Gardens of Versailles
One of the most gratifying investments I’ve made this year is landscaping a fixer I bought in 2014. Investing in various real estate crowdfunding projects around the country for a potential 8% – 15% return is nice. But there’s something wonderful about coming up with a design and making it come true to improve an asset’s value.
Here are some things I’ve done to the fixer:
- Ripped out the green shag carpet and refinished the original hardwood floors.
- Changed the knob and tube wiring for the latest TR compliant electrical wiring.
- Gutted the kitchen and opened it up to flow into the dining room.
- Replaced the roof.
- Replaced all windows.
- Painted the interior and exterior.
- Built a 175 sqft luxury master bathroom (before and after pics).
- Installed sliding doors from the master bedroom that open out onto a 260 sqft composite deck (before and after pics) with custom boards and railings.
- Built a new retaining wall to hold up my foundation.
Once all of these essential renovations were out of the way, the next step was to landscape!
Landscaping For The Win
I don’t have a big house (~1,910 sqft) because I’ve purposefully decided to keep my housing expenses to under 10% of my gross income, but I do have a relatively large lot for San Francisco (5,000 sqft with a front yard, side yard, and backyard). My house sits on roughly 40% of the lot, leaving me with 3,000 sqft to manage. Since I’m on a hill, the back half of my lot slopes downward, making it non-user friendly.
The key to any successful landscaping project is to implement aesthetics with functionality. You want to maximize use of your land while also making it look easy on the eyes. My backyard was a jungle that needed to be cleaned up. At the same time, I wanted to turn the hill into some flat, useable space. Therefore, the ultimate solution was to create large tiers.
With this idea in mind, I solicited some bids from various landscaping companies around the Bay Area. One guy quoted me $75,000. Another guy quoted me $60,000 – $80,000. And another guy who was working on a similar type project across the street for three months said his company originally quoted that client $125,000, but the project ended up costing $160,000! WTH?
I’ve hired fellas for small landscaping jobs before, but I’ve never hired anybody for a project this large. Not wanting to spend close to six figures on a backyard, I decided to sit on the project for a couple months. After all, I’m addicted to investing and felt putting some money into stocks and bonds post presidential election was a good idea.
Then I had an epiphany. Why not just go to the neighbor’s house and hire one of their workers directly! Every hardworking person is looking for a side hustle. Even if he said no, at least I could find out more about the landscaping business and get some design ideas.
Luis popped by during his lunch break, surveyed my backyard, and told me he would have no problems creating tiers like he did for my neighbor. He never gave me a quote, but he just said he’d be in touch whenever he had some free time.
Months went by without hearing a word from Luis. Then he texted me on a random Thursday afternoon while I was coaching tennis and said he was ready to work that weekend. He asked me whether I was still interested, and I told him absolutely without even knowing the cost. When there is someone eager and able to do remodeling/landscaping work for you in a tight labor market, you say YES!
Given the neighbor was paying $125,000+ for their landscaping job (including materials), I figured Luis would come back to me with a quote of around $50,000 + materials. After all, the neighbor was paying the general contractor who then paid Luis and his crew. Surely there was fat to cut.
After spending roughly 15 minutes climbing up and down my hill, Luis came back with a labor quote of $10,000 for all four levels! Not only would he create all four levels, he’d also de-weed everything, create steps with pebbles, construct a fence around a playground level, roll out black tarp and gopher netting, mulch everything, and create a 4″ thick hot tub platform with rebar that I’d also been meaning to get done!
Even though the price was much less than expected, I negotiated him down to $9,500 and told him I would pay cash if he wanted. He accepted. Luis finished the project over 3.5 weekends with a crew of 5 – 6 people working eight hours a day. It turns out his employer is highly reputable and worked on Softbank billionaire Masayoshi Son’s $120M house for three years recently.
My total cost for this project came out to $17,000 as I ended up paying $7,500 for materials. This is a huge win because I was seriously expecting to spend at least $50,000 after all the quotes I was given.
Now for the before and after pics!
Before And After Pics
Playground before pic.
Meticulously measured each level
Dug 10 feet deep and pour cement in each post hole
Filled the steps with black tarp and pebbles, while each step had two rebar rods screwed six feet deep for stability.
Used the thickest black tarp and gopher netting available to prevent animals and roots from disrupting.
Poured 4 inches worth of concrete over rebar to create a level hot tub platform underneath the 11 foot high deck
Reinforced the redwood fence with brackets so the little ones and adults don’t fall out.
A 20 gallon agave plants costs $275+! Gotta take my time planting
300 sqft playground for kids
How about them apples! I’ve now got a clean backyard with roughly 1,000 square feet of flat useable space on the first three tiers and 600 square feet of slightly sloped space on the last two tiers. All for the price of less than my Honda Fit.
For functionality, the 300 sqft first tier playground is key. One day there may also be a playground set with slides and swings. The mulch is actually called “playground mulch” because it’s splinter free. The ground is also nice and cushiony because Luis and his team piled on three inches of mulch throughout.
Another idea for functionality is making the second flat tier a putting green or a been bag toss field. Can you see it? I definitely can. The top tier right above the playground and below the 11 foot high deck is where the adults will hang around the hot tub. The final functionality is now I have my own private steps to climb when I feel like getting my four-pack back.
For aesthetics, I’ve planted two agave plants and a cabbage patch succulent on the third tier that’s unobstructed by the playground fence. I plan to slowly plant more succulents to fill out the spaces.
I chose cordovan brown staining throughout to contrast the golden colored mulch. I was thinking of using chopped rubber or synthetic grass at first, but after reading there may be potential negative health risks with those materials, I decided to use mulch and stay green for the children playing back there someday.
I realize the backyard is pretty plain at the moment, but that’s OK. I believe in low maintenance because my time is better spent doing other things. Further, everybody has their own tastes. I’m all about getting 90% of the way there with all the heavy lifting, and letting a new buyer put their own finishing touches if they so choose. So many remodels I’ve seen go 100% of the way there, but they never satisfy 100% of the tastes out there.
Some of you living in less expensive areas of the world might be shaking your head at the cost. But San Francisco land is expensive. A vacant lot similar in topography to mine, but 20% smaller with NO house sold two years ago for $1,000,000. Add on the fact that every single tier in my backyard has some sort of view of the ocean and spending $100,000, let alone $17,000 to make it useable is quite reasonable.
Single Family Home All Day
The older I get, the more I love owning a single family home over a condo. First, I don’t need to get permission from the Homeowners Association Board to do any remodeling. Second, I’m not afraid of disrupting my neighbors as much. Finally, it’s a home run to be able to create more functionality and resale value at the same time.
If I was working a full-time job, it would be unlikely that I’d have the time to find Luis and manage a project like this. If I really wanted a landscaped backyard, I would have done what my neighbors did and hire an expensive contractor for $100,000+ to do all the work. So in a way, being an early retiree saved me $50,000 – $80,000. Or an investor could say a $17,000 investment created a 200%+ return.
Luis and his team ended up doing such a great job on my backyard that I asked him to do the front part of my house as well. It turned out more beautiful than I imagined. This is where picking the plants, the stain color, the material, and the flooring really counts since curb appeal is key for resale value.
After 2.5 years, I’m now done with all my home remodeling work. All I’ve got to do now is wait for the 6-person hot tub to arrive and then it’s party time!
Readers, have you done any landscaping work? If so, I’d love to see some before and after pictures and hear about it.