Back in 2017, I began dreaming about making some improvements to our back yard. Sections of our fence had blown over twice during thunderstorms, and while I had done my best to prop them back up and nail everything together, I really wanted to just replace it. The untreated lumber combined with too-long nails that stuck through every inch was all just terrible.

But the single quote I got for a new fence told me that I couldn’t afford it yet. Then, in 2018, Simon came along and we also needed to invest more into what I call “foundational” improvements. Foundational work is invisible but essential and included things like insulating our ducts, adding a vapor barrier to the crawl space, etc.

The summer of 2019, we learned that Simon (and probably all kids) loved to be outside. He wanted to play outside all the time. And while Simon wasn’t bothered by the desert wasteland that was our yard on summer afternoons, April and I were generally miserable out there. We wanted him to play outside a lot, but we didn’t actually want to be outside, which was a problem. So I took my dreams and started sketching out some ideas and doing a lot of research.

Uncertain how to fund everything that I wanted to do, I asked people on Reddit for advice during the summer of 2020. Simon was about to turn 2 years old and was now properly running around, and April increasingly wanted a patio roof so she could go out the back door when it was raining and not get wet. I also really liked the idea of being able to grill in the rain.

Reddit gave me the idea to refinance our house and take cash out of the equity. Thanks to pandemic weirdness, we were able to lower our interest rate at the same time our home value shot up, so we’ll actually pay our house off sooner and we got enough money from our equity to fund about 45% of the work that I wanted to have done. The rest of our Outdoor Improvement projects were funded by covid stimulus checks, holiday gifts, decreasing my 401k contribution for 5 months, credit card churning, and laser-focused re-prioritization using YNAB.

Before

For a few years in the before-times, we liked to host what we called “garden parties.” We invited a bunch of people to hang out in our back yard and enjoy a meal together, but the setting wasn’t ideal. Our deck was about 12′ x 12′ and 3′ of that had to be kept clear for the door. The step-down was annoying and further limited the use of the space, and the wood was coming apart. Similar to the fence, it had nails sticking through it in different places too.

I wanted to replace the deck and the paver path that you see on the left (which I had laid in a few years ago and done the bare minimum on). We also wanted to tear out the rose garden that you can see on the right in “the U,” as I call it, and add seating there. At one point, I thought about putting the patio roof over the U, but April’s desire to walk out and not get rained on made a lot of sense so we decided that the roof would go over the pictured area.

The Plan

Once I started sketching everything out, I realized how enormous our back yard really is. We have 275 feet of fence, and I was trying to figure out how to balance space and cost.

Purple represents permanent ground such as concrete or stone. At the time, I was thinking about going with stamped concrete because it would be cheaper than pavers, but I later discovered that there was no longer anyone in Springfield doing stamped concrete. And I didn’t want just regular poured concrete because it just doesn’t look very nice. We were going to have two patio seating sections, a path from the patio to the back gate (on the right), and a path from the patio to the storm shelter (on the left). I had also planned to put stone in at the top-right as a fire pit seating area with some mulch and garden around it.

Green is garden. Note the green rectangle in front of the U because you’ll see later the type of designs our landscaper put together. I mostly think in rectangles and squares, and they designed something way prettier than anything I could have imagined.

Brown is vertical permanent structure. I was going to build a wall between the patio and the air conditioner to hide it, and I also wanted to add stone retaining walls around the storm shelter. Both of these ideas were later scrapped.

Blue is furniture. I wanted to make sure that the patio would be large enough to have a table for six people and my grill.

The end result didn’t match these dimensions, but it was enough to start getting bids and talking with contractors.

The Fence

Because the fence had been falling down for a while, that was our first priority. We decided that we wanted to replace our 6′ privacy fence with a 4′ spaced picket fence. We hoped that this would help us connect more with people in our neighborhood, and I had also read that the spaced picket fence is actually more secure than a privacy fence. With a tall privacy fence, intruders are hidden from the road so they feel safer doing whatever they want to do. We’d had police in the yard a few years before looking for a suspected criminal, and just a few months before we got the new fence someone had hidden a cooler with a bunch of stolen mail inside our gate. Building something that would discourage people from trying to hide in our yard seemed worth trying.

In August of 2020, we solicited for bids and selected Anchor Fence who did an absolutely fantastic job. Due to pandemic weirdness, cedar was cheaper for a while than pine so we got steel posts and gates, cedar planks, and pine horizontal boards.

Anchor got this done in just a few days in October for 34% less than competing bids. I’m still quite happy with it, and we have indeed met a lot of our neighbors! People regularly stop when out on a walk if we’re in the back yard and we’ll chat for a bit.

