Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Category: Projects Page 5 of 38

The Birth of A New Master

Holy smoke. We are officially in a 2-bedroom house now.

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Remember the two bedrooms on the north end of our basement? The ones directly below Slav’s office and our current bedroom?

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Well, they are now one big room…

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It has been a long struggle to find a purpose for the basement bedrooms. They are small, with tiny closets, and unavoidably dark. Initially, we considered renting the whole basement out as a 2b/1b suite. After all, it was a finished space when we bought it. Although we did not like the finishes (carpet + paneling), it was still acceptable as a rental with a fresh coat of paint. But having only one laundry facility in the basement made this plan difficult to execute.

We also considered to convert the basement into a short-term rental + a guest suite by adding a private entry. But we quickly nixed the idea due to cost of cutting into the foundation and creating a new entry. Most recently, we tossed around the idea of using the bedrooms as Slav’s office + additional media room. However, this plan would have resulted in no guest bedroom in our house, which is not ideal.

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As we were weighting on these options, the basement stayed empty. 18 months in, we decided to get rid of all the unwanted fixtures in the basement. Our hope was that reducing this space to its bare bone could inspire the best usage for it. To my surprise, this plan worked! During demo, we discovered the I-beam support for our house, which opened the possibility of removing the dividing wall between the bedrooms and make them one big room. This option was never on the table before. But as soon as it popped up, we could not get it out of our minds.

Slav and I are both highly intuitive people, which can be a blessing and a curse. Before we decided how to use the combined room, the dividing wall had already come down.

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In fact, the dividing wall was not merely a wall, but hosting two neighboring closets. This setup is commonly seen in old houses and identical to the former closets in our bedroom and Slav’s office, which we reversed to both face the bedroom.

This was the northeast bedroom closet, neighboring a wall of graffiti. I do not miss it one bit.

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The soffit above is actually an air duct painted white, and the pipe in front belongs to the HVAC system.

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Behind the wall of graffiti was the closet in the formal northwest bedroom. Weirdly, the two closets was connected via an small opening. The previous owner has a small dog – maybe this opening was made for the dog?

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We are fully aware the consequence of removing closets – by our city code, a bedroom has to have a closet that meets minimal size requirement. Removing these two closets and reversing the closet in Slav’s office technically reduced the number of coded bedrooms in our house to one. But closet is fairly simple to construct, and we are not planning to sell this house any time soon, so we went ahead with the demo.

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Demoing the closets gave the new room good lighting from all three sides. This space became a lot more bright and pleasant throughout the day. It is amazing how a space can speak for itself. As soon as the demo was done, we knew that it would become our new master bedroom.

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The east side of this 240 sqft space will host our king bed. With the headboard against the east wall, there will be plenty room on either side of the bed to walk around. One complain Slav has for our current bedroom is the space between the bed and his side of the wall is too narrow.

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The west side will become a dressing area. We will be building floor-to-ceiling wardrobe closets around the two windows. There closets will be big enough to host all of clothes, camping gears, and linings.

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There is also a 3/4 bathroom right off the former northeast bedroom door. In the picture below, the door direct in front leads to a lining closet, which will stay and become our bathroom closet. The bathroom is to the left.

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It was the bathroom that inspired me to move the master bedroom downstairs. Slav and I both prefer a 3/4 bath to a full bath. We never liked taking showers in a bathtub and even talked about relocating the bathtub in our current bathroom to the basement bath. It never occurred to us that we could just move the bed!

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The doorway on the right leads to the living area. You can also see this doorway better from the picture below. We will be adding a lockable door here and taking down the current bathroom door to add more floor space.

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The door on the left in the picture above used to lead to the northwest bedroom. It will become the main entry to the master.

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There are a couple things we need to address here, such as how to deal with the exposed ducts here. The old air duct extends into the room by a few feet. It not only supplies air to the basement bedrooms, but also to our current bedroom and Slav’s office on the main floor. It has to stay, and so does the HVAC line. We would need to build a soffit to enclose them.

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Removing the closet framing also exposed the I-beam above. We will likely to enclose it in the same soffit with the ducts.

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We also found the third supporting column (grey) tucked away in one of the closets.

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My mind has been spinning since the birth of this new room. With a 3/4 bathroom next to it, and the location of the doors, it is so inclined to be a master bedroom. On the same note, our current bedroom is a much better choice for guests. It is moderate in size, near a full bath, and on the main floor.

