What To Know About Leveling a Yard

Leveling your yard in the spring pays dividends all year round. It solves standing water issues and gives you a greener, healthier landscape.

Heavy rains, invasive critters and changing soil conditions can make maintaining a perfectly level yard elusive, but it’s important for any homeowner who values their home and the landscaping around it.

Water runoff on uneven ground saturates plants in low spots while depriving those up high of the hydration they need. The subsequent erosion makes these problems worse. Over time, the home itself can be threatened and undermined if water collects around the foundation.

To be clear, creating a slope away from the foundation and leveling the rest of the yard are different processes. Few homes are built on perfectly flat plots of land, and leveling doesn’t necessarily involve correcting naturally occurring slopes. In a broad sense, leveling means getting rid of micro-depressions, hills and gullies that allow water to collect in some places and not others.

The benefits of leveling a yard, practical and aesthetic, include:

  • Making the grass easier to mow.
  • Improving drainage and preventing erosion.
  • Enhancing the appearance of your yard.
  • Preventing tripping accidents.

Is My Yard Level?

Even a yard that appears perfectly flat may need a little leveling. Signs that your yard needs leveling can be obvious or subtle, and may include:

  • Muddy areas or areas of standing water after a rainstorm.
  • Some parts of your lawn are brown while others are lush and green.
  • Patches of weeds, which often grow in low-lying areas that collect water.
  • Visible shade when the sun is low, cast by small hills and depressions.

What Can Happen if My Yard Is Not Level?

If your yard isn’t level, chances are the problem will worsen over time if you don’t address it.

  • Runoff exacerbates erosion. Standing water in depressions compacts the soil underneath, making it unable to support grass or other plants. It’s also a breeding ground for mosquitos.
  • When the ground around the perimeter of your house isn’t properly graded to direct water runoff away from the foundation, water can seep into the basement or otherwise compromise the foundation. That leads to structural damage, necessitating expensive repairs.
  • Burrowing gophers and moles, even if you get rid of them, they can leave leveling headaches behind. The hills they make around exit holes are formidable obstacles for your lawnmower. And when their tunnels collapse — as they often do — it’s hard to walk, let alone grow anything. Silt from other parts of your yard gradually fill in those tunnels, resulting in a rolling moonscape where your manicured lawn used to be.

Is Leveling My Yard DIYable or Do I Need a Pro?

Yard leveling involves moving dirt from one place to another, and whether you do that with shovels and wheelbarrows or earth-moving equipment is up to you. Without heavy equipment, which typically costs $100 per hour to rent, it can cost from $50 to $100 per hour to have your yard professionally leveled. Add to that the cost of any dirt you have trucked in.

In most cases you won’t need the heavy equipment, although it doesn’t hurt to have a helper or two, and they typically charge from $25 to $35 per hour. If all you need to do is spot-level or fill in a sinkhole, you can do that yourself with a wheelbarrow, shovel and rake.

How To Level a Yard

There are several methods for measuring slope to determine how much dirt you need to add and where you need it. They include running string lines, using a laser level, or deploying a water level for large areas with intervening vegetation. Methods for correcting depressions including manually filling and leveling with a 2×4 or spot filling with a shovel.

Grading around your home’s perimeter basically involves measuring the slope and moving earth from the bottom to the top of the slope to reverse the angle. In some cases, you can do this with a rake, shovel and wheelbarrow. If there’s vegetation and compacted earth involved, you may need heavy equipment.

If any part of your property has a pronounced slope, you might notice ditches, depressions and other signs of erosion. Your first move should be improving drainage, perhaps by installing a French drain system. After that, level the eroded areas. Depending on the lay of the land, improve the slope by adding dirt to the low end.

Where To Get Fill Dirt

There are several potential sources of free fill dirt. Check local construction and excavation projects, new swimming pool installations and local public works departments. You can also usually find ads offering free fill dirt on Craigslist.

Don’t be shy about calling construction, landscape and excavation companies. You’re doing them a favor by providing them a way to get rid of excess dirt, and they’ll often deliver it for free or for a nominal fee.

Do your research before taking dirt from construction sites. Sometimes it contains hazardous chemicals and debris you wouldn’t want in your yard. If you suspect this, have the dirt tested before you claim it.

If you want to plant grass, flowers or vegetables in the dirt, you’re better off buying virgin topsoil from a local supplier. It will cost from $35 to $40 per yard in most places; a typical dump truck carries 10 to 16 yards.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been building and designing homes, and writing about the process, for over four decades. He developed his construction and landscaping skills in the 1980s while helping build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up. He's worked as a flooring installer, landscape builder and residential remodeler. Since turning his focus to writing, he has published or consulted on more than 10,000 articles and served as online building consultant for ProReferral.com as well as an expert reviewer for Hunker.com. Though his specialties are carpentry, cabinetry and furniture refinishing, Chris is known by his Family Handyman editors as a DIY writer with a seemingly endless well of hands-on experience.