Backyard Construction Projects

Adding value to your new home while helping to complete the neighbourhood is often one of the major objectives of new home buyers. While more and more new home builders are starting to offer finishing packages including decks, fences and detached garages, the financial implications of these accessories as additional cost on one’s mortgage can be a detriment to future financial success. With a little bit of DIY (do it yourself) knowledge and ambition for some manual labor in one’s own yard after a day at work; you can add potential huge value to your new property while spending money only for the materials. With spring right around the corner, use your winter time to plan and research and by the time the ground thaws you can be ready to start construction.

If building the combination of a deck, fence and detached garage as an option or accessory package through your home builder, a family in a new home can incur an additional $30K or more in costs which in today’s mortgage values amortized over 25 years can cost somewhere between two and three times that value. On the other hand there are finance options that make purchasing the materials and “doing it yourself” very financially attractive. One of my personal favorites is “Finance for 12 monthly payments at 0% interest.” My point is that rather than spending possibly $60K to $100K over the mortgage life new home buyers can possibly put somewhere between $20K and $50K of equity in their back pocket with a little bit of careful planning and a summer of sweat equity. Stores like Totem Building Supplies offer the most complete packages I have found, right down to the screws. They also offer delivery or loading from their yard directly into your truck or SUV.

Building a deck is a good place to start. Almost all new homes come with a front porch, front step, driveway or side walk. However the back door is a different scenario. Some builders have been known in the past to disable the door knob on the back door or garden door at time of possession. This is due in part to the sometimes three to six foot drop to the ground and lack of stairs (if you were unwilling to pay the exorbitant price for that option.) City building inspectors allow this in posting up your occupancy permit on the premise that you can’t fall to the ground if you can’t get the door open; for the purposes of fire escape they say you can still throw your chair to break the kitchen window!

The city of Calgary has a great brochure for planning your deck. A building permit is not required if your deck is built relatively low to the ground. The city planning department is focused on you being able to enjoy your yard, without becoming an eyesore or intrusion to your neighbour’s privacy. To this effect if you’re planning an elevated deck, second floor balcony or roof top patio you can expect more paperwork in your application for a building permit. In some cases if what you want to build is outside the normal range of construction allowed under the city bylaws, (proximity to roads and laneways, elevations, overall construction height) then a development permit will be required before you can apply for a building permit. This presents an extra layer of paperwork if you’re making such an application, but is also the barrier to preventing your neighbour from building something that appears intrusive or detracts from your property value and the neighbourhood.

A basic twelve foot square deck can in most cases be built for under $1K including stairs. This becomes the gateway to your new back yard. Obviously larger more elaborate designs will cost more money and homeowners can plan to build their deck, porch, patio in stages as they expand the area and include more versatility. Benches, a place for the BBQ and the obligatory patio table and chairs can transform what was a dirt yard on the backside of your new house into your new “outdoor room.” Make sure if building above 0.6m (24inches) above ground to include railings to prevent the “fall hazard,” especially after a few evening wobbly-pops. If you’re not already comfortable with deck frame construction, read a book, get help from a friend, or check at your local building supply store. As with most projects if you start with a square and level foundation and use the proper floating or piling column supports, beams and joist hangers, the finished result will be equally level and square. My favorite technique is to use a patio block to “float” the columns holding the main beam that supports the deck at the opposite side from the house. This way if settling occurs on your new lot in the first few years you simply jack up the deck and put a spacer plank in to get the deck back to level. Using concrete poured pilings are a lot more difficult to adjust, but may be necessary for stability if building to a greater height.

Once your deck is built you can start giving thought to building a fence or even a garage. With each project a few more tools are purchased so consider building a locker at one corner of your deck to keep your tools and equipment. This saves lugging all of the tools back into the house for storage in the basement at the end of a few hours work. Before I had a locker at our old house I used to keep the tape measure, hammer, string and nails under the lid of the BBQ grill. I could do a few minutes of work on laying out for the fence and garage in the evening and no one knew I was leaving my tools outside.

Building the fence is a good project to do with each neighbour on each side. I would tackle one side at a time to work with that person or family, get to know them and achieve the fence together. You’ll want to choose a common design that you both like and then plan out the details together. Each house should come with a real survey report that you and your neighbour can work off of together. By combining the information from both reports you can measure from both houses and other reference points to accurately determine the “line” that divides the two lots.

It is best then to measure a small distance, say 3” to one side of this line and set a stake at either end with which to attach a string. Pulling the string tight to 100 lbs of force creates a string line parallel to your actual property line, 3” away. Make sure to measure the 3” in the same direction at both ends; otherwise the string line will cross over the actual property line, somewhere in the middle. More stakes can then be set along the actual property line, most commonly 8’ on centre. Each stake marks where to drill a post hole and special spacing can be used to create gates and corners where the fence turns into the house. Because the string line is offset from the actual fence line, it can be pulled aside during hole drilling and then pulled back into place to measure the actual posts when setting concrete. And those gate posts, there should be a minimum of 36” between those posts to make a wide gate for garden carts, garbage and recycle bins, etc.

The maximum height to which a fence can be built is 6’ above grade. Also, if you and your neighbour are in agreement and work together as listed above, you can build the fence “on the line.” If your neighbour does not want to cooperate and share the cost and you end up building the fence on your own, you will have to build on your side of the line. This does mean you can choose whatever design and pattern you want. I would also recommend waiting at least two winters to build a fence on the side of your yard where utilities, gas and electric were trenched to the house during construction. This allows the freeze thaw cycle to complete any ground settling where the trenching was done. Putting in fence posts near to or on top of ground that is not yet compact will surely cause your new fence to lean and not be the successful curb appealing feature that you hoped for.

Last summer, contractors in Cranston were charging between $30 and $40 per linear foot for wood fence construction. My neighbours and I did our own and the materials cost was under $12 per foot; $15 if you include the cost of fence post hole drilling. This means we saved somewhere between $15 and $25 per foot. Once again this adds to my point that these simple DIY projects while adding beauty to your new home can also put money in your back pocket. Start off small, learn as you go, don’t be afraid to accept help from a neighbour, and your backyard project will be a success. Once you’ve mastered the deck and fence, you can tackle building the garage!


As featured in April 2013 Cranversations Newsletter. Will Morlidge is an 11-year resident of Cranston.


Image courtesy of Toa55 /

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