Landscaping As An Investment: Focus On Aesthetics And Functionality

One of the most gratifying investments I've made is landscaping a fixer I bought in 2014. Great landscaping can really improve the value of your property. Not only does good landscaping make the property look great, it may create more useable space.

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 landscaping 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 As An Investment For Positive Returns

I don't have a big house (~1,920 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.

Landscaping Negotiation

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 Landscaping Pics

Landscaping As An Investment
Playground before pic.
Landscaping As An Investment
Landscaping As An Investment
Meticulously measured each level
Landscaping As An Investment
Landscaping As An Investment
Dug 10 feet deep and pour cement in each post hole
Landscaping As An Investment
Landscaping As An Investment
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.
Hot tub platform with rebar before cement pouring
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
Playground for the kids
300 sqft playground for kids
Final Landscaping project outcome

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.

Landscaping Created More Space

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.

Got Mulch?

Landscaping Makes The Yard More Beautiful

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. Here's some advice on how much to spend remodeling and whether you should get a permit or not.

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!

Investor Mindset Recap

1) Before spending any money on landscaping, always think about value creation in the form of functionality e.g. adding more useable land. Then focus on aesthetics.

2) Not everyone will have the same taste as you no matter how beautiful you think your finished product is. Therefore, don't finish it. Get 90% of the way there and allow other people to do the final easy work e.g. planting.

3) Everybody likes to focus on the house, but the majority of value is in the land. Don't neglect good landscaping when it comes to resale or getting top rental income.

4) Cut out the middle man by going directly to the workers actually doing the work. Any good hustler wants to do more work on the side. Just make sure you have a discussion regarding liability. It's also important to have an umbrella policy in case something were to happen.

5) With good landscaping, not only will you make an economic return when it comes time for resale, you'll also get a satisfaction return as you look and use the finished product as well.

Real Estate Recommendations

Explore Real Estate Crowdsourcing. If you don't want to bother with landscaping, consider investing in real estate passively instead. Take a look at Fundrise, one of the largest real estate crowdsourcing companies today. Real estate is a key component of a diversified portfolio with historical returns of between 8% – 12%.

Real estate crowdsourcing allows you to be more flexible in your real estate investments by investing beyond just where you live for the best returns possible. I also really like CrowdStreet because they offer individual investments in 18-hour cities. 18-hour cities tend to have higher growth rates and higher cap rates.

I've personally invested $810,000 in real estate crowdfunding so far after selling my SF rental house in 2017. So far so good as I diversify my real estate holdings and earn more income passively.

With the housing market so strong, rents and property prices are going up. Further, high inflation and low mortgage rates means borrowing is extremely cheap. As a result, real estate should continue to do very well post-pandemic.

Fundrise Due Diligence Funnel
Less than 5% of the real estate deals shown gets through the Fundrise funnel

Refinance your mortgage: Check out Credible, my favorite mortgage marketplace where prequalified lenders compete for your business. You can get competitive, real quotes in under three minutes for free. Refinance your mortgage before rates go up.

78 thoughts on “Landscaping As An Investment: Focus On Aesthetics And Functionality”

  1. Hi Sam, I just came across your post as I search for “hilly backyard in San Francisco”. What a smart design and great achievement – getting it down with such a good deal and such a short time!!

    Can you connect me to Luis? I live in SF too (near West Portal), and have an almost exactly same backyard – that’s why I was searching that term – Desperately looking for landscapers right now, but haven’t had any luck finding anyone who is even willing to do such a steep yard!


    1. Funny search term! Glad I rank for it LOL!

      Unfortunately, Luis retired! He decided to be a trucker instead as the landscaping work was too grueling. I’m bummed! B/c I have another project for him to do and he turned it down. Noooo.

      Just copy my design! It just takes a lot of manual labor.

      Good for structural support too.

