Everybody appreciates the results of a beautiful landscape, but few people enjoy the process of finding a good contractor! And why would they? Hiring a contractor has an element of risk. Fortunately, that risk can be greatly reduced if not eliminated by taking some good advice!
What it takes: clearly defining your wants, checking out background and reputation, and your instinctual gut feelings will pave the way to a successful project. The tendency to hire based solely on price must be tempered with a little homework so you are aware of the company you might be doing business with.
Your Landscape Vision
Make sure you have a clear vision of the landscape environment you want before you meet with any contractor. This is the fun part: you can drive around your neighborhood or browse on the internet (for example landscape design checklist by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers) to get ideas for creating your own unique landscape. A clear vision may not include specifics about the materials or installation details. Prepare as much as you can, it can include pictures from a magazine, a brochure from your supplier, or a checklist of what that vision is so you can accurately communicate it to your prospective contractors.
Good landscape contractors will ask for that description and the more you can give them, the better. Good contractors will ask questions to make sure they fully understand your vision. They will likely offer alternatives and options to add to your vision. They know the region and will know what works best, so work with them to paint a complete picture.
If your property requires extensive design, you can consider hiring a landscape architect. They will be able to provide you with a detailed design and may have established relationships with landscape contractors.
Over the past years, the trend has been for landscapers to do all the work themselves. More recently, that trend has reversed as the complexity of work is increasing. Many landscape contractors will perform all the work, some will sub-contract specialty work to other contractors, some will only handle the work they are comfortable with. For example, many landscapers prefer to sub-contract the irrigation system to a specialty contractor for irrigation, lighting, or water features.
Reputation is key! Lack of response is the leading customer complaint, followed by a lack of trust whether a good job will be delivered. The best route in hiring landscape contractors is to find out what their customers think of their work and their service.
One good strategy is to talk to people you know that have hired the landscape contractor you are considering. Maybe you already work with a reputable sub-contractor and you can ask them to provide recommendations. Materials suppliers can also be a good source for referrals. Just be aware a supplier will not (and should not) speak ill of a contractor. If they don’t feel comfortable recommending a contractor you will sense that in their non-committal bland answers to your questions. Your favorite nursery owner may also have good leads, as well as your local Better Business Bureau or Small Business Development Center. The worse method is to call 6 contractors that pop up at the top of the search engines – that speaks to their advertising, not their reputation.
Do this research until you can isolate 2-3 companies with the reputation you are comfortable with. Then you are ready to call them for bids. The Yellow Pages and internet will help you find contact information, but please do not judge a contractor by ad media! If the landscaper you are about to select uses subs, you want to know who they are and give some consideration to their reputation as well.
Interview Your Landscape Contractor
When interviewing contractors it is important to determine how responsive they are. If they don’t respond well while trying to earn your business what will happen when you have a problem or need service? Responsiveness involves listening: Do you get the sense that the contractor cares about what you are saying or asking for?
Often first impressions are accurate: How the contractor looks, speaks and behaves will provide many clues about what to expect if you hire them. While your decision should not only be based on “gut-feeling” it can help you discern the best choice.
You want to make sure the contractor is experienced enough to handle what you need, so ask about other landscape jobs they’ve done that were similar to yours. Get a few referrals and actually call them. Many larger contractors have a web site with such information and it is worth your time to visit their website. What if you are considering a young guy that has just started a new company? Obviously, he won’t have a long list of referral customers or jobs completed. He might do a great job for you but you will have to evaluate him differently. If you’ve established that he is responsive and you have a level of comfort then you may be willing to accept a little more risk. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Wolf Creek Company offers contractor referrals (in our area of service) if you are interested. Generally, we contact 2-3 nearby contractors that we feel confident about to handle your specific requests. You can also use our Find a Landscape Contractor web page.
Quote and Price
Landscape contractors will give you a quote, but those quotes may vary a lot. Some will be very professional while others not so much. However, judge a quote more on the content than appearance: The quotation should give you the information that lets you know the contractor heard what you were asking for and are proposing a solution that works for you.
