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Outdoors and Landscaping

Your Home from Scratch #2: Colette’s Amazing Deck

Posted by on April 17th, 2014

Today we’re exited to bring you another edition of Your Home from Scratch.  If this is your first time to our site, Your Home from Scratch is a new series where we interview our readers and other bloggers to bring you their challenging home improvement projects.  Last week in our first Your Home from Scratch post we interviewed Katie from Addicted 2 DIY.  Today we’re talking to Colette from Moving to the Country about her new deck, which her and her family built from scratch.

What makes this project extra interesting for Lisa and I is Colette and her husband have nearly the exact same home as we do.  We both own Courtland models from Ryan Homes, although we live in different towns.  So Colette’s deck project is the perfect primer for our outdoor plans.

Colette’s Amazing Deck


Q1. Your deck is pretty sweet.  How long did it take to build from start to finish?

In terms of chronological time, it took us about six months from start to finish.  However, we took off for three months over the winter and only worked (some) weekends. We had the footings poured by a contractor, then the framing took us about 5 full days to complete.  Then the drainage system, laying of the floor boards, railings, fascia and lattice took us about 5 weekends to complete.  The “wedding cake steps” took an entire weekend themselves to build (but it was totally worth it!).  The finishing touches actually are still not finished.  We still need finish some trim pieces around the steps and storage area.  Why does it always seem so hard to finish that last 1% of a project??  (You can see the final product with links to all of our status updates here).

view of deck

Q2. How much money did you save building the deck yourself?

I estimate that we saved between $6,000 and $10,000 by building it ourselves.  Our builder was charging $11,800 for a 250 sf deck.  If you apply that square-foot price to our 480 square foot deck, it comes out to about $22,500 and it cost us about $12,000.  (You can find a complete cost breakdown of our materials here).  I should also note that we used much higher quality materials than the builder was offering.  I’m sure a contractor could have done it cheaper than our builder, but I would be willing to bet it still wouldn’t be close to what we spent.  Outdoor living is expensive!

upper deck image

Q3. How did you decide on the layout and the two level configuration?

The layout we ultimately decided on was the 7th option I came up with (I can be indecisive with big decisions).  I looked at a lot of pictures online, and I knew I wanted two separate areas… one for dining and one for relaxing.  The reason for the two-level configuration was all based on the cascading steps, which were a must-have in my design from the start.  Because of how high our back door was from the ground (about 8 feet), if we didn’t add the lower level we would have needed too many of the cascading steps to meet the ground and they would have been too wide for the front face of the deck.  By lowering the one section of the deck, we were able to get the perfect amount of cascading steps.  An unanticipated bonus of the two levels is that the wide steps between levels provides some extra seating when we have big crowds.

deck construction

Q4. So the upper deck is attached to the house and the lower level is free standing?  Why not attach both?

Two reasons:  1). We wanted to avoid having to drill into the concrete foundation of our house.  The upper level ledger board attached directly to the wood base framing of the house, whereas the ledger board for the lower level would have had to attach to the foundation of the house.  2). We would have needed extra footings under the “bumped out” cantilevered part of the lower level anyway, so we decided just to pour a few more footings and make it free standing.

deck water proof

Q5.  You ended up making use of the space below your upper deck for storage.  How did you keep the water out?  Was your solution pricey?

So glad we did this!  The storage area under the upper level is big enough to store both of our lawnmowers and all of our outdoor furniture with room to spare.  There are two main types of deck drainage systems:  One is installed above the joists and the other is installed below the joists.  We knew we wanted an “above joist” system to maximize our storage height.  The two companies I found that sold this option were Trex Rain Escape and DekDrain.  We chose DekDrain beacuse:  1). It was cheaper.  It was about $1,000 for the whole system (for 240 sf).  Trex Rain Escapes is a little more sophisticated, but we didn’t care about being fancy and were happy to save a few bucks.  And 2). You cannot buy Trex products directly from Trex and the two authorized dealers I spoke with had no clue what materials were required or how to install them.  Since we were first timers, I wanted to be sure we’d have adequate support if we ran into problems.  When I called DekDrain for information, their rep was super-helpful.  It helped that they were cheaper anyway, but I probably would have went with them even if they weren’t.  In my opinion, you can’t put a price on good customer service!

deck stairs

Q6. What was the most difficult part of the build process?

