Planning an Outdoor Project? Don’t Forget to Check on These 9 Things First

published Jun 22, 2020
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House backyard with hammock and pergola
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Summer means it’s finally outdoor projects season. Whether you’re planning a landscaping redo, an outdoor lighting installation, or a dreamy patio update, it’s tempting to jump right in and get your hands dirty—but there’s value in doing your homework first. To really get your outdoor project right, it’s important to know crucial details like where your gas lines are, or what your neighborhood’s rules might be.

Staying on top of these sorts of pesky details definitely isn’t the most exciting part of a DIY project—and when you don’t know where to turn for info, it can feel a little daunting, too. Fortunately, seasoned experts know exactly where to look, and what to look for. Here, nine things they say to brush up on before beginning any outdoor project.

Get the lay of the land

If you’re a property owner, Liz Fancher, a land-use lawyer from Bend, Oregon, recommends starting any project with a close read of your title report, which will include a full accounting of everything to do with your lot. (If you don’t have your title report on hand, you can request it from the title company.) Think of this report like an index: it lists any easements, subdivisions, or restrictive covenants that limit the way you can use your land. All of this information can prove useful, but start by looking for easements, which are agreements that give someone—typically a utility company—the right to use your property for a specific purpose without giving them outright ownership. 

You might find easements for phone lines, electric lines, water lines, or sewer lines, all of which could potentially limit your rights to develop in that particular area. But even if development is allowed, Fancher still advises caution, noting that some provisions might allow the companies to destroy what you’ve built or landscaped. “I’ve had utility companies rip up my landscaping on a number of occasions,” she says. In theory, the utility would then be responsible for restoring the property to the way they found it, but that doesn’t always turn out to be the case. “The companies often contract out the work, and it’s hard to get the utility itself to do a good job of restoring landscaping,” Fancher adds.

Check in with local officials

Depending on where you live and the size of the project, it’s possible or even likely that you won’t need a permit. But everywhere has its own particular regulations. “If you are starting a driveway project, for instance, you may need to contact the Department of Transportation for approval if you are making certain changes,” says Julia Cutler Furlong, an upstate New Yorker and experienced DIYer.

To be sure, Furlong recommends reaching out to a local code official at your village, town, or city planning office so they can inform you of zoning regulations, necessary permits, and what kinds of inspections might be necessary during construction. This is as easy as Googling your county or city clerk’s office for a phone number or email address. In many cases, the entire city code will be available online, so you can do some preliminary or followup research on your own.

If you do interact with someone directly, Furlong has one crucial piece of advice: “Speaking of code officials… be nice to them! They are the gatekeepers and it’s their job to make sure you are following the code, which is there for safety and security. Your project will go much more smoothly if you have a good working relationship with them.”

Bone up on your neighborhood’s rules

Once you have things squared away at the city or county level, it’s time to zoom down to the neighborhood level. So pull out your title report again—this time to check for covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). These are rules that are written by a developer and typically enforced by a homeowner’s association (HOA), that are intended to keep property values high in your neighborhood. Again, if you don’t have your title report, the county clerk will also have access to this info.

The CC&Rs in your area could restrict fence height, paint colors, how much of the lot you can use, or even aesthetic stuff like hanging items on a clothesline. They might also require an Architectural Review Committee to oversee and approve of specific changes you make to the property. Fancher noted that newer CC&Rs tend to be more restrictive, so pay particular attention to this item if you pay dues to a homeowner’s association or are living in a recently developed community.

Credit: Minette Hand

If you’re in a historic district, double- and triple-check any restrictions

Probably one of the most restrictive areas to build or even make changes is historic districts. “Ordinances in those areas can require design review of improvements to assure those improvements are in compliance with the historic character of the neighborhood,” Fancher explains. “Some cities even prohibit any tree cutting without city approval or prohibit it all together, so you may need to plan around rather than remove a tree.”