The Playground

I’d had the idea of building a risky playground for cheap both because I looked at Rainbow playgrounds and they were crazy expensive and because I wanted to encourage a lot of climbing and jumping and imaginative play. I even had my father-in-law cut some logs that I could sink into the ground for jumping or stepping across. But as the months passed, I decided that I wanted something more traditional, especially because Simon loves swinging. And I wanted something that both Simon and his friends could play on together in our back yard and which other parents would be comfortable with.

I went with the Cedarworks Play-a-Round Trading Post. Because I knew their prices were going to go up in January, and lumber prices were shooting up across the board, I ordered this early in December 2020. That meant assembling it in January when it was raining most every day and was usually around 20 degrees F outside. Each evening, I’d spend an hour or two until it got dark, and I’d usually manage to fit a few hours in over the weekend too. All told, it took me a few weeks to get totally put together.

And then, because the weather was still miserable, Simon didn’t play on it for a couple more months. But when his friends could finally come over and play outside, they loved it. And I have really enjoyed being able to see him playing on it from my office window. I find watching him play to be really motivating to me while I’m working because providing for him and our family is why I do what I do.

I also learned that, if I’m active enough, I can work outside in the cold and wet without too much of a problem. That was neat to discover and made me feel really good about myself.

The Patio

Finding someone to replace our deck was surprisingly difficult. Of the five companies I reached out to, one went out of business during the time I was talking with them, two never got back to me, and one priced themselves out over the phone (partially because they only dealt in pre-fabricated materials so we could only have a size of patio and roof that could be ordered from their catalog).

Gabris Landscaping came out and spent an hour and a half talking with me and thinking through the design, and while their bid was more than I had budgeted, I felt like I was going to be really happy with the result.

The first thing they did was tear out the deck, dig out the soil, and put down gravel. You can see from the picture that this is about 2x bigger than our old deck, and a bit bigger than the original plan drawing above. The paver patio is approximately 20′ x 14′.

After the gravel was compressed, they put down sand and compressed that, then the pavers.

The way they cut the stones to curve the path was particularly neat.

Once the paver patio was done, it was time to start on the gravel patio in the U. I had thought about making the whole area stone, per my sketch above, but it was just way too expensive. Where the paver patio took about two and a half weeks, the gravel area just took 2-3 days.

For the gravel patio, we have three kinds of stone. The outer, dark border stone is called trap rock, then we have rainbow rock in curved swales, and pea gravel in the middle for a seating area. The downspouts pour into the swales which are actually deeper channels that drain down into the rain garden at the front of the gravel patio.

I think the large stones are called rainbow rock because their colors really pop when they get wet. They’re absolutely gorgeous in the rain.

In total, Gabris spent 3 weeks making sure everything was perfectly level and settled and placed well, and I appreciated their attention to detail.

Solar Panels

Solar panels weren’t part of the original Outdoor Improvement plan, but I have a friend from high school who works in renewable energy and posts about it on Facebook all the time, which kept solar top-of-mind for me. I had looked into solar back in 2016, but I only got a bid from one company and didn’t research it too deeply because it didn’t look like a good financial decision at the time. After all the trouble that Texas had last winter and the impact that had on Missouri, I decided to take a deeper look in early 2021.

I spent about 3 weeks getting bids from different companies, learning a lot about solar and the various technologies, and building spreadsheets to calculate energy production and return on investment. I selected Simple Solar both because of their knowledge and expertise and also because they offered a no-money-down 1.49% 20-year loan. If you own your own home and plan to live there a long time, I think solar is an absolute no-brainer and I’m going to write a separate blog post about both the financial return on investing in a solar array and also about how solar works with City Utilities here in Springfield.

Simple Solar did great work and I’m very pleased with our new array. If you contact them, be sure to tell them that I referred you!

Mulch

Because Gabris did such a good job with our patio, I had thought about hiring them to mulch and landscape our flower beds, but we just couldn’t afford it. Instead, we contacted All About Trees and asked if they could dump some free mulch on our lawn when they next chopped down a tree near us. Apparently, everyone else in Springfield had the same idea at the same time, and after waiting a few weeks, I ordered 7 cubic yards of cedar mulch from McMullen Landscape Center.

April and I then spent 1-2 hours most evenings and a few hours over the weekend spreading mulch to our front flowerbeds, the area between the back path and the house, and the new corner garden. Instead of a circular stone patio with a fire pit, we decided to make a baseball diamond garden with some native plants surrounding our metal glider bench.

Furniture

Over the course of a few months, I acquired some Adirondack chairs, some small tables, and a grill table from JJGeorge. These are super pretty and should last pretty much forever.

April decided that she wanted a metal table and chairs for the patio, and we were able to snag a set through Facebook Marketplace. I then used Rust-oleum hunter green spray paint to paint the table, chairs, and our metal glider to match the Big Green Egg.

This took about 6 hours and 9 cans of spray paint, and it caused temporary nerve damage in my right index finger that took nearly 4 weeks to heal.