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While Slav is pocking around in the bathroom, I cannot help but thinking how I want this space to feel. As I get older, I’ve been craving more traditional Chinese elements in my space. For example, I’ve always liked the look of symmetrical partition walls as separation between two connected areas. We kind of did it in the Slav’s office by keeping some walls on both sides of the opening.

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I would like to repeat the partition walls in the new master. The space is long and narrow and I think a pair of partition walls will work wonders between the sleeping area and the dressing area. Moreover, I’d like to do something more elaborate than just drywall, such as wood carving designs:

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Or some kind of moon gate like this. When used in bedrooms there are usually curtains hanging on one side of the moon gate to add privacy.

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There’s still lots of work to do before we build up the bedroom. We will take the opportunity of the room being a blank slate to do some basic improvements including lighting, electrical, and soundproofing. It means that we might need to open up more walls and ceilings. We are also considering adding an egress window, which will involves cutting into foundation walls and has to be done by professionals. This will be our second Christmas in the ranch and somehow we managed to make drywall dust in both years. Fortunately the mess will be contained in one floor and kept out of our living space!

The I-beam Discovery

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This post has been a long time coming. I usually write about projects that are ongoing or just finished. But today, I want to give you a glimpse into a year worth of slow progress in our basement.

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Above was the only basement photo I took during the walk-in. Hello 20 year old carpet + 1960 paneling. If you do not recall this space, I do not blame you. I sometimes forgot about it too. Since moved in, we only came to this basement once a week to do laundry…To remind all of us including myself, below is the basement floor plan.

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Besides the living space and a small laundry area, this basement was divided into three more kid’s bedrooms, two on the north end, and one next to the stairs. These three bedrooms bumped the total number of kid’s bedrooms to 5 in this small ranch.

The northwest bedroom

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The northeast bedroom

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The 5th bedroom next to the stairs:

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2017: Getting rid of the 5th bedroom

Culture phenomenal swings between extremes. The number of the kids/kid’s bedrooms in this house was no exception. Thus far we have reduced the number of the bedrooms in this house by 40%. First of all, we converted the second bedroom upstairs to an office for Slav. Second, we knocked down the 5th bedroom last summer to make HVAC and tankless water heater installation easier.

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Opening up the wet wall

Soon after, we exposed the wet wall behind the washer/dryer. This two story wall is the only wet wall in the house, and opening it allowed us to identify/fix several problems with the utility lines/ducts.

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By the end of 2017 the utility room looked like this. Utilitarian to the extreme.

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On the opposite side though, the purple walls and the tiny closet served as a reminder for the old bedroom:

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Behind the purple wall above is the basement stairs. The previous owners framed the space underneath the stairs into a closet.

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There was also a window in this bedroom, looking into the living space. I guess it was here for meeting codes? It is amazing what creativity and laziness could produce. With four kids sleeping downstairs, a gas furnace, and multiple space heaters, I am glad that whoever slept in this bedroom made it to the next house safely.

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Thus far it concludes all we had done in this utility room in 2017. For the matter of fact, this was all we’d done to the whole basement last year.

2018: Basement floor demo

2018 was supposed to be the year of basement renovation. But we really could not figure out what we want for this space and had to wait for the inspiration to strike. Fortunately, we did know what we do not want here. For example, the decade-old carpet. Early Spring, I started cutting off carpet and used them to suppress weed in the garden.

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Mid-May, as a surprise for my birthday, Slav removed all the remaining carpet in the basement when I was at work.

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Under the carpet we found tiles, all of which were glued to the basement slab. Slav chipped everything off and got down to the leveled concrete.

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Removing the flooring was a big step forward. Seeing less old fixture helped me to imagine what is possible. Our slab was in very good shape and we have the option of any type of flooring without much work. The next thing I knew would help to grasp the potential of this basement was to figure out how the house structure was supported.

The I-beam discovery

I once made a birthday card for Slav, which said “some people never grew up, their toys just became more expensive”. I think we are both this type of people that have to know the mechanisms underlying everything. Knowing the mechanisms opens the possibility for improvement, and gives maximum flexibility for what we desire.

Anyway, this is a long justification of my desire opening this wall, between the utility room and the living space.

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This was how the wall looked like from the utility room. The purple wall on the left with the window belonged to the 5th bedroom, and the white wall to the right used to be in the laundry room. The angled frame was where the bedroom door used to reside. The soffit above enclosed some air ducts.