      1. Thanks for the reply! We just got the backyard cleaned up. Now looking for someone to do the retaining walls. I just showed your design to a landscaping company and he quoted over 100,000! Thought you would be interested to know. LOL

  2. This is absolutely gorgeous. I love the idea of having a kids’ level and an adult level. You can actually talk to your friends without children racing through and knocking things, but you are still close enough to monitor for safety. Brilliant and beautiful!

  3. Once Upon A Time, we had a contractor rip out the nasty backyard foliage and partly-buried sidewalk at the house we had purchased, and put down reasonable pebble paths and sod and the like. It was much like your description, where the version where you hire someone to help make the decisions was looking like $65k, but by just going “off the shelf” we were at more like $15k.

    And we used him and his crew for the front yard, and we later found buried trash along our side yard. So, we got a deal, but we decided we needed to move on from that contractor (we did _not_ negotiate him down from his offer, and we’d have covered the tipping fee had he asked, so that one one corner cut too much).

  4. Great pics Sam.
    1) You mentioned liability so besides the regular Umbrella policy as a homeowner did you get anything special?
    2) Also with all the remodel I am curious if the county assessor asked you for revised costs and updated your property taxes?
    3) I’m in east bay so was actually thinking about hiring Luis as well haha

    1. Hi John,

      Not sure what type of special umbrella policy there is. Just amount. Thankfully, no county assessor has come by to reassess to tax my property more. If you get a permit, then you will get reassessed higher by the cost you state on the application. You don’t need a permit to landscape, which makes it a relative good value from a tax perspective.

      If you need Luis contact info, let me know. He’s happy to hustle for more work!


      1. Hi Sam,

        My understanding was that if you use a GC then the GC holds insurance and worker’s comp. Since you are directly hiring the workers is there anything additional you needed to do?
        Also for my permit; I received a notice from county assessor with assessed cost higher than stated on the permit form. Not sure what would you do in such a situation.

        Also please email me Luis contact info :-)

  5. Nothing like coming in under budget on a DIY project. Sounds like Luis was someone you could definitely continue doing future landscaping with if you need it!

    Awesome pictures it looks great !!

  6. That looks fantastic! On my strolls through San Francisco this spring, I couldn’t believe how many homeowners neglected their landscaping due to the challenging topography. As you showed, creating a usable lot is possible on a modest budget.

    1. It is funny b/c property is so expensive here. That said, it’s one of those things were properties will sell at a minimum expensive level regardless, especially if your street looks similar.

      I just really like having a well-maintained house that looks good. It just makes me happy to come home to a sweet home.

  7. Your First Million

    Some of the best investments I have EVER made were in landscaping on my rental properties. I was paying an arm and a leg for lawn care, trimming, etc… which was eating up precious cash flow each month. Now on I do not allow grass at my properties. Rocks and/or artificial turf. The returns on the investment on these upgrades are astounding (based on the money saved from lawn care etc).

  8. Vancouver Brit

    So based on the limited information you gave, each contractor earned around $34 per hour.

    3.5 weekends = 7 days @ 8 hours a day = 56 hours x 5 people = 280 labour hours. $9,500 / 280 = $33.92.

    Pretty damn cheap if you ask me! I won’t lie I’d be a bit uncomfortable haggling him down to $9,500 when you know it’s already such a steal. I almost felt sorry for Luis reading this post until you said you’re hiring him again to do the front haha.

    1. $34/hour is triple the minimum wage. Not bad for a 22 yo who also hired his younger brother to do work. Making $2,400 a weekend for 4 weekends in a row is pretty darn good money for a young fella who also has a full time job.

      I can only hope most readers are side hustling as much as Luis!

      1. Vancouver Brit

        Haha didn’t realize he was such a young guy. Pretty skilled for a 22 year old! I guess most of the work is simple manual labour so I suppose $34 an hour ain’t bad. That seems a low minimum wage for San Francisco though, I imagine most industries pay above the minimum?