The Patio Roof

Similar to the patio, it was a challenge to find someone who could build us a custom patio roof. I was also struggling to keep the cost down, and several companies wanted to charge a lot for this type of thing.

Jesse Tabor of Tabor’s Custom Building (TCB) and I exchanged a couple of dozen emails in 2020, but by September I had realized that I just couldn’t afford to build a patio roof any time soon. I emailed him to say, maybe in 2022 or 2023, and that I’d be in touch.

But then came stimulus checks, and a big tax refund, and some holiday gifts, and suddenly in March it looked like we could afford the roof after all. Jesse came to the house to talk about it and get me a bid that ended up being about half what other companies quoted me.

Because of the location and wanting to cover the patio, and because we were adding the roof after the patio was built, two key decisions were made. First, the roof had to be gabled to match the existing roof line because a flat roof would have to drop too far from house to yard to handle snow. If we had tried to do a flat roof, you’d have to crouch to get out from the end closest to the yard! The second was that the columns had to be outside the patio so as not to tear up anything we’d just had installed a couple of months prior, and that meant that the roof was larger than originally anticipated.

Where the patio is 20′ x 14′, the roof runs the full width of that part of the house and is 26′ x 15′ with an additional 2′ overhang.

The work took 5 days total, with the first day just to set the pillars and give them 24 hours to set. Jesse works with a team of Mennonites who were absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t be happier with the roof that they built for us.

Jesse was on site every day, and that’s him up on the roof laying the decking. TCB isn’t a huge operation where he’s the front man outsourcing the work. I really appreciated that he oversaw everything from bid to build.

Because our roof had been redone by Cox Roofing a few years ago, I was able to contact them to find out what shingles we had and forward that to Jesse. He ordered some and the final result was that the addition blends in really nicely and looks like it has been part of the house for a long time.

I can’t overstate how nice this roof is. When we sit out on the patio now, it feels like we’re at a fancy resort. It’s not the type of thing I had ever expected to have at our home and I’m thrilled with it.

Staining the Fence

God, how I regretted starting this project. My dad loaned me a paint sprayer, and after reading some threads and watching some videos online, I really thought it would just take 6-8 hours. I was going to clean the fence in the morning, then stain it in the afternoon. I had calculated that I would need 6 gallons of stain, and I figured it’d spray on quick and I’d be done.

Instead, I spent 10 hours on a Saturday cleaning both sides of the fence, then another 10 hours on Sunday staining it, and 1 more hour cleaning up. 21 hours total in 2 days, and I didn’t even stain the entire thing; by the end of day 2, I had gone through 7 cans of stain (and 2 additional trips to the hardware store), and still hadn’t stained the side of the fence that was in either of my neighbors’ back yards.

It got done, if not altogether well, and I’ve already started saving up so I can pay somebody else to stain it in around 3 years when it needs to be stained again.

Patio Electricity

We wanted to add a ceiling fan, lights, and power outlets to the patio roof. In the winter, I’ll have infrared heaters over the sectional and the dining table so we can be out there in the cold.

I’m really happy with the work that Mr. Electric did, but similar to the patio and the roof, I under-budgeted by 2-3x what I needed. I just had no idea that electrical work was so expensive.

But I couldn’t be happier with the result. We have two new GFCI breakers and dedicated circuits to support the heaters, I hung up some outdoor Edison lights, added a remote controlled switch and dimmer, and a really nice outdoor ceiling fan.

I also learned that our house doesn’t have enough amperage to add too much more to it, so if we want to have an electric car some day, we’ll have to increase our amperage. That means a new breaker box which also means bringing all of our electrical up to code. I’ve added a new savings category to YNAB for that too so we can upgrade everything in a decade.

New Gutters

The patio roof needed fascia and gutters, so I contacted Ozark’s Gutter Works on the recommendation of our neighbor. This is the one project where I had actually over-estimated the cost to add gutters to the patio roof, rehang several sections of gutters that weren’t draining properly, and add gutter guards where needed. Given the low cost, I went ahead and had OGW replace all of our gutters and increase the size of our downspouts.

I was pleasantly surprised that, given the low pitch of our roof, the gutter guards are largely invisible. When I see them on other houses, I don’t generally think they look that nice, but you can barely see them on our gutters. That shallow roof makes it a huge pain to work in the attic, but from the outside it means our solar panels and gutter guards are low profile.

These two pictures also let you see better the rain gardens with Missouri-native wildflowers in the back yard and the front flower beds with cedar mulch.

Along the way…

In addition to all of the above, we had a few other big investments over the last year.

