When we bought our home in 2007, we knew it needed a face-lift.
The front of the house featured a worn driveway and its odd retaining wall rockery, the concrete steps and front entry hidden from street view. A chain-link fence ran down its east side. The sloping concrete “walkway to nowhere” connected our kitchen and backyard. The lack of outdoor lighting, and the sloping overgrown backyard and small patio all needed a serious rethink. Our tiny front yard was overplanted with foliage from previous owners, too.
So six years in, we embarked on a sweeping change. From the hire of our contractors at WE Design, a West Seattle-based landscape designer and builder, to completion of the work, it took about six months to transform our property. It also involved a cast of characters, including a property surveyor, cement workers, haul-away drivers, a carpenter, electrician, plumber, patio installers, and general landscaping pros, all of whom worked around the unpredictable February and March weather.
Now that it’s done, we’re ready to celebrate our new space and happy with the results. Is this really our house?
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Here’s what we learned from the process.
Do your own usability testing
Before meeting with contractors, think about what does and doesn’t work and how you’d like to use your space. Since we’d been in our home awhile, we’d had plenty of time to develop a running wish list.
Out front, we wanted a new entry with better lighting and proper paths from the front yard to the backyard on the west side (which was all grass and often muddy) and east side (impassable) of the house, ideally with lighting.
In back, we wanted to terrace the yard to separate an expanded patio area from a gardening area with raised beds for edible plants, herbs, and a shed for storing garden tools, currently kept in the garage.
We wanted to eliminate grass both out front and in back and replace it with ground cover and low-maintenance plants.
We also wanted a better space for backyard entertaining with low bench walls that could double as seating and frame the patio and more surfaces for food prep or serving.
Beyond that, if doable, we wanted to create a space to stow garbage cans so they would be less visible from the street. And we also dreamed of an informal outdoor kitchen to leverage a gas line we’d brought to the patio upon move-in, when we thought we’d hook our gas grill to it. Since we use a nongas grill, why not use that gas line to power burners, and then add a counter and sink?
Set your budget
Most remodeling and real-estate pros advise spending between 5 and 10 percent of your home’s purchase price on a major exterior and landscaping project. Our contractor echoed this sentiment. Spend more than 10 percent, the thinking goes, and you may over-kit your home compared to properties of similar value. Spend far less, and you may not maximize your home’s exterior assets.
We weren’t considering resale, per se. We plan to stay in our home at least 20 years, so we were willing to make major changes. Before meeting with pros, we set a budget of about $45,000, about 7 percent of the home’s purchase price, since we knew labor and materials would be extensive.
We were willing to go higher, depending on what we learned our features cost, and in the end we did — about 12 percent — but we don’t regret it.
Look at looks
We hired our contractor based upon his book of previous projects, which we reviewed at a Seattle Tilth fair booth in 2012. But before we even looked for a pro, we began bookmarking potential patio looks both online and off — knowing we’d have to convey visuals to a future contractor. We used the website Houzz to create folders and jot notes about patio features and styles we liked. (Many people also use Houzz to shop for contractors, whose portfolios are viewable online.)
Discuss, discuss, discuss
Here’s a hint: Don’t start a major landscape project in April. We began talking to our landscaping company in October/November about our plans and met several times over a 12-week period while our project’s lead, Michael Lockman, measured our lot and drafted blueprints of ways to introduce the features we wanted into the space we owned. Our project would involve multiple contractors and he would need to project manage the process, hence it was fortunate we started well before spring.
Get a plan, then edit backward
Before we broke ground, our contractor drafted a “sky’s the limit, everything you’ve ever wanted” blueprint for us, featuring higher-end materials like custom pavers, twice as many lighting fixtures as we ultimately installed, an outdoor fireplace feature, custom wooden bench seats, and a bigger front-steps deck than we wound up using. It was more than twice our budget, but he presented it to illustrate to us what different features of our remodel cost and so we could choose which aspects were worth it to us or not.
We splurged on a new concrete driveway, custom concrete pavers out front (poured by the folks who did our driveway), LED lights (more costly than regular bulbs but longer-lasting and lower energy), a custom bar/kitchen and shed, a sprinkler system and wireless lighting timer that turns lights on at dusk and off at dawn, and followed through with most of our favored splurges.
But to keep within our budget, we reduced the number of lights installed (though we have wiring to add more later), used ironwood for our front steps and deck but downgraded to cheaper cedar for backyard carpentry and the fence on the east side of our home, and went with a concrete paver-based retaining wall versus a mix of concrete and wood-bench seating requiring more carpentry hours.
The pavers that form paths to the backyard are factory-sized 24” squares versus custom cut. We used remaindered marble slab for our backyard bar counter, and we also shortened our plant list, knowing we can add more plants ourselves later.
Where we could, we reduced dump fees by offering spare landscaping rocks and plants on Craigslist or to neighbors, and we used pavers from our former patio for a foundation floor for the backyard shed.
Taking it in: We did it
It may be a year or two before our new plants start to grow in, but our patio is ready to party — just in time for Cinco de Mayo. We’ve got a safer, better-lit home with low-energy lighting, a place to entertain outside and grow food, and a space we won’t have to change for decades — except to paint our backyard shed and add or prune plants and lighting.
Jane Hodges is a Seattle-based journalist and the author of Rent vs. Own (Chronicle Books).