        1. I don’t set the minimum wages rules. What is it in Vancouver? Louie started working in the industry when he was 18.

          But I do think your feedback and other feedback about feeling sorry for Luis is indicative of what upside potential there is in America at least. And also how truly rich we all are.

          When I was 17 to 22 years old, I would kill to earn triple the minimum-wage every weekend for now nine weekends.

          I really still believe despite all my wealth accumulation, I would still be pumped to earn $2000 plus in cash on weekends as extra side hustle money. Even until this day at almost 40 old. But maybe it’s because I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and I really enjoy working hard for my money. I was in the backyard shoveling dirt with them for two hours each day as well.

          What do you think are the reasons why the $2000+ Side hustle dollars isn’t that big of a deal for you? I’m beginning to think a lot about hustle, and wealth generation is part of one’s DNA.

          1. Vancouver Brit

            Yeah the minimum wage here sounds similar, around $11. I envisage SF to be a more expensive place to live though, but perhaps I’m mistaken. It seemed quite pricey when I was there as a tourist, but admittedly that’s a whole different kettle of fish than living there. What is typical rent for a one bedroom (600 sq/ft) in an “average” neighborhood in downtown? Here it’s perhaps around $1,700 CAD. Based on the astonishingly expensive AirBNB opportunities I saw in SF (most over $300 per night, way more than hotels, and they were utter dumps that were being offered) I can only assume rent there in downtown is very high.

            And I agree, at that age I would kill to earn that kind of money, that’s a whole load of cash. However, is it Luis’ side hustle or it his only hustle? Don’t forget that this is contractor work and has to cover many other expenses like tools, pension and any other costs any employer would typically cover.

            Personally, in my situation at least, education is more worthwhile to me than side hustle at the moment. Right now I’m studying for the CPA, which is very time consuming. Once I’m done with that (1.5 years) I’ll either find other designations/certificates that can boost my income potential or if there is nothing, perhaps look at side hustle opportunities. I’m pretty sure I won’t be shoveling dirt all weekend to earn more money though, I value my free time more than that, even if the pay is decent.

            1. It’s his side hustle money. He has a day job working for a landscaping company.

              Vancouver is median home price is more expensive than San Francisco’s. Yet, one of the thousand dollar your jobs are a dime a dozen for 20 something-year-old’s due to all the big tech companies here.

              Good luck with the CPA designation.

    2. I always do the same hourly contractor math and probably wouldn’t have bothered negotiating down under $10K with that much built-in savings. Instead, it would have been something like 10% bonus for meeting the budget and getting the project down on-time. Both of those are worth far more to me than saving $500 up front on a $10K project.

      After doing many, many rehabs with different contractors, my biggest irritation is still low-priced bids who don’t deliver followed by crews that don’t clean up afterwards. A few crews didn’t even bother showing up on Day 1 at the scheduled time (which instantly leads to contractor #2 being hired).

      I’d rather pay slightly more for someone reliable and give them an incentive to remain reliable. You always run the risk of the bigger project with fatter profits pushing your just started project into the background. It happens much more frequently with side hustle guys trying to do bigger projects, but established contractors with multiple crews aren’t immune either.

      1. My embedded bonus was to introduce him to many, many more projects of my own and in my network. That’s exactly what I’ve done and he is meeting for the second time with one of my friends who is going to spend at least $30,000 on their backyard.

        With his bonus, he’s been great. On time, great cleanup, within budget.

  9. Thanks for sharing the photos and details from this project. It was a great investment and truly looks amazing. learning about the sf real estate market on your blog is fascinating.

  10. Wow, that’s really nice. The tiered backyard gives you a lot more usable space especially when you have kid. Great deal. Looks like this will help with land movement as well.