Price is important, but should never be the single reason for selecting a landscape contractor. You will not get premium work when hiring the lowest priced contractor. Contractors promising high-quality work at low prices are often either unscrupulous or incompetent, which are not the characteristics you are looking for! Many times over the years I have spoken with homeowners that were unhappy with a contractor’s work. All I can say is, after seeing what was done and knowing what they paid, is that they got what they paid for. Price should only be a final consideration between contractors offering solid solutions.
If the quoted price is too high from all contractors, then cut back on what you are envisioning. For example, if an irrigation system for both front and backyard is too costly right now, then for now only do the work to the front yard, and have everything ready to get the backyard done next year. Don’t accept lower quality workmanship or product because such decisions always cost more in the end.
Insurance and Agreement
Ask for proof of Workman’s Compensation insurance and general liability insurance, and make sure their trucks and equipment are insured. Look for at least $300,000 in liability insurance. This is for YOUR protection in case something happens while working on your property because landscape work does have some dangerous activities associated. Some areas require a landscape contractor to be licensed or registered; if so ask for a copy of the license if not already volunteered in their quotation packet.
Whatever you and the contractor agree on must be documented in an agreement. Most contractors have such agreements and they are not difficult to understand. Make sure you are comfortable with all that is included. The agreement or contract should at least include a complete description of work to be provided, any special needs or conditions for your job, start and completion expectations, payment terms, and description of any warranties or guarantees. You can find a landscape contract template on the internet for reference. Also, remember to add or change terms you agree on to the contractor’s agreement.
Sometimes a landscape contractor will ask for a deposit that ranges from 10-25%. There are some legitimate reasons for a deposit: Materials costs may be too much for the contractor to fund until job completion. In such cases, some owners will ask for materials to be stored on their property so if the contractor disappears they at least own the materials.
An option for you is to write a ‘joint check’ to the contractor AND the materials supplier. This check can only be cashed when both contractor and supplier sign. This guarantees that the supplier will get paid and allows the contractor to purchase materials beyond his credit limit. You will be asked in advance if you agree to a joint check.
Another reason some landscape contractors ask for a deposit is to demonstrate you are serious about doing the job. For them, deposits are ways to stop people from canceling a job after they have scheduled their crews and purchased costly and perishable materials. Landscapers sometimes get screwed over by their customers and they are in their right to ensure they can cover their cost.
Job Timing and Completion
Timing may be a sticking point for the job at hand. Landscape contractors book up quickly in the spring months in our part of the country. A job signed for in May might not get installed until July. If possible, consider getting the work done during the off-season. Most contractors like booking jobs during the fall for winter and early spring installation to fill in low revenue months and give them a head start for the coming season. If this is not possible, at least get the installation booked well before spring so you are first in line.
For the job to be complete, there is typically a final meeting (walk-through) where the contractor shows all that was completed and to gain your approval the job was done as agreed. If the work is finished per the agreement then complete the transaction, pay the final payment and celebrate your new back yard. If you want the contractor to perform additional tasks, you will need to start with a new quote and agreement.
- Take your time when picking landscape contractors. Find the person you feel comfortable with and has a reputation of providing good customer service.
- Do not only select based on price, but learn about a landscape contractor’s reputation. Other customers are your best source of information.
- A landscape professional listens and tries to provide exactly what you want.
- Personal appearance and demeanor will indicate the contractor’s professionalism.
- The response you see during the bidding phase will indicate the response you will see after you’ve paid them.
- Bids that don’t match up with your specifications indicate a contractor who is not concerned about your wants.
- The low price guy is low for a reason… and it probably isn’t a good one. If you feel pressured or are given an overly “slick” presentation . . . beware.
If you are looking for a contractor in the Ohio, West Virginia, or Pennsylvania area: WE ARE HERE TO HELP! You can fill out the form on our website, or check in with your local Wolf Creek Territory Manager.