Today’s post is written by GOOD friend of the blog and EHD alum Emily Bowser. We hope you’ll all join us in giving her a warm welcome back : )
Back towards the start of the year I started sharing the saga of my back patio on Instagram, and the EHD team reached out and asked me to share it with all of you here on the blog. Of course I LIVE to talk on and on and on about renovation woes, so I quickly said yes.
Then, the tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery happened in February, followed by Breonna Taylor’s murder by police in March. And everything was punctuated by the slow, calculated murder of George Floyd in broad daylight, by police, with people filming and crying out for them to stop. To say that a blog post about my patio felt unimportant is a massive understatement.
To be completely honest, the experience of the pandemic, combined with the current civil rights movement spearheaded by Black Lives Matter, months away from a very important (also understatement) election, has me re-evaluating every aspect of my life. I know I was asked to write a post about my patio, not social justice, but I simply can’t without first acknowledging the fact that what is happening in the world deserves our complete attention. I am white and have benefitted from systems that are founded in white supremacy, including buying, owning, and renovating a home. These systems include things like generational wealth, bank loans, and real estate practices. I chatted a lot about some of this in the comment section on my first post because a few readers felt that I was flippant in the way I spoke about homeownership (thank you to those who spoke up). Yes, I’ve worked hard, and despite a lot of other odds I was able to buy this house and do these expensive renovations. However, those facts do not negate the hard truth that had I been born with a different color skin, my odds of being a homeowner right now would diminish greatly.
So, before I go on to the rest of this post, I wanted it to be clear that all of this is on my mind (and hopefully on all of your minds too). I hope that my story of our small backyard renovation is helpful to those looking to renovate on a budget while enjoying the process. With all of that being said, let’s get into it . . .
WHERE WE STARTED
As a reminder, we own a “2-on-a-lot” (multi-family) property built by a single man in 1930. My husband and I live in the front unit (860 sq feet) and rent out the back house (680 sq feet). The whole lot is a little over 5000 square feet and when we bought it, the lot was all concrete, spare a few small openings for trees. There were 3 lemon trees, 2 apple trees, an orange tree, a clementine tree and a -still- unidentified tree (possibly guava) – where were they getting water with all that concrete??
I talked a bit about this before in my other posts, but it bears repeating – I am a very optimistic person. When I saw both houses on the property they were borderline in shambles. But all I could see was what could be versus the reality. The fact that the two houses were separated by a yard made them each feel a lot more private vs the upstairs/downstairs or side by side duplexes I had looked at. Not only were they separated but they each had their own outside space. I mean, it was nothing to look at, but the square footage was there and it was already mapped out to be a lot more private than any multi-unit property I had seen. I saw these outdoor spaces and I saw nothing but opportunity.
LOL. Reality is so annoying TBH.
You can read about the very overwhelming financial situation we were in here but the general thing to know is this: We had none monies. We didn’t even have the money to do the things that sort of had to be done in order to make the homes, you know, liveable or whatevs. The outdoor space quickly turned into a “one day later” thing as we put out reno fires for months then retreated into our somewhat-renovated but largely unfurnished home and licked our THIS-close-to-financial-ruin wounds.
Here were the few things we did do: We ripped up and replaced the sewage line that led from the back unit to the front. This meant pulling up some concrete and I specifically remember telling my contractor not to bother pouring new concrete over the new sewage line because “we will rip all this up soon.” We cut down the 2 apple trees and one lemon tree on a whim. And finally, we painted the exteriors of both houses. The space between the 2 homes became the dump for the renovation from October-January (as seen above).
THEN THE RAIN CAME . . .
All I remember about 2017 is a lot of rain, hustling but not having enough money, laughing with my friend Lauren instead of crying (mostly about the “quick and easy refinance” that was proving to be neither) and cuddling my cat Daffy. I noticed some pretty significant cracks in the walls of my bedroom and laundry room at some point in 2017 but tried to ignore them. The house was just settling, right?? RIGHT????
The cracks got progressively worse, and despite the fact that I still owed my contractor like $70,000 – I had him look at the foundation and turrrrrrrns out all that rain had washed its way down our concrete hill and landed right around those steps, soaking in, destroying the back wall of our foundation. Cue me laying in a fetal position and wondering (hoping?) if my bed would just fall into the abyss.
My contractor took pity on me, and agreed to do the work knowing I would find some way to pay him. If you want to talk about getting into a codependent relationship with a contractor we can chat more in the comments below.
