How to Select a Landscape Contractor

October 20, 2012   Who Do You Pick?

For over 20 years, InVision Landscape has worked 90% of the time from referrals.  So we believe that the referral process is a valid starting point in your contractor selection.

Referrals are as simple as asking friends if they have any experience working with a landscape contractor.

Been to a yard you like? Seen a landscape in the neighborhood that appeals to you? Talked to a friend or co-worker who has recently been through a landscape installation?

These are all valid ways to start the contractor selection process.

Before you even talk to one contractor [or several], the first step is to outline and define the scope of work for your project: is it a new installation requiring patios, irrigation, drainage and planting? Are you just renovating an old landscape in a home that is new to you? Are you looking just to update irrigation? Defining what you want to have done when talking to contractors helps both of you decided if he/she is right for the job. Having specific ideas such as magazine photos, books or a neighbor’s example is extremely helpful to the design process. “A picture is worth a thousand words” does more to show what you want than any words can express.

There are many contractors to fit any level of landscape work; it may take meeting several to find the  right fit for your project.

Let’s work off the idea that you have a new home and need a complete landscape design and installation. Now you need to decide if you want to work with an architect or a landscape contractor/designer. Perhaps the fees involved or the extent of construction that needs to be done will determine this selection. Let’s assume you are meeting with a design-build firm, similar to InVision Landscape.

Make several appointments and allow several hours between appointments so that two contractors don’t end up meeting at the front door. Maybe even schedule one a day over several days. From the contractor’s perspective, we want to meet with both husband and wife, or both partners if applicable. Which might mean on a Saturday or late afternoon to accommodate work schedules. And, it’s great if there can be 45 minutes or so without interruptions [hungry kids, active dogs, telephones...]

Walk the property with the contractor, showing him/her your ideas and listening for their input. If they have a portfolio of ideas, point out things you like and don’t like.  Knowing dislikes are every bit as important as knowing “the likes” and helps the contractor get a clearer picture of the landscape that you have in your mind. From the contractor’s side, apathy/no opinion/no direction is the toughest design project of all!

Most contractors will either want to bid a landscape plan or offer to design a plan for you. Here’s the catch: Many contractors who do design/install will provide a cost estimate based on what they have in mind for your property.  Ideas can differ contractor to contractor which means that cost estimates may not be comparable. And, contractors are not going to provide an in-depth design for free but may give you general ideas that correspond to their specific cost estimate. You may feel at this stage the information is adequate and you can use the ‘rough plan+bid’ to select the contractor you want to work with. The contractor should then firm up the design to a point where everyone agrees on the work to be done; then a contract can be drafted.

An alternative idea is to work with an architect or designer to get a complete plan that you like which means that all the contractors you talk with can bid apples-to-apples. I have done this many times for a plan fee; InVision Landscape submits our bid as well. If we get the job, we discount back the cost of the design fee.

Even with a landscape plan, the actual 3-dimensional project will require adjustments – it always does. Make sure you and the contractor are clear when changes require adjustments to the price: get the change in writing along with a written cost.

The old adage of 3 bids is a good place to start: if one bid seems extremely low compared to the others – be aware that something isn’t right, ask them to double check the numbers….AND, maybe steer clear of the low bid – lots of factors can account for this such as overhead, insurance, labor rates, are they leaving things out only to add them in later after the job starts?  Same works on the high side: if 3 contractors are bidding fairly like-to-like projects [or one design], the numbers should not be outrageously divergent.

A final point, personality has a lot to do with being comfortable with who you select. Is someone home all day to interact with the contractor and his/her crew; how comfortable are they with daily interactions? Do you have the sense the contractor is respectful and listening to your ideas; explaining the course of construction, willing to keep you up to date on progress, available at reasonable hours via phone or email?

The contractor will present you with a contract before starting work. Next Blog will discuss how the contract is to be laid out and what you should look for before signing a contract and starting work.

REMEMBER! Do not give a deposit to a contractor for more than 10% of the cost of the job OR $1,000 whichever is less. That’s the law. No legitimate contractor should need a large some of money from you before they start the job: no work has been done and no materials have been paid for. If you have any reservations, hold back. Call the Contractor’s Board in Sacrament and ask questions.

Next post will be November 1, 2012.