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10 Myths About Hiring a Landscape Contractor

The other day, one of the industry blogs I follow highlighted a hit piece that someone did about hiring a contractor. I started to write him an email rebutting all his flawed points when I realized what a great blog post it would make! So here you are- ten myths about hiring a landscape contractor, and the truth behind each:

Myth #1- Your contractor’s price is just a first offer based on boom-time rates, with plenty of room to negotiate. Ok, have you been watching the news? How about going by the gas station near landscape yards in the morning? If anyone has a realistic picture of the economy it’s your local contractor. Because I work with a number of contractors, I can tell you that the smart ones have done an amazing job reducing their overhead so they can make their prices as competitive as possible. Never has it been more true that the price you see is the absolute best price they can give. Let’s be honest, you WANT your contractor to at least make a profit on your job. A profitable business will be around next year if you have a warranty issue, if you want additional work done, or even to answer your question of “wait, what’s that blue flower you planted by the shed?” Not to mention, a profitable business will have the trained staff and equipment to do the job right the first time. But hey, if you enjoy trying to track down the mope who brought your pavers to your house in the trunk of his ’84 Datsun 20 at a time, have at it.

Myth #2- You shouldn’t have to pay a deposit to start a job- that’s unethical/ unprofessional! One of the hardest parts of any business is maintaining cash flow. On most projects, the materials make up a good chunk of the cost of the project. Your contractor is not a bank- it is not his responsibility to finance the costs of your project. If you feel that the amount requested is too high, you can ask to have it broken down into smaller draws, based on progression of work. Just be aware that if the agreement is X% upon completion of the framing and you’re slow with the next draw, work will stop until payment is made.

Still not convinced? Look at it this way: there are laws in place to protect consumers from unscrupulous or fraudulent contractors. Even better, if you only hire licensed contractors, you have the full weight of your state contractor licensing board to help solve your problem. On the flip side, contractors don’t have many remedies available to them if a client stiffs them on a job. If it drags out in court, well- see Myth #1. If they’re operating on a thin profit margin, getting stiffed on a big job can put someone out of business. A deposit made along with a detailed contract is just good business. If the issue is that you don’t feel comfortable giving Contractor Bob the money because you don’t trust him, maybe Contractor Bob isn’t the right guy for you and you should find someone else.

Myth #3- You can save money by not pulling a permit, or if you (the homeowner) pull the permit in your own name– Not every project requires a permit. If your contractor tells you a permit isn’t needed and you’re unsure, one call to the local building office- “Hi, I live on Mockingbird Lane and I want to build a rocket launch pad, does that require a permit?”- will answer your question. If a permit is required, you need to have your contractor pull the permit. Period. If she pulls the permit, her name is on that permit, which gives you one more level of documentation should things go awry. It’s also the best way to do it. If you pull the permit and the fellow at the permit store looks at the drawings and misunderstands something that isn’t clear, he could mandate a change that is unnecessary, expensive, and not in your contract- which will cost you more money. As a designer, I’ll sometimes pull permits for my clients, but I still prefer to let whomever’s building the job get the permit.

Myth #4- My co-worker used him, so there are no worries– I’m a huge proponent of referral and word-of-mouth marketing; it’s key to my business. However, some folks have this skewed idea that because someone is a landscape contractor, they can do anything for the outside of the house. No word of a lie, I went in to fix a horrible patio job one time. I asked the homeowners why they ever hired this guy, and they said “he did a great job cutting my neighbor’s lawn so we figured he was a really good landscaper.” I looked at the neighbor’s lawn and the guy really could cut grass like no one’s business. However, he failed to disclose that this was his first patio ever.

When you’re hiring someone for a project, one question you should always ask is “have you done one of these before?” If the answer is yes, ask to see pictures. If you really want to do your homework, ask for references, or even see if you can stop by and look at a job the contractor did. Just because someone loved the job some guy did hanging a ceiling fan doesn’t mean the same guy is qualified to build your new home. A referral is a great place to start, but unless you’re looking to get the same service your friend did, you still need to vet the contractor.

Myth #5- If the address on his cards is a P.O. Box, he’s a scam artist– Sorry, it’s not this easy. Up until I leased my first office  last year the only address I gave out was a P.O. Box. First of all, a post office box is way more secure than a residential mailbox. Who wants to get checks or contracts stolen? Second, when you start a business and register with the state, the volume of junk mail you get goes through the roof. And if you register to do business with the federal government? Sorry, trees. We live in an older neighborhood where the letter carriers still deliver on foot. I don’t want to give the poor guy a hernia with all the junk mail.

