Building a new garden is a team effort that begins by selected the right professionals. Your landscape designer is typically the first point of contact when planning a landscape project. Designers have years of experience seeing firsthand both top quality installed projects and poorly executed work by some that pose as landscape professionals.
Although designers can guide and give you contractor recommendations based on our years of working with these professionals and seeing quality results, the ultimate decision comes down to you. With a bit of knowledge, research and knowing the right questions to ask, you will be prepared to make the best decision for you and your project.
Avoid Hiring the Unlicensed, Uninsured and Unbonded
In California the laws are very clear about who can and cannot call themselves a landscape contractor. “State law requires anyone who contracts to do landscape work to be licensed by the Contractors State License Board, if the total price of the job (including labor and materials) is $500 or more. Licensed contractors are regulated by laws designed to protect the public, are bonded, and must complete four years of journey- or higher-level experience in the same trade to apply for a license. If you hire an unlicensed person, you may be financially responsible if injuries, fire, or other property damage results.” -California Landscape Contractors Association.
It’s easy to check to see if a contractor has a current, good standing C-27 license by visiting Contractors State License Board online or by phone. “To verify insurance, bonds and workman’s comp, request certificates in writing,” states Mathew Mueller of SouthBay Landscaping.
“Licensed landscape contractors carry liability insurance to protect the homeowners in case of property damage. They obtain a mandatory bond to protect against performance issues and carry workman’s compensation to cover job related employee injuries. This is not only mandatory for a business with employees, but it will protect the homeowner if there is an unfortunate injury on their property,” says Dale vonDohren of Landmark Landscapes.
Another thing you can ask for is a list of referrals. Ask questions and find out how they resolved issues that came up during and after the project.
Also be cautious if your gardener, handyman or other trade professional offers to help you with landscape installation. While they may have a business license, if they don’t have a C-27 landscape contractor’s license, and your job is over $500, they are not legally qualified to assist. Patrick Camin of Camin Landscaping warns, “The client has no leverage against an unlicensed contractor for unprofessional work or practices without the protection of the Contractors State License Board.”
Hiring by Price Alone
All landscape projects are bid out by “time and materials”. This takes into consideration the time (“man hours” of labor) and the cost of materials for each step of the process. If the landscape designer has called out the plants/materials, placement and square footage, in theory multiple bids for the materials should all be the same, right? That tells you that the difference in the low bidder must be the labor. “Cutting costs in your labor time means cutting quality. For example, concrete work like in a new driveway has to be meticulously and quickly installed due to the dry time. If there are not enough experienced concrete finishers on the project, the concrete sets up too fast, your new driveway cracks and the job is ruined,” says Mathew Mueller, SouthBay Landscaping.
Remember that the lowest price may not always be the best. The contractor may have made a miscalculation or not included all the work quoted by competitors. Be certain that each bid lists all the preparation (demolition, grading and drainage) and finish work (hardscape, plants, irrigation) that the designer has noted on your plan.
Avoid Change Orders, Read Your Contract
Selecting a contractor that can communicate the scope of work and listen to clients needs will bring more value than a low cost estimate. Clear contracts and a history of little to no change orders from previous clients are ideal indicators.
“Some contractors change order their clients to death after they begin the project. It is ‘buyers beware’ world and the client should do their due diligence all through the project by asking questions and understanding the contract before signing the on the dotted line,” suggests Natalain Schwartz, Landscape Design/Build.
Plants, labor and parts should have warranties in writing. A fly by night outfit will finish your job quickly, get paid and get out before you notice any problems. Meanwhile, they never return your calls and you are stuck with their repairs, sometimes paying double to have it redone correctly.
“Planting a garden is only the first step in a successful landscape but the real success comes in the stewardship phase. To establish a garden well may take up to five years. Your investment can be thrown away if your garden project is not managed properly,” says Alrie Middlebrook, Middlebrook Gardens.
Ask your designer or contractor for landscape maintenance and aesthetic pruner referrals. Be sure that they have horticultural knowledge, are using non-toxic approaches to pest and weed management and pay their insurance to cover their employees for workman’s comp.
In short, does your landscape contractor have a passion for helping people and enjoy construction with quality craftsmanship? Do they have fair pricing based on their experience, size of their firm and overhead? Lastly, look for solid history of happy clientele.
If you avoid these pitfalls and find quality, reasonable rates, and good referrals, you are on your way building a long term relationship with a solid landscape team.
Special thanks to Southbay Landscaping, Camin Landscaping, Landmark Landscapes, Middlebrook Gardens and Natalain Schwartz Landscape Design/Build for their contribution.