  11. High Income Parents

    That looks awesome. I’m sure you had to have added more than $20k to your resell value.
    You could use one of those tiers as a petanque court in you golden years. :)

    Tom @ HIP

  12. Dr. Remoulack

    Beautiful job, Sam. But please tell me you tipped Luis and his crew the $500 you negotiated him down for a job well done :)

    1. Not only that, he’s earned money from my front yard and side yard project, and I introduced him to a friend who plans on spending $25,000 – $30,000. If you’d like to hire Luis, let me know!

      Client referrals are KEY for small business owners. I’ve encouraged him to start his own shop.

      1. Dr. Remoulak

        Would love to – if you ever hear him mention that he’s taking a trip out to the Jersey shore area and is looking for some work, let me know :)

        Great advice on starting his own shop. Someone is making a fortune off his talent and hard work. Maybe on your next project you can barter by giving him a crash course in web marketing :)

  13. I can’t really imagine a job costing anywhere between $60k to $80k on a such a small garden (you can build a 1500 sq ft house with such amount of money), even though I am well aware of jaw dropping real estate prices in San Francisco, but $17 000 sounds very reasonable indeed, that is a huge discount thanks to ditching the middle man out. You’ve done very well. It’s good to have usable terrace garden instead of a slope lot and it looks great. I just wonder why did not you use concrete slabs instead of wooden planks, wood can always rot when in contact with wet ground or dry up and brake up eventually. Cost of materials is about the same, but the longevity of concrete slabs should be at least ten times more. If I would do the same in my garden (I live in Czech Republic), wood would rot and break up in about two years thanks to weather. Cost of similar project in Czech Republic, including work and materials (if made from concrete slabs) would be anywhere between $3000 to $5000 (without ditching the the middle man out). On top of that, if you encrust the concrete slabs with stone, the garden wall looks fantastic (pic related)

    1. It would be great to take advantage of Czech Republic prices in SF for building materials and labor. Too bad I can only take advantage digitally. I actually went to Prague recently to understand how Gawker was able to legally avoid taxes by creating an Expense entity there. But really I was there to just take up the sights and sounds mainly.

      The temperature is pretty mild in SF (averages 62 degrees year round). As a result, pressure treated wood lasts for a long time here i.e. 60+ years. I’m guessing I’ll be dead or have sold the house by then. If not, I’d just rebuild/reinforce.

      The labor for concrete slabs is much, much more. Probably around quadruple the price. Why? Need a truck and a hose to pour the cement down various tiers of a hill. And you still need to build retaining walls on each level to pour the cement into. Then you’ve got to remove the retaining walls and then put decorative rock on the cement. I know, because I just built a large retaining wall when I built my deck. It’s the other side of the playground you don’t see in the pics. If I had a flat lot, it would be easier, but I’m on a hill.

      Finally, I aesthetically like the look of wood better. It’s blends well with the environment and looks more natural.

      I’d love to see some cement walls in your garden. Send some pics! How much did it cost you to do yours?

  14. Dood, el Farbe

    OMG, wow, thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve tried to get my wife to look at various articles on your `site.

    I can only hope to God she doesn’t see this one. We’re also on a fairly steep property and I don’t want to spend ~ $XXXXX K to make it more like yours! She’s always bugging me on how we can make it more liveable.

    You’ve just shown great “how to” examples… but I don’t want to let go of the dollars.

  15. Save Splurge Deny Debt - Cameron

    Wow job well done and if I could get my yard done for 17k I would hire it out as well.

    We bought a foreclosure that needed and still needs work three years ago. No one offered on the house because of a hole in siding around the chimney flue. My dad and I can handle pretty much any home repair so we fixed it in the first weekend.

    Our other projects have included yard work, new floors, new paint, and new doors/windows. I would imagine we have saved tens of thousands of dollars of work by completing the projects ourselves.

    Having some knowledge and doing research also helps when hiring it out. We can basically subcontract out plumbers/electricians instead of having to call a contractor. Much like you did with the yard guys.

    It looks absolutely fantastic by the way! I like the agave plants a lot and think the kids will enjoy playing in the playground area. Nice job!

