What to Ask a Landscape Contractor Before You Hire Them - Eshelman Mill Gardens & Landscape Design
Hiring a Landscape Contractor

I thought I would share some simple thoughts about specially hiring a landscape contractor, in the hopes that it helps at least one person.

I really hesitate to write about this topic. There are volumes on this topic on the internet. For years, I’ve never wanted to add my two cents. But there’s advice on this list that I don’t hear anyone talking about. I hope the things I’ve mentioned from my personal experiences are good illustrations as to how hiring a landscape contractor should go, and maybe even a little entertaining.

This is not meant as a comprehensive list, and I donโ€™t want to come across as if I think I know everything. (I donโ€™t.) But I have been doing this for a while, and I have seen some things that may be helpful to you when you’re looking for a landscaping contractor. If something I have written helps you save some money or aggravation, the effort will have been worth it.

Watch our YouTube video or keep scrolling to read the blog post.

Do you actually need a landscape contractor right now?

You may actually need a landscape designer right now, not a contractor.

Landscaping can take a lot of extra steps. You can spend a lot of extra money getting from point A to point Z if you are not sure where you’re going and how to get there. Particularly if the project needs to be done in more than one phase.

Get a landscape plan or a design so you don’t waste money on extra, unnecessary steps. Usually, a landscape design is not that expensive, and the money saved is often much more than the cost of the design.

Do you need a contractor?

Sometimes, a design or planning phase doesn’t have to be a formal drawing. Sometimes it’s simply a conversation. There are many times when clients tell me they want to do something that needs to be done in five separate phases. This can be due to budget, size of the project, or seasonal concerns. But it’s the job of a good contractor to explain which steps should be done together or in a specific order so that everything can be accomplished with the least amount of dollars spent.

Example:

A client bought a beautiful new home. We walked the property and talked for 30 minutes. I had some ideas and was ready to make some suggestions. Then the client mentioned a desire to have a pool put in. HOLD IT! This changed every thought I had about the project. The order changed, the design changed, and the phases changed.

The property was sloped and had poor access to the rear yard. The only access was through front and side yards. Why would they spend money on landscaping the front or side yards (their immediate desire) then destroy it building a pool? Also, part of the rear yard had a big slope and the kids really couldn’t use it to play on. Well, a pool is a giant hole, and it costs money to haul that dirt off the property. Why not use the dirt from the hole to make a larger play area and not pay to haul it?

I told them they should NOT spend any money at all right now, be patient, and we could get a game plan together before spending one dime. It may not look like what they wanted for a while, but it would save money and give a better finished product in the end.

Now, I know this isn’t rocket science, and you might be yawning at all this. But you know what amazed me? The client told me I was the 3rd contractor they had met with and no one else had made these observations. They had simply given prices for the work. That’s scary to me.

I left that meeting feeling really good because I knew that I had just done that family a tremendous service. It wasn’t a formal design; it didn’t cost them anything. And I was there almost an hour, and was very happy to have had the first meeting with someone. I hope this will be a long term client. They may or may not ever know how much time, aggravation and money they saved that day, but I know and I was very pleased.

Look at a contractor’s body of work.

Landscaping is a visual industry and a viewable product. Looking at someone’s past work goes a long way to determining if they are the contractor you want to employ. If a landscape contractor is working in your neighborhood, it’s pretty easy to see an example of their work. You could also ask the homeowners they’re working for what kind of experience they’ve had.

At the very least, you should be able to see examples of a contractor’s work on their website. And that work should resemble what you’re looking for.

Ask about the kind of work they do. For instance, people ask us all the time about flat concrete work. I immediately tell them they shouldn’t hire a landscaping company like ours for flat concrete work. We do concrete work as part of larger landscaping projects. But if they just need large flat walks and driveways and curbs, we are not the right company. They will get better prices and better results form a concrete company that does that work every day of the year.

Look at Their Portfolio

Don’t be shy about asking a contractor if the pictures on their website are something they actually did, and not a stock photo that they just found and put on their website. If the contractor is offended by that question, rather than being able to just give a definitive yes or no, that contractor is probably not the one you want to hire. You want to be sure that the landscaper you’re hiring has done the kind of work you’re hiring them for.

Note:

I have one caution about this piece of advice. We are a landscape contractor. We design, build and install all types of lighting and landscaping. However, I’m not a computer person. Be aware that some companies are busy being great landscapers instead of spending all of our time making sure we look good on the internet without the portfolio to back it up. I know landscaping companies who do great work, but their website is only so-so. Take this advice as a part of the selection process, but be careful you don’t pick a contractor that looks good online, instead of one that actually is good.

Get multiple bids.

I know, you’ve heard this before; Nothing new here. But I do suggest speaking to at least two or three landscape contractors before you move forward. I cannot tell you how many times, over the last 40 years, that I have been the second or the third contractor to speak with a homeowner, and during that conversation my answers varied greatly from someone else’s. (Not necessarily because we were right and they were wrong.) The different answers allowed the homeowner to see different anglesย  different solutions or different design ideas.

