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.
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Great post that will definitely generate some discussion… the good type.
re hiring by price alone: ‘in theory multiple bids for the materials should all be the same, right?’
– only if they are all ready from the same hymn sheet. In this case a [proper] specification of works and design.
‘That tells you that the difference in the low bidder must be the labor.’
– not necessarily. More often, I find ‘a tree’ is priced for – once again without a spec – it becomes a very different story and this is where the garden designer earns his/ her keep ensuring that the contractor has done exactly as they were supposed to do
well done and best for now
Yes, Peter, I agree. The process is a TEAM effort and when we as designers provide detailed specifications it makes the contractor’s job for estimating much more efficient. From the contractor’s perspective, if there is any confusion in the drawing don’t hesitate to call your designer.
Thank you for the great article Julie. I am a Landscape Designer and a Landscape Contractor. New Jersey laws are different in as much as almost anyone can put a sign on a truck and bid a job. It is a crime and the one who suffers is the customer. We are trying to change the laws, but red tape tangles many efforts. When bidding a project, I make it my job to educate my customer. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The economy is tough to fight. I do, however, always contact a customer when I know I didn’t get the job and offer my sincere hope that they have a great experience and a successful project, but to keep me in mind for anything in the future. That way, if they are disappointed in whom they have hired, they don’t feel awkward calling me back in.
As a design / build company we often find designs are not detailed enough. Especially if there is a lot of construction. We started to design in 3D a lot more. This helps us as designers know exactly how it will be built or at least much more has to be thought out. This also helps our staff know what they are asked to build. It is alway easier getting there, when you know where you are going. Finally 3D design gives the client a real understanding of what they are paying for. Until 3D clients had to imagine or trust us as professionals. This is the best tool we have to allow our clients to test drive our product before buying. No I don’t sell 3D software. I just like to make my vision as clear as I can to everyone before starting a project.
Yes Brad, thank goodness for Google SketchUp! I now offer this service to my clients too and what a difference it can make to work out these details on paper rather than in the field.
It goes without saying that a licensed contractor should be on the job and you expressed it beautifully in your essay.
Where I find that there needs to be more attention to detail in regards to choosing a contractor is having full knowledge of their craftsmanship team and crew management abilities.
The working drawings that come out of a design office should be detailed down to the size of the mortar joint and the coloration of the mortar so that these important details are not lost on the contractor when he is bidding on the job and the mason out in the field knows what type of quality is demanded from him.
The more detailed the plans are the more accurate the bids will be. If there are wild fluctuations in the bid prices then one might want to go back and revisit the specifications, details and notes that came out of the office.
Here’s another homeowner tip from Frank Niccoli:
“Many home owners do not think to check the status of workman’s comp. If it says exempt that means that the contractor is a sole practitioner and does not need to carry workman’s comp. Then that person shows up at the job with a truck full of employees. The way that the homeowner is protected is to ask for a certificate of insurance and to ask the contractor to add the homeowner as “additional insured.” Most of the better contractors will supply a certificate of insurance and add the job as an additional insured.”
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Finding if a landscape contractor is fully insured would be a great thing to do before hiring. I like what was said about asking for a Certificate of Insurance for proof of proper insurance. Something else to look for would be to find a professional who has completed projects similar to yours before.
Agreed! It’s illegal in CA to call yourself a Landscape Contractor and not be insured or licensed. However, the burden of proof is for the client to double check that they are working with reputable folks. That’s why I fully vet my contractors before recommending them to my clients.
I really appreciate everything you had to say here about what to avoid when hiring a landscaping contractor. My wife and I are thinking about doing some renovations to the yard now that the kids are out of the home. With that being said, we will make sure that our contractor is licensed, insured and is bonded. We will also be asking for referrals! Thanks again!
The article does make a pretty good point about avoiding hiring any unlicensed landscaping contractors. After all, you will be relying on these contractor to make sure that your new lawns look stunning. If that is the case for your lawn, then you want to make sure that they are properly licensed to make sure you get the best work possible out of them.
It is my first time visiting your site and I just want to thank you for all the great information on the landscape contractor. All the information and ideas are helping my own land project. Have a great day and thanks again.