  16. Man, will Luis and the fellas travel? ;) I’m about 100 miles from you. Haha! I need to landscape about a 1/3 of an acre.

  17. Absolute steal. I’m thinking about completely updating a Bay Area rental and need to find a way to get around the middle man which is hard when you don’t live locally any more.
    I have noticed an interesting fact and taken advantage here where we live though. If I speak with someone I get the standard rate quotes that the neighbors pay. My wife is Puerto Rican and if they happen to be Spanish speaking the price drops immediatly.
    In terms of your backyard…
    Outdoor bar and custom spa on the top level.
    Second level putting green and ring toss/general adult enjoyable games then the kids on the bottom. Last thing you want is some kid from school taking a tumble down a level from the playground.
    Again nice job on the price. I think it’s a bit like travel when you’re retired….
    If you’re not in a hurry or particular about days you can save a lot of money. Leave Monday at noon? Sure why not. What’s that flight cost? Those workers had a gap in schedule. Option: make no money or bang out your job and get paid. We usually follow this approach. “When do you want this done?” Whenever you have time.

    1. Yeah, I told Luis he could work whenever he wanted. He was particularly thankful I didn’t rush him because he could only work weekends. So here is a guy who basically worked 40+ hours a week at the large landscaping company, and then worked 18 hours over the weekends for almost four weekends in a row for side hustle money. His work ethic inspired me to keep on going too!

      Everything is negotiable and here in SF, there is the “Pacific Heights Pricing” and everywhere else. Contractors and folks will charge based on neighborhood and by culture/race for sure!

  18. Before and after are nice. It looked like a straight up jungle before. Can you please put up pics of the playground and how you plan to accessorize the other tiers (for functionality purposes). I have a hilly backyard so I may steal…..sorry gently borrow some ideas :-).

  19. I love landscaping, though I still have a HOA to deal with. Since moving in I have put in 14 fruit trees, ripped out some ferns to make more green space/grass for my son, and have been modifying the drip system. It is fun and the most enjoyable part of owning my home currently.

    Nice tier work. I have a slope I am also thinking about doing something similar to.

  20. Looks great. We just spent $200k on our backyard and if I could post pictures I think you would agree it was money well spent. A huge cedar pavillion with natural gas fireplace, 1,500 sq ft of stone patios around the free form pool, $18,000 hot tub, $12,000 in furniture, $9,000 in led lighting, new trees and about 100 new plants. With young kids and lots of family time we think its a great investment in family fun (and it raises the value of our property significantly). No mortgage and paid cash for this project without impacting our financial security.

    1. Big bucks! It sounds like an awesome place. Send me pictures if you have my email in the about page. I love checking out nice design and stuff. How much is your house worth estimate?

      1. $1.5 or so, maybe $1.7. Bought it 11 years ago for $580k. Have put quite a bit of money into it over the years. Mortgage was paid off on it 6 years ago. Will email you some pics on the weekend, pouring rain today! We had three designs done and went with the most expensive but most interesting design. A great use of space, good flow and the pavilion is awesome. Carpenter and his team spent weeks building it. Post and beam style, cedar shake roof, tongue and groove cedar ceiling.

  21. Jack Catchem

    Great job, Sam!

    I always force myself to get at least three quotes for any project. You never know when you will stumble on a gem like Luis!

    I also deeply appreciate your approach of keeping the maintenance low. I used to have a backyard full of weeds and slab concrete. Now it has a few fruit bearing trees, good looking artificial turf, and hardscaping. We replaced a hot tub with a fire pit and an 8 foot stream. The project did not cost too much and saves me a lot of maintenance time and utility money. Also I love hanging out there with my family.

    As usual: good move, Sam. Thanks for letting us be a part of the project.