And while some historic districts have signage indicating their designation, many do not—so you could be living in one and not even know it. The definition of historic is just “50 years or older,” so if that timing applies to your area, Fancher recommends you check in with your county or city planning department, or go online to check city code to make sure you’re in the clear. 

Check on buried lines before you dig

If you want to double check any of the information you saw on your title report with a real live human, Furlong recommends a quick call to 811: “Call 811 to find out what lines are buried. The number is the same in every state.”

And no matter how sure you feel about where things are, both Furlong and Fancher underline the need to dig with caution. Fancher notes that the power lines on her property were installed so far outside the area they were supposed to be that the error wasn’t discovered until a contractor was doing grading for her driveway. (Oops.) As Furlong emphasizes, “The last thing you want to do is accidentally cut through a cable or worse—an electrical line that could seriously injure you.” 

Consider bringing in a surveyor for work along the property line

Surveyors can be expensive, so Fancher doesn’t recommend them for any and every task. But for jobs like fences that will run along the property line, a reputable surveyor can be worth their weight in gold. They’ll be able to locate the pins that demarcate your property and resolve any confusion right up top, saving you from potentially costly disagreements with a neighbor later on if you happen to gauge incorrectly.

Check the weather

It might sound overly simplistic, but Furlong has learned from experience that the weather is an important consideration at the beginning of any project. “Some materials also can’t be installed under certain weather conditions, like extreme cold or heat, so factor that in when planning your project,” she says. “You will also need to protect certain materials like concrete and masonry from inclement weather depending on your schedule.”

But even beyond deciding on the season in which to start your build, Furlong urges DIYers to keep climate in mind. “Yes, you should plan for inclement weather during construction, but you should also choose materials that are appropriate for your climate,” she says. “We get a lot of snow where we live, so it’s a good idea to use materials that are easy to maintain in the winter months.” That might mean skipping a gravel walkway in favor of brick or flagstone if you’ll be shoveling a lot of snow, for example—or alternately, selecting materials that can withstand extreme heat. It all depends on your area.

Use native plants that are appropriate for your climate and ecosystem

No matter where you live, make sure you’re planting native species that can survive in your particular biome. “Don’t plant invasive species!” Furlong warns. “They have the potential to destroy the surrounding ecosystem. Even if you think you’ve isolated them in your flower bed, they could still propagate somewhere they shouldn’t be.”

Fancher echoes this advice, specifically urging folks in dry climates like hers to seek out low-water plants. “Water is expensive and in short supply, and lawn and garden watering is often prohibited during times of scarcity or drought,” she says. Even if swapping out water-loving plants for succulents is costlier up top, the expense will pay off in shrinking water bills.

Along the same lines, Fancher recommends paying close attention to how large the species you’re planting is expected to grow, as carelessness early on can lead to steep costs down the road. “Know how big plants are going to be when they grow, and don’t place trees that are going to become big trees close to the foundation of your house,” she says. “Their roots may damage your foundation and their branches will need constant trimming to avoid harm to your roof and siding.”

Decide if it’s worth it to hire someone

Furlong is a self-described “avid DIY-er” who built her gorgeous home literally from the ground up, but even she draws the line somewhere. “There are certain things that are worth it to me to just hire it out,” she explains, describing her process as a weighing out of equipment cost, time, and skill. 

She offered the example of her walkway, for which she ended up hiring a local landscaper. “We hired out our walkway because I knew the local landscaper could do it a lot faster than I could,” she says. “Not only that, he had access to equipment like a gravel compactor and masonry saw that would cost a lot to rent and prove time-consuming to learn how to use well.” There’s also the fact that an uneven walkway would be straight-up unsafe, which Furlong cited as another reason to bring in a professional—“this is literally his job, so getting things level and square is second nature to him,” she says.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of outdoor projects you can take on, and hopefully these pieces of advice have made those tasks feel slightly less daunting. But there’s also no shame in bringing in a professional, so there’s no need to bite off more than you can chew.