After deciding on our final design (which took about 3 months), I would say the most difficult part was the cascading steps.  We couldn’t use standard stringers so we had to cut about 15 custom stringers.  There were a lot of calculations to get the right measurements and a lot of angle cuts because of the shape of steps.  It was a very tedious process, but I think the cascading steps totally make the deck, so it was worth it.  (It’s also easy for me to say that since my dad did most of the work on the steps :) ).

downspout move

Q7. Were there any setbacks or hiccups along the way that you didn’t plan? How did you get through them?

When we got to the framing for the lower level, we realized the our down spout would be in the way of our beam so we had to move it.  It was not that difficult to do (you can see what we did here) and it was a very cheap fix, but it took us a few hours to complete so we lost some time there.  If we had thought about it when we were building, we probably could have gotten them to put it in the right place to begin with.  Our inspector was also pretty tough, but we just did the extra things he asked so we didn’t have any problems.

Q8. Are you interested in building our deck? ;)

Haha, sure!!  Do you have plans to build one soon?  In all seriousness, we’d be happy to help or answer any questions when you get to that point!

Thanks to Colette for her great answers.  If you are interested in contributing your challenging DIY or home improvement project for Your Home from Scratch, you can use the Contact form to shoot me an email.

Have a great week!


Posted in DIY Projects,Outdoors and Landscaping,Your Home from Scratch. Tagged in ,,

When DIY Fails

Posted by on September 30th, 2013

I had high hopes for today’s post.  I thought I had learned from my mistakes enough to get this one right.  You were supposed to stop by today and see a black, concrete planter on our front porch freshly adorned with festive orange mums.

Not so much.

concrete planter fail

Instead of being stuffed with fall flowers, this planter is stuffed with the remains of its own side: a casualty caused by attempting to remove the inner mold with perhaps a bit too much force.  Just a bit.

The first time I tried making one of these planters, I couldn’t remove the metal letter from the mold and it got stuck in the concrete, permanently reminding me of my misjudgment.  What’s worse, the concrete never settled properly around the “V” the first time I made it so it looks sort of… off.

Ah ha.  But, this time.  This time I was going to get it right.  I used a wooden letter that I could attach to the mold with screws.  I also abandoned my snobbish preference for melamine over regular plywood.  So, some background… I made concrete countertops back in the day with melamine forms and they worked great.  So great, in fact, that I poo-poo’d any suggestion of using anything except melamine for any sort of concrete mold.

The instructions for the planter, however, specified regular plywood covered with aluminum foil.  The melamine worked well, except it wasn’t reusable.  It got destroyed when I tried to pop the planter out of the mold.  So, this time I opted for the tin foil covered plywood as per the Popular Mechanics instructions in the spirit of trying something new.

The instructions didn’t call for pink kitchen gloves either, but… hey.

planter form

concrete planter mold

I had my lovely assistant spray down the interior of the mold with non-stick cooking spray.

concrete planter form

After mixing up the concrete, this time with 1.5 bottles of the charcoal colorant, I was happy with how it was going.

black concrete

After letting the planter cure overnight, I slowly popped off the sides.  The letter actually released pretty easily.  So far so good.  A few minutes later all I had to do was “slip” out the inner box from the mold and I’d be done.  I even went out and bought a couple bags of topsoil to accompany our new mums.

So, needless to say, the inner box didn’t slip out of anything.  I was really surprised at how well the concrete adhered to the plywood considering it was all covered with tin foil and then sprayed down with Pam.   Then again, they do make skyscrapers out of this stuff, so.. we’ve got that going for us.

After a few minutes of trying to yank this plywood box out of the planter by hand, my friend Mr Crowbar stopped by.  We got to talking and then one thing led to another…  yada, yada, yada… and then before you know it…

broken planter


Did you notice how much tin foil is stuck on the outside of the planter (see the first photo)?  Unbelievable.

Here’s the good news.  I only spent around $10 for concrete and the black dye.  I had the plywood leftover from other projects, which would’ve been another $30 or so (more for melamine).