  22. Albert Jeans

    Great job! So much of landscaping is just plain sweat and hard work. There are lots of resources in books and on the web, so why not learn and do it yourself while saving money? For some reason landscaping services have huge price variations as you found. I found factors of 2 or more in the quotes to take out some redwood trees which I had planted and had gotten too big (be careful what you wish for!). Now my garden is mature and the challenge is to keep it from getting too overgrown.

  23. Nice score, sometimes it pays to wait for a good deal to come along. Another nice aspect of investing in landscaping is in the plants themselves. The smaller the plant the cheaper it is. Once in the ground, these plants double in value each year. I just planted some $40 trees, by next year they should be as big as the $100 trees :)

    1. Bingo! So true. I just planted a 6.5 foot tall maple tree in front to greet visitors. It will eventually grow to 15 feet in height and more than triple it’s value since the value increases at a non-linear rate.

      Hooray for plants growing our net worth automatically with water!

        1. Indeed. We strategically mapped out the sewer ((had that changed by the city for free last year actually b/c it was 65 years old) and main water line (changed to 2 inch copper pipe two years ago). The maple tree only grows to max 15 feet, so it’s not one of those damaging huge trees like a ficus.

  24. I have not done any landscaping work because I am cheap. Well I guess I did self plant 3 trees in our flattish backyard, but that’s because I absolutely love trees and the shade they provide. Plus, buying and planting trees is extremely easy and far cheaper than hiring someone to do this for you.

    If I were to sell my house, I would buy a ton of grass in a second. I would put it over the weeds I have now, because I know this is what buyers want. I am holding out until we sell (hopefully never) because I know planting fescue grass in TN is a losing cause, and it will need to be watered often, due to the intense heat here.

    Great article.

  25. Go Finance Yourself!

    This project turned out really well. And for $17k… that’s cheap no matter what part of the country you’re in. Awesome work. By turning all that space in the backyard to usable space, I’d bet you added more than $17k to the value of your property. And it looks a hell of a lot better too. Did you tell your neighbor you used his crew to score a much better deal than he got? :)

    1. So the funny thing is, Luis’ boss drove by one Saturday and found him working on my front yard. Luis was afraid his boss would admonish him for doing side hustle work, but instead, the boss complimented him for the great work he was doing! He asked Luis whether the owner was a designer or if I had used a landscape architect (nope), because the boss said my project looks much nicer than the neighbor’s for $160,000 (started at ~$125,000)!

      Luis asked me the next day whether I was a designer, and told me not to tell the neighbor the cost if they ask. He said to say $50,000+ for labor on the front yard if they insisted compared to the $5,000 he charged me.

      There is huge fat to cut if you go directly w/ the workers. But there is also liability issues and quality control if you don’t know the workers.

      1. Ms. Conviviality

        You know, Sam, it’s getting really difficult to keep up with all your credentials! Stockbroker, blogger, financial guru, teacher, handyman, landscape designer…

  26. That came out really good! What you paid is a steal anywhere in the US, let alone SF. Did you run the wiring for the hot tub yet? I bought a 4-person tub about a year ago and then returned it after 7 months back to Costco. It was definitely fun at first though. I’d recommend a salt-water system and 240v hardwire.

    1. Thanks! Not yet. I have to wait for the hot tub first to get installed, and then do the hardwiring from the subpanel. I already got the electrician to come out and give me a quote, so he is just waiting for me.

      Why did you return your hot tub? I’m going with this Sundance spa that’s supposedly one of the best. It’s the Altamar version, same version in the SF Giant’s and 49ers locker rooms!

      1. “Why did you return your hot tub?”

        Short answer – the optimizer in me won despite all the decadence of having your very own spa. It wasn’t an easy decision and I do miss it once in awhile but it was definitely the right choice – for me. A much longer answer is in this post:

        What was the quote from the electrician? Mine was $1,200 so I just installed a 110V circuit myself and bought a hot tub that supported plug-n-play. Definitely go with the 230V hardwire if you know you’ll keep it!