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We knew that the supporting mechanism for the whole house was inside this wall, but there was no way of knowing what it is except opening it up. So this happened. And I can proudly say, I did it.

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All by myself. Without injuries.

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And what did I find inside this wall? An I-beam running along the mid-line of our house!

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You can read about the purpose of I-beam here. But after all, this I-beam is what supports all the floor joints above. The white pipe next to it is the old gas line, which has been discontinued during the HVAC installation.

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Having the I-beam means that none of the walls downstairs are weight bearing. In another word, all the basement walls were put up purely for creating rooms and can be removed to our liking.

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The I beam was held by three steel columns and likely sitting in notches on the foundation wall on both ends. The steel columns and the foundation wall are the ones that bear all the weight of the house. All the wood framing are not.

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In fact, you can see from the picture below that the 2″ x 4″ wall framing was practically hanging off the beams with nails. It was the I-beam that keeps the walls in place, not the other way around.

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Opening up more walls

Old houses like ours rarely come with structural blueprints. Often times, opening walls is the only way of learning how the house was structured. The I-beam discovery was a success in terms that we gained the option of open floor plan if we desire. However, not every open-wall investigations validate the best case scenario. For example, I later removed the weird bumped out drywall near the dryer, as well as the drywall covering the closet. In both cases, the demolition confirmed the need for their existence.

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It turned out that the bumped out portion next to the dryer was for hiding a pipe. If we were going to cover this portion with drywall, my demo work would have been a waste of time. Fortunately we will not be using drywall here. I will explain it in another post.

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Last I demoed the closet. After taking the door and all the shelves out, I removed all the drywall on the wall framing.

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This wall framing is also not structural. However, it does hold up the stairway drywall, so it stays. Before closing this wall again, we will likely widen the closet opening and put in some insulation. The latter will prevent the sound and warmth from travelling as readily between the two stories.

The basement today

Here you have it, our basement living/utility room today. Although what we did so far was pure demolition, it expanded the potential of this space which we had not seen before.

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As we speak, Slav is poking around in the bedrooms and the bathroom to find out more about the basement utility. Through the drywall dust we are contemplating a new plan for our basement, a plan far far from what we ever envisioned. Buckle up, guys!

How Much Does It Really Cost? A Closer Look into Our Horizontal Fence

Renovation cost can vary a lot. Before we started the DIY fence build, one very important yet hard-to-find information we sought after, was how much a fence should cost.

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We did request a few quotes from local contractors, but for many reasons I will explain below, no one could tell us how much it would cost to build the fence we wanted. We eventually chose to DIY, and budgeted based on our design, starting from the price of raw material. We ended up spending <70% of the average quote, and got a quality product that would have doubled the average quote.

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In today’s post, I’d like to share how much we spent on the fence in detail, and how different design and building technique may affect these numbers. It might be a number-heavy post, but for anyone who is considering a new fence, especially a horizontal fence, these numbers might be helpful.

1. The anatomy of a quote

We received four bidding from local contractors. For ~125 ft of 6′ cedar fence, the lowest quote was $4200, and the highest was just under $5000. However, these quotes are based on the most basic/standard cedar fence in our area: 4″ x 4″ posts, 2″ x 4″ top and bottom rails, and 1″ x 4″ pickets running vertically. Chain link demolition and hauling away all the debris would have costed us ~$600 in additional ($5 per foot).

Slav visited a few lumber yard to get an idea for material cost. For a basic vertical fence descried above, the lumber and concrete would cost under $2000. We assumed that contractors will get some kind of discount price from their own supplier, which means 2/3 of the quotes (on average ~4500) was actually for the labor.

Of course labor costs – it would take a few guys two or three days of work to demo and rebuild. However, with five grand of expected spending, we did not want to compromise on the quality and the style of the fence. We wondered how much more we needed to pay to get a horizontal fence with better materials.

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2. Option for Customization and the Decision on DIY

The first thing we discussed with our contractors was the option of using thicker pickets. The ones offered by contractors are similar to the ones you can find in big box stores. They are 5/8″ thick and fairly light-weight. These pickets are likely to be harvested from farm-raised, fast-growing trees, so their wood grains are more likely to be coarse and the pickets are easy to split around the fasteners. Our back fence is constructed with this type of pickets, and many of them have already split and even peeled off from the rails. We would like to swap for better lumber, however, the contractors wanted to stick to their suppliers and were resistant to our request of using different lumber.