So, the important thing here is that we all learn from our mistakes.  I learned that concrete is incredibly fond of everything I stick in it and it doesn’t want to give it up.  I also learned that melamine is probably way better for this.  So I can go back to being a melamine snob about my one successful concrete project (the countertops).

More importantly, I learned that Lisa is ready for me to switch gears and start on our TV console for our sitting room.  I’ll probably be back out again next year though, once again in search of my white whale… wasting time and concrete.

Do you know what a PIA it is to throw out an 80 lb planter?

Before you go, here are those orange mums we bought.

front door

AND the original planter…

orange mums

Have you had any DIY fails on your end recently?  Have you also pursued a project with blind ambition to the point of madness?  Was it also a concrete project?

I feel inspired to share more of my DIY fails.  This may become a regular thing.

Posted in DIY Projects,Outdoors and Landscaping. Tagged in ,, ,

Summer Rewind

Posted by on September 17th, 2013

It was a good summer.  I only got sun burned once.  Or twice.  Got to the beach a few times.  Good stuff.  As far as home improvement projects go, this summer wasn’t too bad either.  Let’s take a look back and see what we got done and what we postponed.

We started off the summer with a post on our Spring and Summer Goals where we listed around 9 projects.  We got a whopping 2 done.  It’s just like that Meatloaf song, “Two out of Nine Ain’t Bad.”  Not one of his better hits.

DIY concrete planter

The first outdoor project we attempted was the DIY Concrete Planter.  We had mixed results with the monogram, but overall we still really like the planter.  I am still planning on retrying this soon.  We’re going to double down and make two at the same time and try to make them darker.


Next up was our Mailbox Flowerbed face lift.  We spray painted our mailbox, added some perennial flowers and mulched the bed.  It’s still going strong and we’re really happy with it.

wordpress theme photoshop

After the mailbox work, we shifted gears and finished redesigning and coding our own WordPress Theme.  This upgrade had been hanging over my head for months.  I really like the feel of the new theme, but there are still a number of changes I want to incorporate.

installing uv window filters

Before heading back into the garage, we installed some UV window film to prevent further sun damage in our entryway.  It was tricky to install, but it will probably end up saving us hundreds of dollars worth of damage to our stained wood.

organized garage

Finally, we finished work on our garage improvement.  That alone was around 9 or 10 posts.


So what did we skip? For the most part, landscaping.  We still need to clean up our side flowerbeds (see the hot mess above).  One is heavily overgrown and the other needs a tall shrub or tree to anchor the layout.  In order to get it done now though, we would have to rush through it.  So, we’re punting it until the spring.  Womp Womp.

We have a lot of exciting Fall work lined up and we’ll be building some new furniture shortly.  So stick around!

How much summer work did you get done?  What did you skip?


Posted in Garage and Tools,Outdoors and Landscaping. Tagged in ,,

Keep Mulch from Washing Away

Posted by on June 25th, 2013

Summer is in full swing around here, which means just about every weekend we have some sort of family activity.  Certainly not complaining.  Given the choice between spending time with family or working on my house, I’ll choose hanging out with my family 100 times out of 100.  Consequently, our DIY projects have been relegated to work days.  Throw in some torrential rain and we haven’t done a whole lot around here lately.  Meh.  It is what it is.

In my never ending quest to have our home be as maintenance free as possible, I’ve had to make some changes to our mailbox flower bed.  Keep in mind, these changes are still in progress.  I didn’t feel like waiting until it was completely wrapped up.

mailbox flowerbed

The volume of rain we’ve gotten lately has been hugely helpful to our perpetually barren lawn, but has caused some problems with our mulched flower beds.  The rain washes away sections of the mulch. Sends it right down the sidewalk  It hasn’t happened in normal rainfall, just the heavy stuff.

mulch wash out

It doesn’t look terrible with the missing mulch, but it’s noticeable since it exposes the weed barrier underneath.  There’s a simple fix to keep mulch from washing away that will prevent or at least mitigate the mulch loss:  add rocks.