        1. Man, that was the best personal finance post on a hot tub ever :)

          I hear you on optimization. I HATE waste, which is why I feel so much better living in my current house than in my other house which was at least ~600 sqft too big. As soon as I rented out my downstairs garden room in my house, I felt so much better. Same thing goes with driving a compact car versus a truck.

          Quote from the electrician with the permit fee and the hassle to get the permit was $2,000 for the hardwire 230V. He has to open up some sheet rock and drill from upstairs unfortunately.

          Given the temp is mild in SF, there’s no need to “winterize” the hot tub and stuff. I am a hot tub fanatic and can sit in one for hours. Try not to though. A hot tub is perfect for me after a tennis match. And given there’s a view of the ocean down there still, I think it’ll be a nice place to get away. I WILL use it 3-4X a week because I play tennis 3X a week, and have done so for 10 years now.

          The hot tub is my one last luxury spend, besides my mid-life crisis car. And I know it’s a great thing to attract friends over too.

          1. Haha, yeh I got carried away writing about a hot tub – who knew? It’s almost like I had to justify to myself why I was sending it back… My wife thought I was crazy too, but then that’s nothing new.

            It sounds like you are a perfect candidate for a hot tub. Before we went to SF I thought everyone had a pool in California, but SF climate is definitely something else!

            What you describe addresses most of the problems I had with the hot tub – noise (better on concrete than my wooden deck), winterizing (don’t have to in SF!), frequency of use (will be amazing after tennis). Ad ocean views and I’d probably do the same.

            Also, if you are handy you could save a lot of money by running the wiring yourself and just letting the electrician do the connections at the panel and to the hot tub.

  27. That looks amazing and not easy for the type of yard it is. And what an amazing deal! I live in an apartment with a shared backyard and our landlord let’s us do pretty much whatever we want with it. A double-edged sword since it comes out of our pocket and kind of benefits him, but it is nice to have a yard while you rent in LA. I’ve turned several spots into a garden area. I spent something like $153 dollars for beautifying our backyard and growing veggies. Not too bad! And it feels so peaceful back there!

  28. Nice job! It’s amazing how maintaining landscaping can increase the value of the property and change the neighborhood appearance for the better. I manage my parent’s property and hired a contractor to paint the back and front porch and replace a carpet on the front porch. The tenants are happy because they’ll enjoy the renovations just in time for spring and summer.

  29. Great post Sam. My husband and I are actually going through a very similar process. We own a single family home and the backyard slopes from right to left with a large hill on the left down to our neighbors yard. We got multiple quotes and the range of prices has been $12,000 up to $50,000 depending on the different types of materials used to build the retaining wall. Installing the retaining wall will allow us to regain more usable space and it would also give us the possibility of putting an addition on at some point in the future. Putting a fence on top of the wall is a critical as it need to be safe for kids. It’s a huge project, but in the end I think there are more pros than cons.

    Really like what you did by grabbing a guy from the neighbors crew to do work for you on the weekends. We will have to keep our eyes out to see if there is anyone we can grab for our project.

    1. Looks like you guys are going to do a very similar project! Use pressure treated wood for the posts, and redwood or another quality wood for the outside for aesthetics.

      We reinforced the hell out of the custom redwood fence with ~20 brackets underneath, and post bases.

      The key for the lower quotes will be for them to stay on budget. Amazingly, Luis did for mine, so I gave him more work on the front.

      You should clarify whether your bids INCLUDE materials. Usually they don’t b/c material costs are highly variable.


  30. You just scored a ridiculous deal! Even in markets outside of San Francisco, I would call that a good deal. Mrs. Max is in the remodeling industry, and we get into projects like this all the time. You’re not being unrealistic by claiming a 200% return, in fact I would say that’s pretty much a guarantee in your market.

