{Series Part 3} Fill Dirt

This post is #3 in my How to Build a House series. Click on over to see how we got to this point and where we're headed next in our house-building adventure.
Remember that one time I wrote a whole post on dirt? Yep, this is that time.

Fill dirt.  While it's not pretty and doesn't make for very good before and after pics, fill dirt, lots of it, was required in order to get our lot up to snuff and ready to build. Let's dig right in, shall we? (you see what I did there?)

When we first purchased our lot WAY back in 2007ish it was covered in trees.
Not gorgeously mature southern oaks or flowering magnolias, no no. Pine trees. If you live in the south you know pines pretty much grow straight up and not out, sort of like giant sticks. They don't provide a whole lot of shade and they're quick to fall on your shed in a bad summer thunderstorm, not to mention the needles make a mess of your pool screen. So, we kept what we could on the sides and in the back for privacy, tried to save a couple tiny non-pine trees we found, and removed anything else that could potentially fall on our new house (or the neighbors' houses because we're nice like that). That left us with one giant crater-esque lot.

Seriously, our lot was a good 4 feet lower than our neighbors' lots. See the slope off from the neighbor's yard next to my son's head? This picture was taken mid clearing.

And while some people might like the crater look, we knew that was not going to pass local building codes. Our builder told us, from his experience building in that area, we were going to need dirt. Drainage, septic, well, and flooding (and maybe some other stuff?) all contribute to the need for more dirt. So ask your builder or local code office if you're going to need dirt (we're in Central Florida) and about how high your lot is expected to be. This all has to be done well before the slab is poured to allow time for settling. (We filled a year in advance!)
Me and Austin after our lot was fully cleared just so you can see the task ahead!

As it turns out, 1 acre x 4 extra feet = A CRAP LOAD of dirt. And, dirt costs money. Side note: We could have filled just the spot that the actual house was going to sit on but then our yard would have sloped off in all directions... we wanted it flat. Many homeowners fill just the house pad. You can do that to save a little cash. Fill dirt is sold by the cubic yard and delivered via dump truck. Depending on the size of the truck, an average truck can hold 7-10 cubic yards of dirt. (larger trucks can hold much more but probably can't drive on residential streets, so you'll probably have the 7-10ish-yard-trucks delivering to your house) With some handy-dandy math, we estimated that we would need 100+ truck loads of dirt at, wait for it...., $125 per load. That is more than $12,500 in DIRT. *dies.

So we sweated about it. And procrastinated. And tried to figure out how we were going to come up with twelve grand out of pocket (since we still didn't have the loan at this point) while not depleting our downpayment fund. And then the next crazy magically dirty turn of events happened.

The 1 acre that we own is in a very rural neighborhood and our lot in particular backs up to a huge conservation preserve. This, of course, was one of the most attractive qualities of this particular lot. So imagine our panic when my husband visited the lot one day only to notice bulldozers and construction equipment directly behind it knocking trees down and digging a giant hole. This is one of the panic-frenzied pics he texted me that day.

This is right over our back fence. In the midst of hyperventilating, we called the city to find out what was happening to our iddlic country setting. They explained to us that it was still indeed "conservation" and that the power company just needed to make a small dirt access road back there to get to the power lines. No traffic, no building. Just a way to restore power to us incase of a storm. They were digging a new "pond" in order to get enough dirt to smooth out the road where their trucks might have to drive. Huge sigh of relief. Happy dances all around. 

So while we were still sweating the cost of filling our lot we joked that we could go out there with shovels and just start scooping the extra dirt from the road project (literally mounds of dirt just feet from where we needed dirt) onto our lot. That's when my husband got the idea to just ask what they were planning to do with all that dirt. So he called the city but they kind of brushed him off ("who is this again?") with no real answer. Really, the city had no incentive to hook up one of their contracted excavation companies with an individual landowner. I get it. That's when the hubs decided to take matters into his own hands. 

He took a half day off of work, drove out to the property during business hours, hopped the back fence, and flagged down a guy in a dump truck. I'm not kidding. Luckily the guy stopped :) and gave the hubs the contact info for his boss (the guy running this project). After a couple phone calls back and forth, road project guy realized he was going to have to pay to truck the extra dirt out of there and we needed dirt literally next door! Do you see where I'm going with this? 

Because my husband flagged down a dump truck, the dirt company filled our entire yard for FREE. We basically did them a favor because they didn't have to pay to truck the dirt away. They were happy to dump it on our lot for us and we were way more than happy to have them dump it there. This is just the start of the piles that began arriving on our property.

I'd love to say our entire lot was filled for free but really, the surrounding yard was (which really is a huge area and saved us thousands). The pad dirt, or the dirt directly under the concrete slab for the house, had to be a different kind of dirt. The free dirt we were getting in the yard contained "organics" as the dirt guys told me. Meaning bits of plants and wood and things that over time would decompose. You can't put that under the slab because it will shrink and settle too much and your house would start to crack. No good. Since we already had a relationship with the dirt people at this point, we worked with them and paid to have the right kind of dirt delivered for the pad. We just staked out the basic shape of the house and filled that area with the "nice" dirt.
Over the next couple weeks piles and piles and piles of dirt collected on our lot until no more could fit. That's when the dirt guys gave us the number of someone who could come out and "knock it down". Basically a guy in a bulldozer (bulldozer? I think that's the machine he was on) smoothed everything out and made a nice transition down to the street. He's basically a sculptor of dirt. It really is an art. It's hard to tell how much dirt is actually there in this picture. Trust me when I tell you it's tons and tons... literally.
So the moral of this story is don't be afraid to take matters into your own hands and maybe look a little crazy. I can only imagine what the dump truck driver was thinking when my husband flagged him down in the middle of the woods. Our builder jokes that we prayed to the dirt gods because he's never heard of such a thing before. :) Because of the hubs' shenanigans, we paid less than 25% of what were were expecting to pay to fill our lot. Woo hoo! Now that money can go into something more fun like cabinets, or furniture, or lighting, or rugs, or anything really besides dirt.

Ready for the foundation! Totally ready to do this. Like 7+ years in the making ready.

Stay tuned. The super fun adventure of getting a building loan is next.


  1. Thanks Sarah. This is so helpful, not to mention entertaining. I'm so glad you were able to get your dirt for cheap. (There's a phrase I never thought I would say in my life.)

    1. Lol! Dirt cheap! Love it. I realize most people don't come to my blog to read about dirt but there was so little info out there when we were going through it I figured it might help somebody :) Thanks!