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The second question we had was the plan for building on sloped land. Using the fence above as an example, this section of the fence sits on a 1~ 1.5″ per foot slope. The usual way of fencing is to following the slope, which means that the top of the fence would be parallel with the slope of the land. We would much more prefer a step-down look, but it would require cutting pickets to length, which in turn increases labor cost significantly.

The other dispute we did not expect regarding the front fences was the location of the posts. Also using the north front fence as an example, with 20 ft span and the common panel width being 6 ft or 8 ft long, we had to have a short panel on one end. We asked if we could space the posts evenly, but was told that this small customization would raise the quote significantly, also due to more cutting/labor involved.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the possibility of a horizontal fence. Running the pickets horizontally requires much more precision of setting posts, as well as cutting the pickets to length. Together it means a lot more hours of labor and results in much higher quotes.

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Without any promise of accuracy, quotes with customization were laid out and they sounded unreasonable. $8000, $9000, even  over $10000. The key reason is the labor of cutting pickets to length, which is inevitable for horizontal fencing. In the renovating world people say that one can only have two out of three things: cheap, good, and fast. At this point, we felt that hiring out may only get us the “fast” aspect. So DIY was the way to go.

3. How much we actually spent

We bought premium material from a lumber yard (without contractor discount) and did all the labor ourselves. At the end, we spent <$3200 (before tax) for materials and about 20 days of labor (one man). The permit fee is $65 in our city. It is hard to count Slav’s labor, but with the cash spending being 1/3 of the quotes for horizontal fencing, we consider this build a DIY win.

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The $3200 material fee includes all the posts, pickets, concrete, auger rental, and gate hardware. You can find the detailed budget here. and below is a quick break-down:

Demo ~200 chain link    $0 (DIY)

Auger rental (1 day)         $129.44 (from Home Depot, after tax)

Concrete (103 bags)         $267.80 (from Home Depot, before tax. We got contractor price for ordering 112 bags)

Screws, drill bits, post level, mason line, line levels, etc.  $114.88

Lumber (from Front Range Lumber. We did over-order and have leftovers. The numbers below reflect how many we actually used):

1″ x 6″ x 6′ pickets (285) $1558.95

1″ x 4″ x 6′ pickets (24)    $56.88

4″ x 4″ x 8′ posts (14)       $314.58

4″ x 6″ x 8′ posts (7)         $283.29

4″ x 4″ x 10′ posts (1)       $33.47

4″ x 4″ x 12′ posts (1)       $37.97

For constructing the gate:

2″ x 4″ x 8′ (4)                  $38.68

2″ x 4″ x 10′ (2)                $25.42

EasyGate kits (3)             $89.94

Cane Bolts (2)                  $19.96

Optional:

T-post (12)                       $53.76

Post driver (1)                 $34.98

Landscape edging (~80ft)   $79.20

Pea gravel (one ton)              $34.95

4. Paying more for quality lumber

The lumber we bought is much more expensive than the big box store cedar. 1″ x 6″ x 6 ft cedar pickets cost $2.87 a pop in Home Depot, and if you buy in bulk, it can be as low as $2.73 per picket. We paid $5.47 per picket for 1″ x 6″s, nearly twice as much. But these pickets are 3/4″ thick (opposed to 5/8″ from the big box store), and nearly twice as heavy. They are harvested from naturally grew trees from Canada. BTW, the price of cedar was a lot higher nowadays compared to that of two years ago. Trump’s tariff against Canada has raised cedar price by 70% in our area.

Interestingly, the price of the cedar posts from this lumbar yard was comparable to big box stores. Home Depot 4″ x 4″ x 8′ cedar post costs $23.72 and we paid $22.47 a pop for 4″x 4″s.

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5. Beefy Post, Stronger Fence

We used 4″ x 6″ posts instead of 4″ x 4″s for front fences. We live in a wind tunnel through which the northwest wind passes aggressively. So the fence facing west can always use more reinforcement. The two sections of front fence used seven 4″ x 6″ post total; and we paid $40.47 for each post.

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Contractors we talked to tried to convince us that 4″ x 4″s were plenty enough, and our neighbors usually use 4″ x 4″ as well. But based on our observation, there are plenty of falling fences in our neighborhood. Keep in mind that fence construction does not come with warranties – some company might promise a year of labor, which only applies to detaching pickets. Therefore, we decided that beefing up the posts on the west side is worth it.