Third, some people just don’t understand or respect boundaries. I have friends who have had clients stop by the house, uninvited, on a Sunday morning to talk about plant selection! I’ve also had people assume that because I’m a designer I run a nursery, and they’ve dropped by my Manassas Park office thinking they’d be able to look at plants. I love meeting new people, but I prefer to know it’s going to happen.

Bottom line is all a post office box means is that the person in question wants to separate their business correspondence from their personal correspondence. If you’re uncomfortable with that, mention it to your contractor. They’d probably prefer one person mailing checks to their home address to not getting the job.

Myth #6- You can tell everything you need to know by looking at what they contractor is driving– Nope. Sorry. Again, there are few shortcuts this easy. Until it got totaled last week, I drove a fifteen year old Ford Ranger. I bought it cash, it got great mileage, and it was cheap to repair, so it helped me keep my overhead down- which kept my fees down. Driving an old vehicle doesn’t mean you’re less successful, and driving a new one doesn’t mean you’re overpriced. It’s just a way of carrying stuff from point A to point B.

Myth #7- The lowest bid is the best value– Not necessarily. This is where working with a designer can be helpful. If the contractors are bidding a detailed set of plans and specifications, you can be reasonably certain that you’re getting an apples-to-apples comparison, especially if you have your designer review the proposals. Sometimes someone will try to sneak one by. I put a large custom pergola out to bid to three manufacturers. The first two bids were within $300 of each other. The third bid was $4,000 less than the next lowest. At first, I was excited! Then I looked closely and realized that where I specified 2×12 and 2×10 lumber, they had substituted 2×6 and 2×4 lumber. The finished pergola would look nothing like what I had drawn, and would in fact look downright stupid. I didn’t even ask them to submit a new bid, just tossed their bid in the recycling bin and crossed their name off my bid list.

If you’re getting bids but you don’t have a plan and specification list for them to bid- good luck figuring out the best value, because odds are every company is bidding something different.

Myth #8- The highest bid is the best contractor– Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Again, this is where having a plan and a list of specifications can be really helpful. It’s possible that the highest bidder has the best understanding of the specifications and is bidding exactly what’s asked, with no corners cut, which is why their price is higher. It’s also possible that they’re bidding the same specs as the next highest bidder, but they have a higher overhead or just a higher pricing structure. There’s still no one easy answer. It takes research and determining what your comfort level is.

Myth #9- Throw out the high and low bids and take the middle– The points I mentioned in myths # 7 and 8 come into play here. Are they all bidding the same thing? Are they all comparable companies? After all, if I want a flawless stacked stone wall and I got three bids, the bids may have been from three very different companies. Company A could be a skilled dry-fit stoneworker who has trained at the Dry Stone Conservancy, Company B could be a middle of the road landscape company, and Company C could be a lawn guy who reckons he can stack rocks. Landscape work is not a commodity. You’re not a purchasing agent seeing who has the best price on nuts and bolts, you’re looking for skilled craftspeople to create something where nothing existed. I wish I could tell you there was an easy answer, but if you want the best result you’ll have to do some homework.

Myth # 10- All contractors are out to “get” me– Let’s be honest, there are some bad apples out there who make the industry look bad. Because these are the stories full of intrigue and salacious details, these are who we see on the news. Guess what? The majority of contractors are people just like you who have families, coach soccer, and just want to get paid for the work they do. The contractors I work with do it because they love the work and they love seeing homeowners excited by what they do. What you have to remember is that when you’re looking to get something done, you’re unlikely to get something for nothing. If a price sounds too good to be true it probably is. Do your homework to learn what goes into your project, research the company you contact, and ask questions. If you’re still uncertain, a great place to start is to hire a landscape designer to create a detailed plan. This way you’ll know that the proposals you receive are for the work you want done and you can make a more informed choice.

Just try to remember that the end goal is to create a space that makes you happy and gives you years of enjoyment. Like everything else in life it’s a journey, so make sure you’re working with people who can do the job and with whom you’re comfortable. most importantly, have fun!

P.S.- Still unsure about the best way to proceed with your landscape project? Contact me to set up a consultation and learn how working with a landscape designer can make the process a whole lot easier!


    July 14, 2011 REPLY

    Dave…this is an excellent post. Thanks for bringing it back! All of us in this business have faced these issues. Perceptions are difficult to overcome, and your post does a great job of dealing with the ramifications of these myths. Landscape designers are uniquely positioned to be advocates for our clients, while at the same time being respectful and understanding of the contractor’s side of things.

    Roger Miller
    Twitter: @landscapeDIY

      July 14, 2011 REPLY

      Thanks Roger! I keep finding myself coming back to this post because they’re concerns that don’t go away. Glad you liked it!

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