I am landscaping my yard and need to remove from 2-6 inches of dirt from the entire yard (about 2,000 square feet) to get it level with the rest of the property. The dirt in the yard currently sits higher than the foundation of the house due to overgrowth & gophers.

What is the best piece of equipment to rent to help with this?

Do I need to have training/experience to rent/use a tractor (excavator, loader, etc)?

I have no experience using tractors, but am a quick learner. Should I attempt this task myself, or would it be more cost effective to hire someone?

EDIT: I am looking to rent from A Tool Shed

EDIT 2: Responses to a few of your answers:

  • I have called 811 (Call before you dig) and had the utilities marked. There are none in the yard.
  • I will be moving the dirt to my front yard in an effort to make the front yard level
  • I will be softscaping (adding sod, trees, bushes, irrigation)
  • After removing about 4 inches, the dirt becomes very clay-like, so I don't anticipate any settling. I will be tilling the clay with soft dirt and fertilizer before the sod
  • @JeremyWhite Is there any reason why you wouldn't tackle such a project via the use of hand tools eg A spade to remove the soil & a wheelbarrow to move the excavated soil to a skip?
    – Mike Perry
    Nov 1, 2011 at 22:34
  • 6
    @MikePerry: 2,000 sqft x 4" is about 50,000 lbs lifted into +110 wheel barrows to cart off. I'm more concerned that, once the gophers and overgrowth go away, he'll find that his resurfaced yard will settle to be 2-6 inches LOWER than the rest of the yard. Nov 1, 2011 at 22:55
  • @RobertCartaino Which translates to approximately 4 skip loads & is something I would do fairly regularly (5 or 6 times a year) when hand digging footings for houses back in the UK (in my much younger days)... Not a big deal & would result in a good weekend workout :)
    – Mike Perry
    Nov 1, 2011 at 23:16
  • @RobertCartaino Also "Jeremy White" doesn't say how he will be landscaping his yard ie Hardscape or Softscape or a combination of both. Therefore it's a little difficult to offer the best possible advice, seeing as we don't know his end goal...
    – Mike Perry
    Nov 1, 2011 at 23:25

4 Answers 4


Before you do anything, call DIG SAFE or its local equivalent. Hitting a gas line will ruin your day. (Hitting a sewer pipe won't be much fun either.)

You could rent a tractor with a front-end loader, a wheeled loader, a skid-steer with a loader ("bobcat"), backhoe with a front-end loader.

If you don't need to haul the soil away, you could rent a small bulldozer. With this strategy, you'll need a place to push the dirt.

If you are hauling it away, you'll want to think about the truck and how you'll unload it. In other words: shoveling dirt out of the back of a pickup is a hassle, consider a dump trailer, see below.

Regarding skill level:

  • At the low end, wheeled loaders (tractor, backhoe) are probably the easiest to use. (I've been driving tractors since I was a kid, so I'm guessing at the skill level required for a novice.)
    • Be careful when dumping into the truck (or trailer, see below) not to hit the sides with the bucket!
    • Be careful when dumping into the truck that you don't bump the front of the machine into the side of the truck!
    • Be careful of overhead clearance near power lines!
    • Some machines have the tendency to tip forward when the bucket is loaded. If you don't have a lot of weight in the back, beware of tipping forward. (Especially when you're next to the truck...)
  • Beware that the arm hanging off the rear of the backhoe is easy to bump into stuff while you're backing and turning. I'd avoid the backhoe if you have any kind of obstacles and there's any other machine available. Otherwise be very aware of where the arm is while you're maneuvering around the yard.
  • Getting the soil even and level as you work is harder than it looks, and takes a fair amount of skill and practice to do quickly. I own a tractor with a loader, I don't use it much for this kind of work, and it takes me a while to get an area somewhat level -- and then I end up finishing with a hand rake. I know current/former full-time equipment operators who can do the whole job with the tractor in about a quarter of the time it takes me, not including the time I'd spend raking. (And I've been doing this a while and get semi-regular practice -- the point is that it takes a lot of practice to get good.)
  • The controls on the bulldozer might take some getting used to. I haven't used a bulldozer but I know enough that the controls operate differently.

