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Many people will give you advice on how to choose a good landscaper – and there are lots of different opinions! When it comes down to it, the choice is up to you, because what’s best for you might not be best for someone else.
So here’s a quick refresher: most landscaping services will fall into one of three categories – the independent, the contractor, or the landscape architect/designer. Let’s talk about each of them and what makes them different.
How To Choose A Good Landscaper
The one who will be the most affordable is the independent – basically a handyman or tradesman who can help you with landscaping projects. This person is usually not licensed and won’t be registered with the state or hold insurance, which can be a pretty big drawback for homeowners who might be concerned about that.
But because they have less marketing expenses and less overhead, they are usually the best deal going for smaller projects and limited budgets. And plus, if time is an issue, they tend to be more available to get your project rolling than the other two can be.
Most independent guys find new clients through word of mouth. That’s huge, because homeowners like you want to have confidence that the job will be completed on time and will turn out as you expected. There’s nothing better than a glowing referral from someone you trust to help build that confidence!
If you have very specific ideas or needs, but just don’t want to do the job yourself, an independent can be an excellent choice for you. On the other hand, many independents will be great at installation but not very helpful when it comes to designing! So if you’re looking for a unique design plan and honest creative input, the independent may not be the right choice for you.
There are lots of reputable and experienced people working successfully as independent landscapers (in fact, we started that way). And, as any industry, there are also disreputable people taking advantage of naïve homeowners. What could seem very affordable at first may not be a good deal in the long run.
The bottom line for homeowners hiring independents is to get everything in writing, don’t pay in full until the work is 100% done, and use common sense. Ask who’ll be helping onsite, and how long the project will take.
The most common complaint about independent landscapers is that they’ll begin a project and then suddenly skip entire days on the job, leaving the homeowner with unfinished work for much longer than they originally agreed on.
The bottom line on how to choose a good landscaper if they are an independent is, if something doesn’t feel right, if you get a negative review from a past client, or if your guy seems impossible to track down before the job even begins, then don’t write that first check.
THE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
A little more pricey but, for a lot of people, a much better value than the independent, is the licensed landscape contractor or landscaping company. This type of landscaper makes up the most of the overall landscaping business.
Businesses in this category can be very varied when it comes to size and reputation, so it’s also important to ask them plenty of questions and be sure exactly what you can expect before signing an agreement or contract.
Landscape contractors are insured, bonded, and licensed by the state, which (usually) means that they take responsibility for their work and business. For you, knowing that you are working with someone who is licensed and insured can mean big peace of mind as a homeowner!
A landscape contractor may or may not offer design assistance – it really depends on their area of expertise.
If they do offer design help, a designer or salesperson will visit your home at no charge to measure and photograph the property, and to make notes about your ideas. The designer will then put together a design and bring the plan back to you, with a bid for the project’s cost and an estimated start date.
If you reject the bid, you pay nothing (and the plan stays with the contractor). Most contractors are willing to sell the plan to you, if you decide to use another person to install the design.
There are a lot of advantages to choosing a landscape contractor for an outdoor project or ongoing services. Contractors can get the work done efficiently and as promised, and are held accountable by their licensor (and owner of the business, whose lifeline depends on it!) They’ll also have had experiences with projects similar to yours that they can draw from.
At this stage, how to choose a good landscaper at this level depends on your specific needs, your comfort level with their experience, and the designer’s knowledge and background (if applicable).
One consideration in how to choose a good landscaper is the time factor. Many contractors are very busy in mid-season, and depending on your needs, may quote a four-to-eight week lead time for new residential projects. Or, if you’re looking for ongoing services, they may be at capacity and not be taking on new clients. It’s important to start looking early to avoid these issues.
Another thing to consider is that most firms will have a job minimum, which could range from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the job. If you only need a dripline moved or an 8’x10′ paver patio, then the independent landscaper may be a better choice.
Again, don’t be taken advantage of by a fast-talking salesperson. Larger businesses have well-established reputations and will be able to provide several examples of past work, and multiple references.
Larger businesses will also have their own crews and equipment, and will have fewer sub-contractors. This not only helps control costs, but ensures the job can be completed within the proposed time frame.
Smaller business, on the other hand, may give you more personalized attention. Prices do vary – a smaller firm or one that’s just starting out may come in with lower prices. The smaller firm may subcontract bigger jobs that require specialized equipment or more hands on deck, or they offer a shorter warranty period to cover the profit margin. But they are usually more eager to please and want your business.
THE LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT
At the top of the scale in both cost and education are landscape architects or landscape design firms. Homeowners who hire these professionals can be very confident that their projects will be in keeping with their vision and will include a lot more creative input.
They are probably the best choice for someone with very limited design ability, or whose yard has unique design challenges. They are most likely not the best choice if you don’t need anything elaborate, or if you’re just looking for ongoing maintenance services.
Unlike a landscape designer working for a contractor, the landscape architect will likely charge a fee for his or her time right from the start. You can sometimes expect to pay for the initial consultation, but definitely for the design and any changes to it. Sometimes they offer a flat fee that covers all of the pre-installation work, including the design plans. Other times, the designer might charge an hourly rate plus an additional fee for plans.
Just like interior designers, the more locally popular a landscape architect is, the more he or she can and will charge for services!
After the architect has produced a design, the installation and construction process can be handled in a few different ways. Some landscape architects only handle designs, and you would then need to hire a contractor (or multiple contractors, depending upon the project’s scope) to install the plans.
In these cases, the architect will usually have contractors they recommend, who are hired and paid separately. Or, the architect will oversee the project from start to finish, with the contractors and subcontractors working under the umbrella of the firm. In this situation, you would continue to deal directly with the designer, and continue to pay them for all the work.
Because their time is so invested in each clients’ installation, the most popular landscape architects may need to schedule new projects months–sometimes even a year–in advance. But it varies. Just like contractors, there are architects and designers who are just starting out, are eager to earn new business, and will get things started sooner.
If you’re one who wants to be enjoying your new fireside spa by the fall will need to take availability into consideration (as well as reputation).
If style and originality are vital to your project, you may want to hire a landscape architect to bring your vision to life. It is usually the most expensive route, but for many people, the results are well worth it.
How To Choose A Good Landscaper – Your Role As The Customer
Whatever advice you take out of how to choose a good landscaper, you can help the process go more smoothly by being clear about what you need, decisive about your choices, and realistic about how long things might take. In other words, please don’t schedule that big backyard party for the weekend the patio is supposed to be finished! Give the dust a week or two to settle before mailing out any invitations.
And please don’t wait until a project is underway to speak up about an aspect of the design you don’t like. Visit the site as often as you can, and be open to design changes or suggestions that may become necessary as a project is installed.
Finally, pay as promised, and continue to refer your landscape professional–whoever you choose–to your friends and neighbors if you are pleased with the result.