate or bid. You should consider the time frame the bidder offers, and other factors that give you a sense of who will do the best job. You may judge their speed, attitude, cleanliness or good reputation are worth paying more for.
- Make sure that you get everything in writing. Costs, times, payment schedules and other factors need to be clearly stated and both you and your contractor should sign the contract. A good, well-written contract should protect both parties to the contract and should not be one-sided or benefit one party over the other. Expectations should be clear so that there are few or no misunderstandings and need for clarifications during the project.
- Good communication between you and your contractor is very important. Keep the lines open and be available to your contractor via phone or text during the project, or else have someone else who can represent you.
Supervising the project
If you are not doing the project yourself, you will want to make sure the project is done to your satisfaction.
- Hire a supervisor that represents you directly. This person could be a friend or family member.
- Your supervisor should be present while work is being done on your property. They should be your liaison to make sure that your property is protected and that the work is being done to your satisfaction.
- They should have a good line of communication between you and your contractor.
- They should understand what decisions they are empowered to make and what decisions need to be deferred to you.
Check local codes
Which parts of the project can you do yourself?
- Most locales allow you to do your own trade work, like electrical and plumbing, on your own property, but it is best to make sure before you dive in to the project. Even if you do your own work, it goes without saying that you should make sure you know what you are doing and don’t leave things up to chance.
- You should definitely check the pertinent building codes to make sure you understand and do the work to those codes or better. Not only is this good practice for your own safety and well-being, but it will grease the permitting process and make sure everything is fine for any future sale of your property.
Do you need a permit?
- Depending on where you live and what government oversight there is in your area, you may need a permit from your local governmental – county, township, state. Even if you don’t need a permit to do the work, if there are any building codes in your state for the work you are doing, it would be best to follow them for safety and for the future sale reasons.
- If you hire a contractor for any part of the work, they should be able to advise you on which permits you will need. They may get the permits for you or they may expect you to get them yourself, but ultimately, you need to have this discussion and understand what permits are needed and who is getting them.
Do you need to check with your homeowner’s association?
- You may already hear regularly from your homeowner’s association, particularly at dues collection time. Or maybe not, but if you have a homeowner’s association, even if inactive, you should check your codes and covenants or deed restrictions to see what you agreed to when you purchased the property.
- You may not have a homeowner’s association, but you may still have codes and covenant or deed restrictions. You are not typically excused from the codes and covenants even if you didn’t know about them when you purchased the property. They usually run with your deed, so make sure you double check before installing an in-ground pool, only to find that it violates the covenants or restrictions.
Doing your design yourself
You may enjoy doing the design for your back yard yourself. There are lots of ways to accomplish this and it can be one of the most fun and exciting parts of the project, where you envision lots of cool and interesting ways to use your space.
Draw your plans
- One of the best ways to start is just the good old fashioned way – paper and pencil. Start with basic sketches of various ideas. This is the time to let your imagination run free to consider a lot of possibilities. Get your family involved and let everything come up with ideas.
- Once you have narrowed down some possibilities, you will want to get things down more formally into a plan. At this point, it would be good to use grid paper or graph paper so you can get more specific about measurements and be able to calculate distances and volumes and amounts from your plans.
- If you like using technology, you can use a drafting program like Smart Draw.
Make a phasing plan
When you have a solid design in place, you will want to make a list of what has to be done first and what order to do the different activities. This phasing plan will be very helpful when you go to actually execute the project. Making a phasing plan in advance of starting the project allows you to organize each task and consider how much time each part of the project will take, what skills, tool and materials will be needed and how much money you’ll need to expend on each item. Giving thought to phasing in advance will help your project be completed successfully, on time and with a minimum of stress. It can help you save money too, by completing each part of the project efficiently and with a minimum of material waste.
Make a timeline
Consider how much time each phase of your project will require. This can be difficult and some assumptions will need to be made.
- If you are doing the project yourself, you will need to consider how much free time you will have to work on your project.
- You will need to consider rental schedules if you are renting equipment.
- You will need to consider the weather and the best season to do your work. For example, concrete work cannot be done effectively in very cold temperatures, paint doesn’t cure well in extreme temperatures. And landscaping is best done in spring and fall. Your timeline should consider the type of work and when to schedule it. Remember that people also don’t work as efficiently or effectively in extreme temperatures!
Execute your project
Once you have a really great plan in place, it’s time to make your design a reality!
- Take a look at your timeline and decide the best time to start.
- Check the weather in your area.
- Consider your contractor’s schedule.
- Consider your family schedule.
- Will you be able to take time off work to work on the project or oversee the contractor working on the project
- Will you be able to work around the family vacation or summer vacation and family activities
- Do you have a certain goal or deadline
- Don’t get frustrated. If you plan well, you will be able to chart your progress and look toward your goals with confidence.
- Expect some setbacks of time, budget or success. If you build some room for error into your budget and your timeline, you will be able to absorb these setbacks and get on with the project.
- Celebrate completion of each part of the project and check it off your list.
- Enjoy the use of your newly remodeled space and experience the satisfaction of a job well done. At this point, you will have earned it!
There are a lot of things to think about when doing a major renovation of your backyard – and even a minor one. Sometimes it is intimidating to take on a large project yourself, but we have learned that we are able to do many large projects if we just break them down into their component parts. We take them step by step and they aren’t so overwhelming.
So that’s what we’ve done for you here. We can’t tell you exactly what to do on your project, but we’ve tried to give you a framework to get your backyard project off the ground. Or on the ground, as the case may be. We’ve laid out the steps we take when we do this type of project. This isn’t an exhaustive set of instruction, by any means, but it gives you the sense of what needs to be done. You can use this type of framework for almost any type of home improvement project. We’ll try to cover more of these in the future.
So, let us know how it goes. Have you done your own backyard design? Do you have anything to add?
Leave us a message in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.