    There’s nothing better than finding a good tradesman that does quality work for a reasonable price. It’s the mark-ups and middle men that inflate the true price. What they do is save you time, but in your situation you didn’t need that.

    Congrats on taking the initiative, and on the awesome looking backyard!!

  31. Sam, that looks amazing. I had never thought to directly approach the contractors before. I will definitely try that method of finding a contractor when I do some renovations soon.

  32. Apathy ends

    We built the house we live in today a few years ago, the builder let us do work ourselves to save money on the final bill – we saved over $2500 laying the sod and planting trees/shrubs ourselves.

    I need to finish the rest of the landscaping this summer (pavers and rock around the house) that work is more intense but just about anyone can do it.

    Your backyard looks great! They did an awesome job

  33. Charleston.C

    As a civil engineer, what you have done is one of the best thing one can do with a sloped yard to increase both architectural value and functionality. For $20,000 this project is an absolute steal.

    The landscaping design in itself is a bit plain for my taste, but you have already installed the necessary components for further aesthetic upgrades in the future. Depending on how the rest of your house looks, adding some sort of brick or stone Veneer to cover the face of the stained wood could add a sturdy masonry look to the newly installed soil wooden retaining walls for the tiers.

    1. Thanks. Tiering definitely benefits stabilizing the entire property and foundation as the dirty gradually moves over time.

      The backyard is definitely plain on purpose. I believe in getting 90% of the way there with all the heavy lifting, and then letting new buyers put in the finishing touches on their own. It’s kind of like staging. Half the battle is making everything look clean and functionable.

      It’s my front yard which I’m super pumped about that has much more aesthetics. Might post some pics in the future.

      1. You’ve been mentioning new buyers frequently lately. Are you selling? Thought you’d never sell any of your properties.

        If you are I don’t blame you – if I were you I’d take my money out (sell) and move to a place wither either better quality of life (Hawaii) or somewhere cheaper for geo-arbitrage, not that I think you need to in your case.

        In any event, the backyard looks MUCH better. Well done.

        1. The investor mindset always thinks about resale value when spending money on landscaping, remodeling, an expansion, whether he sells or not. The key is to focus on functionality and aesthetics.

          The quality of life here is high. But I am eyeing some dream properties in Honolulu to buy in about 3 years time. The one thing holding me back from selling each time are the commissions and transfer taxes. Feels like a big waste of money and an instant 6% loss. As a result, I don’t plan to ever sell until commissions get cut in half at least.

          See: The Detailed Costs Of Selling Property.

          1. 6% is negotiable. You have time and contacts. Why are you not working them to reduce this cost? You know about staging and marketing, there are discount brokers that will list your property on MLS for a small fee to FSBO. You’d still want to know what to expect from an offer so you don’t waste time on non-serious buyers. But you should be able to get that number way down.

            1. The best I can do is 4%. Remember, the transfer and excise tax is unavoidable.

              I’m not in a hurry to sell so it doesn’t really matter to me.

              By the time I want to sell, which is probably never, I’m assuming that commission rates will come down to levels that are agreeable.

            2. The tax etc is independent of the commission. Usually the expense is 8-10% total. But the biggest chunk of that is the commission.

  34. Your new backyard looks very good. I have no eye for these sorts of things, so I’m constantly amazed by how less inviting spaces can be turned into amazing areas for comfort and recreation.

    I don’t live in a single family home myself, but rather a rowhouse, and the entire row is doing some landscaping this spring on the front. We’re reappropriating some space, and divvying up between the four units instead of having it as common shared space. I’m very much looking forward to having the morning coffee on my very own, secluded patio :) So it’s doable even if you’re not in a single family home, but it’s definitely more hassle.

  35. Wall Street Physician

    Amazing pictures! Sometimes you wonder how much money the middleman takes out; from your example, it sounds like a lot!

    I personally have not paid for landscaping, but I know my parents used a similar method as you. They hired a family friend to do the labor, while we provided materials. Saved a ton of money.

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