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Our land slopes down at the back corner and required taller posts. We used one 4″ x 4″ x 10′ and one 4″ x 4″ x 12′ post here. This cost can be skipped completely if you build on a flat land.

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To decide how many posts we actually needed, we need to decide the spacing. We chose around 6′ because the horizontal pickets are likely to sag in the middle with longer span. Another important thing to consider is the actual length of the pickets. The 6′ pickets are not really 6′. They are always a bit shorter and there are some variation. So make sure you measure the pickets before digging the post holes. At the end, we spaced our posts 5’10” on center to accommodate the shortest pickets. This decision is completely personal. Decision like this might change the number of the posts for your fence.

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6. Bigger post hole means more concrete

Another detail that worth paying attention is the dimension of the post holes. 4″ x 4″ post calls for 12″ diameter holes, and a 4″ x 6″ post should be set in 18″ diameter concrete on the 6″ side. We were surprised when contractors advocated for 8″ holes, because “it should be enough” according to their experience. Although they might be right, but all these falling fence posts in our neighborhood made us wonder, “what if?”.

I think one big reason of under-dig is not for saving concrete, but for saving labor. Our area has very heavy and compact clay soil. Digging under 12 inches of soil is practically digging concrete. To do the right thing, we paid additional $130 to rent a hydraulic auger.

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Bigger post holes means more concrete to fill them. For 8″ holes and 4″ x 4″ post, you can get away with 1.15 bags of the 80 lb concrete, which means 92 lb per hole. We had to use 3.5 bags of 60 lb bags, total 210 lb, in one 12″ holes. This is not only because the void is much bigger, but also because we decided to bring the concrete all the way to the top of the soil to help with drainage.

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Besides the regular 4″ x 4″ posts, we also have seven 4″ x 6″ posts, which called for 18″ holes. It took 7 bags of 60 lb concrete to fill each of these 18″ diameter holes. Due to the sloped land, a few 4″ x 4″s on the back are much taller (12″ or 10″) and the post holes were proportionally deeper as well. In total, we ended up using 103 bags of 60lb concrete.

The good news is that we bought them in contractor price – the same $3.25 per bag concrete mix becomes $2.60 per bag when you buy 112 bags or more. It came out a lot cheaper (112 x $2.6 = $291.2) than buying exactly what we need in retail price (103 x $3.25 = $334.75)

7. Screws and Hardware

Using quality pickets, beefy posts and sufficient amount of the concrete, we spent double amount of the money compared to using standard materials and practices. But all these will be worth it now we have a long-lasting fence that should need less repairs. Quality lumber also improves the appearance of the fence – you can definitely tell these pickets apart from the ones from big box stores.

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We used standard deck screws and gate hardware. Each 1 x 6″ or 1 x 4″ picket was attached to the post with four screws, and each 1″ x 2″ was attached with two. This fence consumed 1400 screws, which cost less than $80.

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8. How much should horizontal fence cost?

In total, for 125 ft of the 6′ horizontal fence, including the pickets on the gates, we paid $2440 for lumber, including $670 for 23 posts, $1560 for 1″ x 6′” pickets, and $57 for 1″ x 4″ pickets (for creating the top pattern). For a standard horizontal fence, without the 1″ x 4″ pickets and 4″ x 6″ posts, you are probably looking at $2100 for 125 feet, which is ~$16.8/ft.

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We spent additional ~$200 for the two gates, which includes $64 for 2″ x 4″s, $90 for gate kits, and $40 for latches and cane bolts.

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One thing saves with a horizontal fence is that you do not need horizontal rails on each panel. That saved two 2″ x 4″s per panel, which can be costly as well. However, with the rails you only need two screws to attach each pickets, which we had to we used four screws for each 1″ x 6″s. For anyone who is considering a vertical fence, you can halve the screw cost but need to add the cost of 2″ x 4″s.

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Moreover, our building permit costs $65 and this price may be higher where you live. Including permit and tax, we spent close to $3400 on the fence. It is not cheap, but building such fence by contractor would have costed us three times as much.

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I hope this post is helpful for people who are considering horizontal fencing. Slav already mentioned that he would like to replace the back fence (another 90 ft!) next Spring. And with this experience, I am sure that the next round will be a lot easier and faster. Let me know if you have any questions!

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