Things to keep in mind:

  • As Scott Bruns mentions in his answer, make sure the loader can reach the truck you'll be loading.
  • You need to move about 25-35 cubic yards of material. A standard full-size pickup truck can hold about 2-2.5 yards. Beware that a yard of topsoil weighs 2000-2500 pounds. So a half-ton pickup can only carry about half a yard. That's 20 loads or more. Consider renting a dump trailer. Just make sure your truck has the tow capacity for the amount you load on the trailer. A trailer will generally reduce the clearance/height requirement for your loader; you won't have to lift as high. And a dump trailer reduces your labor requirement for unloading. (The trailer rental fee is much cheaper than the cost of repairing springs on your truck.)
  • You're going to remove the top 4-6" of soil. What's underneath that? If you have really deep topsoil (12" or more), then you'll maybe do ok. But a lot of residential developments have maybe 2" of topsoil over the top of cheap fill (which is probably either heavy clay or very sandy depending on where you live and what's available nearby).
    • If you're in the shallow topsoil situation, you're going to have a hard time getting a lawn to grow where you remove the topsoil.
    • You may need to remove extra material and then add back good topsoil.
  • You might be able to get away with eyeballing the area to get it level. But if you want to do a professional quality job, get a surveyor's transit and use it to level the area. (You'll need a helper unless you get a laser.)

If you rent a front end loader to load the dirt into a truck, make sure the loader can lift the load high enough. I once had to have two loaders onsite, one to dig up the dirt and one to lift the dirt into the truck. The small loader could not reach high enough and the larger loader could not fit into the opening into the back yard.

Also, make sure to get your utilities staked out. Something like Bluestake should be available. Make sure you know where your sewer/septic clean outs are. You don't want to hit anything.

I had several guys drive loaders during a long landscape project. Most asked if I wanted to run the loader myself. In each case I declined. As much fun as it looked, all I had to do is bump into one thing and my day would have been ruined. If you have a wide open space you should consider doing it yourself. In my case there were several tight spots, so I left it to guys who run loaders for a living.


Hire someone to come in and re-grade the property! It is inexpensive and well worth the expense to have it done once and properly. Top soil is a valuable component to your lawn's environmental health. Stripping it off is setting yourself up for future landscaping problems.


Great that you have called LOCATE and have those lines marked. If you have clay soil I would not use a rotary tiller. It would make concrete if there was any moisture in the clay soils. Your PLANT beds need to be at least a foot or more higher than the lawn area so you DON'T HAVE TO take away good soils. A trench made with a flat edge shovel between the lawn and plant beds is essential.

You might have to dig down further for your lawn area and bring in a few inches of GOOD topsoil depending on your grade. Or cover with your own topsoil if it doesn't deplete your plant beds. All lawns should be graded so there is at least a 2% slope directing water where you decide WHERE the water should flow so you don't have standing puddles near your plants and grasses. Possibly into a dry well that you make by digging a hole and dumping drain rock to allow the water to filter back into the water table.

Make sure that no soil touches the bottom of your fence or siding. Ideally 4-6" below any wood. You might have to install PT dimensional lumber to make a barrier between the bottom of your fence and your fluffed up plant beds. I've built my plant beds up to 3-4' (yes feet) using turned over old sod and soils, within a few months they are reduced to 1'by decomposition of organic matter in your soil (a very good thing).

Make sure that your lawn edges are either perfectly straight with 90 degree angles or curves with continuous radiuses...When you make a curve it continues within the same radius until you go the other way and then again another continuous radius. No wiggly lines or compound radiuses if you can help it! Your eye sees the edges of the lawn far more than the homogenous green of the grass. That is why the extra effort manually digging and forming the edge and trench around your lawn is critical for a professional look.

The MOST important thing you need to do is ROLL THAT SOIL BEFORE installing sod or seed!!!! Rent a roller that you fill with water and roll your lawn, compacting the soil. Use your rake to fill in any depressions and knock down any hills. Roll again. This is the number one reason people get hilly, lumpy lawns...the soil wasn't rolled and graded properly. Honest Injun!

Make sure that you read all you can about lawns on this site, how high to cut your grass (3" no shorter for cool season grasses), sharpness of your mower blades, types of grass seed (ZERO weed seed), sun, shade (I wouldn't bother with planting a lawn in the shade, better alternatives), slope (too much won't allow water to get down into the soil profile properly), watering is critical. CRITICAL. After your lawn grasses are well rooted from sod or seed you need to train those roots to be drought tolerant. Never water everyday. Water deeply and do not water again until you see your footprints in the grass stay down and visible, then water deeply again down to 4-6" into the soil profile. Etc. Lots more to know about this creature the 'LAWN'...

Try not to get rid of good topsoil and then have to go buy new topsoil. A waste. Hope this helps fill in a few gaps...!

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