If my backyard is all concrete then what is that mass of green you ask?? OH, THAT’S A MONSTER TOMATO PLANT GROWING OUT OF A CRACK IN THE CONCRETE THAT I DID NOT PLANT OR WATER OR CARE FOR IN ANY WAY. Not only was it growing out of a crack, earlier in the year my mom had sprayed it with weed killer and STEPPED ON IT. Sorry if this is triggering to find out for anyone who is precious about their tomato plants. So there was something good about 2017 – I had more fresh tomatoes than any other person on the planet.
Anyways, we had fixed the foundation but how were we going to keep this from happening again? We learned that all the concrete poured over the years was likely an attempt to try to keep the water from doing what it did. Remember the sewage line? Well, ripping that up and not re-pouring the concrete had exacerbated the problem. We realized the best option was to pour a sh*t ton more concrete to protect the foundation. So we agreed, but I was like, “yeahhhhhh . . . maybe, pour it into the shape of a patio tho??”
In retrospect, I’m an insane person. WHY would I add more to my debt when I was so far in? Probably because it seemed so counterintuitive to ADD more concrete without at least making it functional. Meanwhile, we were already paying to tear and remove some concrete in other parts of the yard, so the ‘ole “welllllll, as long as we’re here . . .” thing happened and we went ahead and removed all the concrete in our backyard (except of course for the new concrete patio we were going to pouring). When they brought over all the machinery to fix the patio, the chain-link fence gate in the front got damaged and I had the genius/insane idea of adding a stucco wall there as well. All in all, I added QUITE a bit to my already existing debt with my contractor (on top of the $2000 I paid to the subcontractor to remove all the concrete). Luckily my husband got a holiday bonus that year and we were able to give our contractor a $5000 check of goodwill.
Speaking on money, let’s take a quick break to look at the numbers: We bought our home for $600,000, put down only $22,000, were able to pay our contractor $38,000 from a construction loan (that was added to our $600,000 mortgage), got a family loan (aka generational wealth) for $60,000, and scraped together the rest of the money ourselves ($40,000ish). By February 2017 we had paid our contractor $130,000 and still owed him around $70,000. Then the foundation problem happened, and $14,000 got added to the debt. It wouldn’t be until November of 2018 when we finally were able to get our house refinanced and pay him the $84,000 we owed him. I’ve talked about this before but it’s worth noting again – my contractor had quoted me $100,000 for the renovation, so it was 100% over what he said ($214,000 total), which is part of why he was understanding about the delay in payment.
Back to the patio . . .
THE FANTASY STARTS TO BECOME A REALITY
Remember William Hunter’s home? Well, he and his wife Amanda are friends of mine and he just whipped this beauty up for me. It was/is my north star. ALSO, CHECK DAFFY IN THE WINDOW. I came up with the layout of the patio by imagining what size the walkway needed to be to seem comfortable and extending the patio all the way up to that line so there wasn’t any wasted space. I gave myself around 2 feet of depth for planting a hedge against the fence and 4 feet for the walkway. The wall around the patio also created a natural nook for the trashcans to live on the other side without being an eyesore. William and Amanda actually convinced me that I would want one wide step for sitting on and they were SO right. It’s a weird concept, but sitting on the edge of a step is just something humans do I guess? I sit there ALL the time.
At this point the foundation was fixed, we had a structure, and all the concrete was gone from this area. There was just the teeny tiny problem of, once again, having absolutely no money but a very unfinished dirt yard. When this was going on, my friend Anne lived in the back unit and I believe she had shoes she would specifically wear to walk through the dirt/mud (because it was still rainy season!) and change shoes when she got to her car. I got to work as fast as possible creating a new walkway to at least fix that problem. Originally I was going to do a pebble path, but I had learned of too many people on hills having a hard time with them washing away with heavy rains.
I settled on large pavers and medium-sized stones surrounding them. I did a little (a lot) of googling and watched a ton of old men DIY youtube videos on how to make a path like this and here is what I learned: You have to dig a shallow ditch, the shape of the desired path, about 4 inches deep. Line the ditch with landscape weed barrier, use some kind of edging to keep the earth from falling back into the ditch (I used steel edging at first, replaced later by a stone edging), place pavers where desired and then fill in the rest with the smaller stones. Easy enough, right? FALSE. My dirt is made of clay and rocks, and digging that trench almost killed me. If you want a play by play, I have the whole saga saved in my story highlights (titled Yard Reno 3). It’s RIVETING.
We put the hedges in before the walkway so I knew I had enough room for the hedge to fit first. The hedges are Ficus Nitida and I got them from a local place called Planta Nursery. We bought 22 of them and planted them about 3 ft apart.