My main point here is that every time you talk to a landscape contractor, you will hear something slightly different, and each thing will educate you in a different way and give you some insights as to how you may want to proceed in your project. I am not saying that every new thing you hear is necessarily right or wrong. But having more knowledge before you start a project is usually a good thing.

Get Multiple Bids

Obviously, I would not recommend going with the cheapest price. For services like mowing a lawn or doing a leaf cleanup, the lowest price may be fine. But if you’re looking for an outdoor kitchen, retaining walls, patios or decks, water features, landscape lighting or green design and planting, I doubt at the cheapest price is the one you want to choose. I have many examples of removing and rebuilding things that another contractor did incorrectly or with cheap materials. We all know that the cheapest way does not always end up costing the least!

Example:

I took a phone call from a housing association (HOA) who told me that they needed to get five estimates. I asked if they would be going with the cheapest bid. When they answered ‘yes,’ I told them I couldn’t provide a proposal, but I’d be happy to give them several names of companies who were cheaper than we are. She thought I was joking. I wasn’t!ย If you want quality materials and quality workmanship, along with decades of experience in solving serious issues, you won’t find that at the bargain basement store.

A few years later, I learned that the HOA was spending a large amount of money again because the work wasn’t done right the first time. This happens all the time. I always joke with people when they start telling me their “contractor horror stories.” I tell them that my contractor horror stories are much better than their, and theirs probably wouldn’t make my top 100. ๐Ÿ˜Š

There are an awful lot of good, honest, reliable, hard-working landscaping contractors. There are also some that don’t fit into that category. Be patient and find a good one, and it can be a very positive experience to transform your property into the living space you’ve always wanted. And to the right kind of company, giving you that kind of experience is as important to them as the profit from the job.

How long has the company been in business?

I want to be careful with this suggestion. And I actually don’t want to put too much emphasis on this. But I do feel that it is worth mentioning. I think the amount of time that a company has been in business has a relative importance to it.

I don’t mention it because a company who has been in business 25 years is necessarily better than a company that has been in business for three years. But for some projects, I would strongly suggest finding a contractor who has done the kind of work you’re looking for in previous jobs. And if a company has been around awhile, and worked for the same people for decades, that’s a pretty good commentary on what kind of company they are.

How long have the employees been with the company?

This one really goes a long way with me but can be hard to find out. It may not always apply in smaller landscape projects. But if I were going to hire a landscaper who would be on my property for five to eight weeks, doing a $100,000 job, I would absolutely be asking this question. I feel this is a valuable piece of advice, but one that I donโ€™t hear much about when others give advice on hiring a contractor.

Ask about the employees that will actually be on site doing the daily work. In today’s labor market, any contractor will tell you that the hardest thing about running a business is finding good help! And really good employees can always go somewhere else to find work if they don’t like where they are.

How long have employees been with the business?

If a company has the same employees year after year, and they are true “company men,” that probably means the company takes good care of their employees. They probably value craftsmanship and professionalism and treat their employees well. I feel that this tells you a lot about the company and its business philosophy. And, if they treat their employees well, they probably treat their clients in a similar fashion. Truly professional workers, who have character and take pride in what they do, do not stay at a company that is being dishonest or unprofessional with their clients.

Consider your initial experience carefully.

After your first and second meeting with a contractor, you should have a very strong sense that they are interested in giving you what you want, not just what they’re selling. You should also have a very clear sense that they are listening to what you are saying, and not thinking of what they want to sell you while you are talking.

Are they looking to adapt the project to what your vision is? A good designer or a good landscaper can make suggestions, help you bring into focus what your vision is. But you don’t want them to be so busy showing you their vision that you end up with something that is either different than what you wanted or a project that does not function in the way that your family needed or wanted.

Did they call back right away?

Another consideration is obvious but often overlooked. How fast did they return your initial call? If you spoke to the company three times in order to set up the initial appointment, no problem. But how many people did you speak to?

A company is showing you what they’ll be like to work with on a project from the moment you start the interviewing process. Did the person show up on time? If they were late, did they call or text so you knew they were stuck in traffic?ย Did it take four days to get a return email? Companies that provide bad service often don’t start doing so after the job is started.

Example:

Last season, we did a very nice hardscaping project. That client told me outright that he hired us because he spoke to me, the owner, when he first called. Then our designer, Lauren, contacted him for the initial walk through. Then he spoke to myself or Lauren about four times before he selected us as his contractor.

He told me that in that same period of time, he was going through the same thing with a very large company. In that same time he had spoken to four different people and felt like he had to start over at the beginning on every phone call.

I know things happen. I have been late for appointments. I have forgotten to return an email. But when those things happen, I also contact the client and apologize for being delayed and try to make it right in any way I can. We tell our team all the time, “mistakes will happen, but it’s how you handle the mistake that shows if you are a professional or not.”

Get it in writing.