One lucky day, I walked into Ace Hardware to get something small and saw a Big Green Egg on sale for 33% off. It was a demo unit, used once before the pandemic and then put in storage because no events could be held due to covid. Ace was finally selling it and I happened to walk in at the right time on the right day. April supported me getting it and we brought it home. This was in October 2020, just a couple of weeks before Isaac was born, and my first real use of it was to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving that we shared with our family, friends, and neighbors.

Prior to the pandemic, I had started saving up to replace our water heater. We knew it needed to be replaced because it was filled with chunks of metal and rock from the old pipes that we had replaced a few years ago, and it was to the point where, if two people took showers in a row, the second shower would get cold. Once April and I were vaccinated, I bought the water heater and had it installed, and like so many other projects over the last year, it was about 1.5x more expensive than I had budgeted for.

When we first moved into this house, there was a 10 degree temperature spread between the front room (where the thermostat is) and the master bedroom. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of foundational improvements to help address this, and in early 2021 I added some insulation to our crawlspace. I didn’t insulate the entire house, but I put batts under the western 1/3 of the house to insulate the bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallway. Combined with everything else we’ve done over the years, this got our temperature disparity down to 1-2 degrees F.

And then, when we first needed the air conditioner this year, we discovered that our furnace blower motor was going out. The blower motor has to run at a higher speed for air conditioning and ours wasn’t capable of that anymore. An old friend from high school had recommended Todd’s Residential Heating and Cooling, so I reached out to them and I was super impressed with Darrin Todd. For the last several years, I felt like whomever I had come out for heating and air work was partially guessing at what they were doing and partially trying to up-sell me on stuff I didn’t need. Darrin was very knowledgeable and did great work. Even better, the increased power and efficiency of the new blower motor has brought our temperature disparity down to 0-1 degrees F.

Reflections and Feelings

We now have a lovely back yard that has literally stopped passerby so they can look at it. People pause and chat for a while when they’re out walking, we’ve seen people drive past and then stop and back up to look at our yard, and I’ve had a few people stop when driving past so they can talk with me about it.

It feels very weird to receive that kind of attention. And I worry that people might get the wrong idea about us and our financial state or maybe think poorly of us and that we spend money frivolously. But so far, everyone has been very positive and supportive and excited for us, and my insecurity is likely a fabricated anxiety.

Like I wrote above, I marvel at our back yard when I’m sitting out there of an evening with the lights on, listening to the Missouri insects and frogs, and enjoying the breeze from the fan. All of this came together one piece at a time, but it all fits together well and I’m proud of it. The pea gravel matches the mulch and the playground, the wooden furniture from JJGeorge matches the fence, the metal furniture matches the grill and the plastic on the playground, and the overall design of the backyard aligns well internally. It’s delightful.

“Pleased” is an understatement, but I can’t think of a better word. I am so pleased that we have such a nice space to welcome people into. April is hosting a small group on Wednesday nights, and while I can’t participate because I’m taking care of the kids and their bedtimes during that hour, I love that I can help provide a nice space for them to meet. I love that we can have people over to hang out in our back yard and that they feel welcomed and comfortable there. I love that our neighbors stop by to chat.

I don’t know when or if I’ll start taking it for granted. I probably will eventually, but right now, I continue to be a bit startled every time I go out there. I can’t believe I get to live here, in this house, with this wonderful back yard. It’s amazing.

What’s Next

There’s technically one project left for our Outdoor Improvements which is to stain the lumber of the patio roof. We want to stain the columns and ceiling white, but that will have to wait until next summer, both because the wood has to dry out and because there’s no way I’m going to stain it myself after how miserable staining the fence was.

Really, the next big project is to rebuild our cash savings. All told, we went over-budget by about 15% on this full program of work. That’s actually not too bad, and it’s typical in construction to have a 20% contingency, but for us our contingency was to pull from sinking funds. That means that our budget categories for “health,” “auto maintenance,” “home repair,” etc. are all empty, and it’ll be around December 2022 before we finally have our cash-on-hand back to a level I’m comfortable with.

(Note that the 15% over-budget doesn’t include the loan for the solar array. If you include that, we’re about 36% over-budget, but the loan terms were so good that I don’t include the cost of the solar array. It’s only $89 a month, and even if I carry the loan for the full 20 years, only around $3000 in interest between now and the year 2041).

That’s not to say we’re destitute. Don’t worry about us. But our cash-on-hand is at the lowest point it has been since the beginning of 2020, and is about 10% of what it was at the beginning of 2021. We really need to fund those categories so any unexpected expenses don’t result in credit card interest.

What I’m really looking forward to next is to just be. I feel like the last year and a half has been absolutely packed between researching, projects, working with contractors, raising a toddler, and having a baby. Those last two are sufficient to keep us running, so being able to slow down a bit and just focus on our family and spending time with friends is going to be really nice.

The work is finished. Now we can rest and enjoy it together.

One thought on “Outdoor Improvements

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