After I finished the hedges and walkway the yard stayed like this for the first half of 2018. We were, again, out of money and I had started working a lot more regularly for Emily, which kept me too busy daily to try any more intense DIYs. Personally, I also like to live with things unfinished for a while so I can figure out what I actually want. We put up lights, used outdoor furniture we had from our former apartment and honestly, despite the dirt yard (you didn’t notice that as much in the dark anyway) we really enjoyed the patio. We played Kubb (google it), sat around a fire pit with our back house tenants (and good friends) almost every night, and started letting our kitties out for supervised outside time (game changer).
VEGETATION AT LAST
A few months later we had saved enough to pull the trigger on having a landscaper put in a garden, mulch for under the fruit trees, river rocks for the walkway edging, irrigation, and grass. The total for that was about $7000, but we were able to pay in a couple of installments. A good chunk of that was the irrigation system (around $2000), grass (around $1500), and the install of everything ($2300). I can tell you right now, whatever they charged me for install was not enough. After that walkway and the hedges, I have a whole new respect for landscapers. Digging is. So. Hard.
During this install, I went to Maryland for a month in June to be with family after an unexpected passing of my aunt’s husband (she’s only a year older than me, it’s a long story, er, confusing story?). And as soon as I got back I jumped on a plane 24 hours later headed to Portland for a Target shoot Emily was doing there and that led right into the Portland Project. Every picture I have of the back yard during these early times of having a yard was of my cats because I would only be home for a day or 2 and then go back to Portland and clearly I missed my cats sooooooo much.
I had planned on doing the gardening part myself but when it became clear that I wouldn’t be home for quite awhile, I went ahead and had the landscapers put plants in as well so they could establish themselves before cooler weather. The direction I gave was that I wanted it to feel very natural. I wanted herbs and lots of shades of greens with some dark purples. There’s rosemary, Kangaroo paws, lavender, olive bushes, black rose succulents, and more…
My hedges. I could write a love letter to them. They were inexpensive, they grew fast, and they just did their GD job. I always say they are the ONLY thing about this renovation that just all around WORKED. 22 of them + delivery = $350. I planted them myself, so that was free but honestly, I would have paid someone if I could have. 8 months after we planted them they needed to be staked because they were growing so fast and falling all over each other. My landscaper did it, the stakes and ties cost $195, the install was $75 (DEF glad I paid for that) so my total investment was $620 and LOOK AT THEM NOW:
I LOVE THEM SO MUCH.
They cover the not-so-pretty (because we were looking at the back of it) fence and add so much drama. That picture was taken in May, and since then they’ve actually gotten taller. I surmise these beauties are about 10 feet tall. You can kind of see where the fence is behind them, and that’s a 6-foot fence. Going from zero green, to the green grass and hedges has completely and totally changed this small outdoor space.
PAINTING THE PATIO – ONE STEP CLOSER TO DONE
We recently decided after living with the unfinished (read v dirty and stained) concrete patio that we left that way because we couldn’t afford tile for 2 years, to just go ahead and paint it. It was a pretty simple process. I bought an inexpensive power washer (the most exciting part. Fun fact: I like owning all the tools), washed the patio, filled in the cracks with concrete filler and painted it the same color as the house. If you go back to William’s sketch of the dream of the backyard, you will notice it is all white. At the time I was really into that look but figured it was not 100% a great choice as far as keeping it clean. Spoiler alert: It’s not. However, this is just for the short term and very fun nonetheless. You can use a Porch and Patio paint like this one. Then to make sure it would be easy to wash (knowing it would get so dirty) we finished it off with a wet look sealer which makes it way glossier and easier to clean. Probably could be slippery when wet though, just FYI.
BEFORE & AFTER (SO FAR)
SO, this is where we are now. Mind you, this is all our old furniture and look how sad that couch styling is! But we have BIG DIY plans for this space! Stay tuned, because I’ll be attempting a very large sectional, built with my own 2 hands featuring Ross Alan Reclaimed Wood. Stay at home orders have me itching to do some gardening. I’m going to be fixing up the garden that has grown in so much and needs some love and even more herbs so it becomes even more functional and not just pretty.
On the right side of the patio I’m going to attempt my first vegetable garden in a raised bed, and I’m going to make myself. Did anyone else watch Ron Finley’s masterclass??
I’m sure I’ll be talking more about the process and selling things we no longer need (and I’m looking for a perfect table to put in this space!) over on the insider community! Please let’s talk in the comments, love hearing from all of you! Until next time xx