Homeowner’s Guide to Backyard Treehouses

Win the parenting sweepstakes by building a treehouse for your kids — or yourself! Here are the things to know before installing a treehouse.

For more than a century, kids have loved the idea of backyard treehouses. There’s something about a treehouse that recalls a time before smartphones and video games and hoverboards, when kids reveled in playing outside and finding adventure in their backyards.

And treehouses aren’t just for kids. Adults are rediscovering the joy of treehouses — just look at the popularity of treehouse hotels across the globe. Treehouses offer plenty of fun for grown-ups, too, as creative spaces to write, paint or relax,

If you’re ready to add a treehouse to your backyard, there are plenty of factors to consider, including space, size, safety and whether to build it yourself or hire a pro. It helps to have one or more big, sturdy shade trees in your backyard, but there are ways to work around that. Read on for what you need to know before constructing a backyard treehouse for your family.

Types of Treehouses

Treehouse designs are limited only by human imagination. Treehouses can be simple structures with little more than a platform and railings, or elaborate structures on multiple levels that seem to grow out of the tree itself. (Think Swiss Family Robinson.) Or, they might not even be built in a tree! Here are the basic types of treehouses:

Supported by the tree

The archetypal treehouse is attached to and supported by the tree’s trunk and branches. This design works well in a tree with a clearly defined crotch — the point on the trunk where two or more heavy branches fan out. These treehouses start with a platform suspended in the tree. From that, you might build one or more platforms (rooms) on different levels.

Built around the tree trunk

Treehouse Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Treehouses can have minimal impact on the tree itself when they are built around it. Picture a treehouse with a hole in the middle for the tree. The platform may be attached to the trunk with boards wedged and bolted diagonally. Or it may be a freestanding raised structure built around the tree that isn’t attached to or supported by the tree.

On stilts, with or without a tree

Some treehouses aren’t really treehouses at all. Think of a house on stilts — raised structures built under the canopy of a tree and may reach into its branches. If there’s no large shade tree handy, they’re simply stilt houses that are set several feet off the ground.

Leaning on the tree

Suitable for several shapes of trees, a leaning treehouse is supported partially by a platform, but it’s also attached to the tree trunk. This is a good compromise between a freestanding house and one supported by the tree.

Treehouse Benefits and Drawbacks

Know that if you build a backyard treehouse, it’s a labor of love. It probably won’t add value to your home and adds another thing in your backyard to take care of. But for treehouse lovers, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

Benefits of a treehouse

  • Family fun. A backyard treehouse is a gathering spot not just for the kids, but for the whole family. Adjacent to a pool, outdoor cooking area or fire pit, it’s another place for you and your family to enjoy your free time together.
  • It’s a satisfying DIY project. If you decide to build a treehouse on your own or with a plan you purchase, you’ll get the satisfaction of completing a challenging DIY project.
  • Your kids will love it. And so will the neighbor’s kids, and anyone else who comes to your house.

Drawbacks of a treehouse

  • It’s a safety concern. Building a treehouse is not a task to be taken lightly. No structure raised off the ground is 100 percent risk-free, so you have to make sure it’s as safe as possible.
  • It’s a maintenance point. Boards break, railings and stairs fall apart and roofs can leak. A treehouse requires maintenance, just like your lawnmower and power tools.
  • It can damage the tree. A poorly designed and installed treehouse can damage and even kill a healthy tree.

Building vs. Buying a Treehouse

There are two options: You can build a backyard treehouse yourself, or you can pay someone to build it for you.

  • Build on your own. If you can draw up a simple design and possess decent carpentry skills, you can DIY a basic treehouse. But be honest about your limitations. And don’t forget safety railings and a ladder or stairs for access.
  • Build with a plan. Companies like TreeHouse Supplies sell detailed plans for different types and shapes of treehouses. Plans start at $50 and include all specs, including a complete materials list. They also sell hardware kits to go with each plan, priced from about $300 to $700 depending on the complexity of the treehouse. These plans may require a building permit, so be sure to check with your local permit office.
  • Pay a carpenter to build with a plan. This is the better call if you’re not confident in your DIY skills or don’t have the time to do it properly.
  • Hire a treehouse contractor. This is the most expensive option, whether the contractor follows pre-set plans or you create a design together. The cost calculator tool provided by Tree Top Builders estimated $12,000 for an economy treehouse of between 50 and 90 square feet. Adding square footage, complexity and additional features brought the price up to more than $60,000. With a specialized contractor, you get peace of mind and flexibility with design, but at a hefty price.

Treehouse Use and Safety

Here are a few safety and security issues to keep in mind before you start building your dream treehouse.

  • Check with your homeowners insurance agent to see if your policy covers a treehouse, and how much it would cost to add that coverage if it doesn’t.
  • If you’re part of a homeowners association, check for rules and regulations for building a treehouse.
  • Consider your neighbors. Will the treehouse overlook their bedroom window or otherwise infringe on their privacy?
  • If you’re not sure about the health or sturdiness of the tree you have in mind, it’s worth paying an arborist to come check it out and determine whether it’s a safe place for a treehouse.
  • For a treehouse used by young kids, play it safe and keep it close to the ground. No higher than six to 10 feet is the recommended height for a child’s treehouse.

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, lifestyle and home improvement writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Reader's Digest, TripSavvy and many other publications, and she is the author of several guidebooks. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together, they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, their tween daughter and their dogs. She covers a variety of topics for Family Handyman and is always ready to test out a new pizza oven or fire pit.