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Laying the foundation for a new house. Concrete slab under construction.

How To Lay a Foundation (2024 Guide)

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Author Icon By Angela Bunt Updated 01/14/2024

Building a solid foundation is the bedrock of any building project. There’s little room for error whether you’re laying a foundation for a garage, shed, or home addition. Our guide offers a foundation-laying process overview and insight into do-it-yourself (DIY) options. However, in nearly every scenario, we recommend hiring a professional.

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Steps To Lay a Foundation

Understanding the foundation-laying process is crucial if you’re planning to DIY it, and it may also help you understand why we recommend hiring a professional contractor. Below are the basic steps for laying a foundation.

1. Obtain Permits and Materials

The specific permits required for a foundation depend on local building codes. Some common permits that you may need are: Building permit, Electrical permit, Grading permit, Zoning permit.
Gather materials once you have the proper permits secured. Here’s what you’ll need, along with a brief description of each component:
Concrete: Choose the appropriate strength and mix design for your specific project.
Concrete curing compound: This liquid is applied to the surface to prevent moisture loss during curing.
Concrete finishing tools: Trowels, floats, and edgers smooth and level the finish.
Concrete pump or mixer: You use this to mix and transport concrete. You can also use a wheelbarrow if you’re in a pinch.
Drainage pipes: Using perforated pipes or French drains to divert water away from the concrete slab is an important step in maintaining the foundation.
Formwork: Wooden or metal forms, stakes, or braces will contain the concrete during pouring until it sets.
Gravel: Provides stability and drainage beneath the concrete.
Moisture barrier: This can be a layer of plastic or waterproofing membrane.
Reinforcement: Steel bars, wire mesh, or fiber reinforcement strengthen concrete.
Safety equipment: Includes gloves, safety glasses, and hard hats.

2. Lay Out Foundation Footings

Foundation footings are load-bearing structural components. They prevent settling or movement and distribute the building’s weight while also anchoring it to the ground. Here’s how to lay out foundation footings:

Step 1: Establish the Layout

Familiarize yourself with the footprint (the foundation’s area) after the ground is leveled and prepared. Ensure you thoroughly understand your project’s construction plans or blueprints and review the layout before you begin.

Step 2: Mark the Corner Points

Mark each foundation corner and drive wooden stakes into the ground at these points once you thoroughly understand your design.

Step 3: Set String Guidelines

Attach string or twine to the corner stakes and run string along the outer edges where the foundation footings will be. Use a level to ensure the strings are even. 

Step 4: Check for Squareness

Employ the 3-4-5 triangle method to ensure the foundation corners are square. Measure 3 feet along one string from a corner stake and 4 feet along the adjacent string. The diagonal should measure 5 feet for squareness. Adjust the stakes until you achieve alignment.

Step 5: Mark Footing Locations

Mark the precise locations where you’ll place the footings at regular intervals along the string lines.

Step 6: Excavate the Footings

Dig trenches or holes at each marked footing location using a shovel or excavator. Footings usually extend below the frost line. Add depth pegs in each trench to show how deep the concrete must be.

Step 7: Install Reinforcement

If your foundation plan calls for reinforcement, such as rebar, position it within the excavated footings.

Step 8: Mix and Pour Concrete

Prepare the concrete mixture accordingly and pour it into the footing trenches. Use a concrete vibrator during the pouring process to avoid air bubbles.

Step 9: Curing and Drying

Allow the concrete to cure and dry. Maintain proper moisture levels during this phase to prevent cracking.

Steps to follow
Foundation walls form the perimeter of your project’s foundation, provide structural support, and prevent soil from entering the living space. Here’s how to build these concrete walls:

Start the walls by making sturdy forms to use as molds. Pressure-treated lumber works well. The wall forms should match the thickness and height specified in your plans.

Add reinforcement, such as rebar or wire mesh, for added durability.

Prepare the concrete mixture on site and pour it into the forms. Use a concrete vibrator to avoid air bubbles.

Use a screed board to smooth the surface as it dries. Periodically check that the walls are drying plumb and level, making adjustments as needed.

Allow the concrete to cure and dry. Maintain proper moisture levels to prevent cracking.

Once the concrete is completely dry, carefully remove the forms.

4. Pour the Foundation

You can pour the slab foundation once the foundation walls are in place.

Step 1: Mix and Pour Concrete

Prepare the concrete mix accordingly. Begin pouring the concrete inside the foundation walls’ perimeter. Use a concrete vibrator during the pouring process.

Step 2: Smooth and Level

Use a screed board to smooth the surface as it dries. Make sure the foundation is level and make adjustments as needed.

Step 3: Finishing Touches

Apply any finishing touches after the concrete is poured and leveled. These may include troweling the surface for an extra smooth finish or lightly sweeping the surface with a broom to add texture.

Step 4: Curing and Drying

Allow the concrete to cure and dry. Maintain proper moisture levels to prevent cracks in the foundation.

Step 5: Backfill and Complete Project

Backfill the surrounding soil after the foundation has cured and passed inspections. Now you can complete the construction project.


Foundation Types

Different types of foundations have unique benefits for specific needs. The best type for your project depends on climate, budget, and structural needs.

Consider a full or daylight basement foundation for extra living or storage space. Crawl space foundations have short walls for storage space. Slab-on-grade foundations are cost-effective but not suitable for regions with ground freezing. An Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) foundation is ideal if you’re after energy efficiency and natural disaster resistance.

Other less common foundation types include pier, wood, and stone house foundations.


DIY vs. Professional

Laying your own foundation is possible, but you must consider your experience level. A DIY foundation might be within your capabilities if you have prior knowledge of concrete work and have completed similar projects.

Also, consider the job’s difficulty level. Laying the foundation for a small shed may be easy for you to DIY, but laying the foundation for a home-building project may require a professional with the right experience, knowledge, and tools.

The main benefit of DIY is the potential for cost savings. Labor costs to build a foundation make up between 40% and 60% of total costs. Savings can be substantial for larger pours. The national average foundation cost is $9,162. This offers a potential labor savings of nearly $5,500.*

You’ll need to budget for materials, rental equipment from a shop, and possibly consulting fees for a structural engineer if you DIY. Hiring a professional foundation contractor might seem pricier up-front, but it often guarantees higher quality, faster completion, and peace of mind.

Consult a professional if you’re unsure about your ability to lay a foundation. The cost of repairing your foundation could cost you more in the long run.

*Cost data via HomeAdvisor.


Our Conclusion

A strong foundation is essential for any construction project. The process involves obtaining permits, gathering building materials, laying out footings, constructing walls, and pouring the foundation.

DIYing can trim labor costs, but hiring a professional is recommended. Hiring professional contractors is more expensive up-front, but it’s often the wiser choice for a strong, durable, and long-lasting foundation.

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FAQ About How To Lay a Foundation

How do you prepare the ground for the foundation?

Prepare the ground for the foundation by first choosing the best available location. Look for strong, stable ground and clear away water, mud, frozen soil, or debris. Make the ground flat and even by digging away bad soil and adding several inches of gravel as needed.

How deep do concrete foundations need to be?

The depth of a concrete foundation depends on several factors, including soil condition and the groundwater table’s depth. The minimum practical depth for a foundation shouldn’t be less than 50 centimeters. The recommended depth for a concrete foundation typically ranges from 1–1.5 meters from the original ground level.

What is a footing?

A footing is a structural component found at the base of a building. Its primary purpose is to support the building’s foundation and distribute its weight evenly across the soil. Types of footings include shallow footings, pad footings, strip footings, raft footings, and pile footings.

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