Around some of the flower beds closer to the house, we incorporated river stones we bought from Lowes a couple years ago (the larger stones we got for free from a community project).  We added those stones for exactly the same reason, rain washing the mulch away.  So we know first hand how well the rocks protect the mulch.

rocks around flower beds

I still need to buy a couple bags of rocks, but I had enough on hand to get started on the mailbox flower bed. I place the larger rocks down first and try to keep the spacing random. I don’t want the larger rocks to look patterned.

rocks in flower bed

stones in flower bed

So for the price of a bag of rocks, you can keep your mulch from running away from you.  You know what happens now, right?  It’s not going to rain again this summer.

Keeping the mulch in place is the upside of the stones.  The downside is it’s a little more annoying to keep the rock areas weed free.  It’s not hard, it just takes a little longer and you may have to move the rocks out of the way to get at the weed roots.  Trade offs.  It’s always about trade offs.  What would you rather do?  Weed the rocks once a month or replace the mulch after every heavy summer rain?

In other news, I’m hoping to get our bug-free garage window solution knocked out this weekend.  We’re doing one window first to validate the concept and then we’ll do the other two if we’re happy with it.  Looking forward to showing you our idea.

Stay cool!

Posted in Outdoors and Landscaping. Tagged in ,,

Mailbox Flowerbed

Posted by on June 2nd, 2013

So even though we haven’t officially hit the summer season yet, we’ve already managed to finish one of the projects on our Summer To-Do List.  Our mailbox flowerbed overhaul is all done.  Only thing left to do is water it everyday for the rest of my natural life.  Yay!

Last week we showed you how we spray painted the mailbox and you even got a sneak peak of the planted flowers.  A couple days ago I put the finishing touches in place by adding a little bit of weed blocking fabric and some black mulch.  Here’s the prequel…

We started with a grassy area around the mailbox.mailbox before

I used a flat edging shovel to remove the grass.  This was the hardest part of the job.

mailbox flower bed

You definitely need to use the proper shovel for this work.  A regular spade shovel may work, but it’ll take longer and just frustrate you.  Use a shovel like the one in the photo below.  I bought that one at Lowes a while back.  It’s a Kobalt brand and it works beautifully.  When you use this type of flat shovel, you hit the grass from the side and basically scrape it off in sod-like chunks.  The grass comes out in little sheets or sections, which are perfect for plugging any sort of holes or bare spots in the yard.

edging shovel

With the grass removed, I worked in about 3 cubic feet of topsoil and leaf compost that I had bought in bags at the nursery right into the area I was going to be planting.  Adding quality soil will help keep the flowers alive especially since our soil is pretty much garbage.  Now the ground is ready for the plants.

Time to stage the flowers.  Lisa used the potted flowers and played with the arrangement on the pavement before settling on a layout.  Then it’s just a matter of positioning the flowers in the bed and digging holes.

flower layout

We chose a Stella d’Oro for the rear most flower since it has some height and blooms all summer.  The purple flowers are Royal Candles Veronica, which are somewhat shorter and the small guys are Japanese Silver Grasses.  All of these plants were marked as ideal for dry areas and a good amount of sun exposure.  We don’t have a sprinkler system in the grass or anything that close to the road, so they aren’t going to get any water unless it rains or we water them ourselves.  The rest of our flower beds do have a drip irrigation system hooked up though, thankfully.

We were also mindful of the height these plants will reach at maturity.  We like the varying heights they have now and we don’t want the grasses in the front to tower over the others down the road.  We don’t mind them growing, we just want them to grow proportional to their current heights.

We also tried to keep them spread apart.  It sure looks like we could’ve squeezed in some more plants in that space, but we don’t want them to get overcrowded once they get bigger.  Learned that lesson the hard way.  One of our side flower beds is currently a jungle.

mailbox flowers

After I dug each hole, I would take the plant out of it’s temporary pot and slice off about half of the root system.  I heard this trick stimulates the roots and helps the plant get settled into its new location.

When all the plants were in the ground, I used about a six inch wide strip of weed blocking fabric along two sides.  I could’ve used more and really integrated the fabric throughout the bed, but I only have grass on one side of the flower bed.  Plus, it was easier, it was 90 degrees out and I was tired and lazy.  All good reasons.

Here’s what the flower bed looks like now…

mailbox flowerbed

mail box flowers

mailbox flower bed

Hopefully we’ll be able to keep them alive.

How was your weekend?

Posted in Outdoors and Landscaping. Tagged in ,, , ,