The obvious one, yet one that people repeatedly do not do. Get everything you agreed to in writing. The scope of what is to be done should be clear in the proposal, as well as the deposit amount, progress payments, as well as when the balance is due, should be very clear. A 30% to 35% deposit is perfectly reasonable. Progress payments can certainly be made. But the percentage being paid after a job starts should almost never be more than the percentage of the job that is complete at that time.

For example, we always ask for one third down as a deposit before we even schedule a job on our to-do list. This is simply so we don’t order material or waste time planning for something, only to find out the client wasn’t serious, or they may decide to hire another company. We also expect the balance to be paid upon completion, unless other arrangements are made. If it is a larger job, we may ask for other progress payments. But if we ask for a second payment, or a progress payment of another third, we would not ask for that other third until at least two-thirds of the job is already complete.

Get it in writing

We do that because we never want to put our clients in a position where they have to worry about being taken advantage of, or for being stuck with a partially finished job. It is stressful enough to hire a contractor and have a construction project going on for days or weeks or months without having to worry about such things. We think it’s more professional this way. That’s why we have always done it this way.

Whatever the agreement is, it needs to be clear and in writing before any work starts or any money changes hands.

Is the contractor insured?

Another seemingly obvious one thing to check for that most people don’t. Ask your contractor if they carry proper insurance. I am personally amazed at the number of very large projects we do, and the homeowner never even asks if we are properly licensed or insured, much less asks for proof. Maybe they just assume we are because we look professional. But that’s a dangerous way of living.

If someone is working on your property, and something goes drastically wrong and there is a tremendous amount of damage on your property, who is going to pay to make you whole? If you have people on your property, and somebody gets hurt, who is paying the medical bills?

I won’t bother giving a bunch of examples of the things I’ve seen. It’s just too long of a list. But picture an entire, full sized, in ground pool that has lifted straight out of the ground due to a high spring water table. I’m talking the entire concrete pool, the deck, and drain lines, rose straight up and out of the ground at least 10 inches! Now picture the happy and light-hearted conversation as the homeowner finds out that the company he hired has no insurance! (I even had a professional pool guy tell me that this is impossible and could never have happened. Well, I saw it, and could have bid on the demolition job if I wanted to. I didn’t.) When I have really bad days, I look back on that and realize I may not be having such a bad day after all. ๐Ÿ˜Š

Is the contractor insured?

Any reputable contractor can provide you with the name and policy number of their insurance. And if you want it, it’s easy to have the contractor’s insurance agent email you a copy of all pertinent insurance. I don’t know of any commercial contracts that are ever entered into without this demand being fulfilled. Most commercial landscaping will not be paid for without a Certificate of Insurance (COI) on file with the management company. Such a request is not only a small one, but also an easy one for a reputable contractor to fulfill.

Keep your budget to yourself.

This is a personal favorite of mine, because I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve seen this happen. And yet, in all the advice I’ve heard about hiring a contractor, I have never heard anyone talk about this: Never, ever, ever give a contractor your budget before he gives you a proposal.

If you want a project done, you may or may not have an idea of an approximate budget. But if the work you want done costs about $3,000, and you tell a contractor that you just met that you have a budget of $4,500, guess what number the estimate will be? My guess is just under $4,500. I know not all contractors are dishonest, but there is absolutely no upside in telling someone how much you can spend before they give you a proposal.

Keep your budget to yourself.

I can’t tell you the number of times that a prospective client has told me their budget before they have any idea of a true cost of the job. When this happens, it usually causes me to stop the conversation and tell them what I just said. I also tell them that my price isn’t going to change no matter what their budget is. If my job proposal is $4,200, a client’s budget of twice that or half that doesn’t change my pricing on the job, at least not initially.

Now, once costs have been viewed and explained, we can always try to work into a budget or add more items, if desired, to have more work done. (I touch on negotiating a price with a contractor below.) I know what our costs are, what materials cost, and I know what our profit has to be to stay in business. But I do try to educate a homeowner and strongly encourage them to make sure that I’m the last contractor they ever do that with.

Example:

The last time this happened to me, I was talking with a widow in her 80s. Her husband had clearly always taken care of certain things, and now she was trying to hire a contractor to get work done in order to sell the house. I felt like I was talking to my mom. She needed about $5,000 dollars of work done, and that’s about what I was thinking as we spoke. Then she tells me that she has about $7,500 to spend on this project. I listened patiently. Then, as sweetly as I could, I told her that she should never do that again. I took time to explain why I was saying this. And she certainly understood. But I had her laughing when I made her promise me that she would never do this again – ever.

I’m not saying all contractors would take advantage of that, but we have all heard enough horror stories about dishonest (or at least questionable) contractors to know that this is just not a good practice. Let the contractor give you a proposal first and maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.

Ask the contractor how they handle mistakes or unforeseen problems.

This is an open-ended question that doesn’t have a specific answer. I don’t think you should be looking for a specific answer, unless you have a specific concern. The answer you’re looking for is an acknowledgement that things absolutely can and do go wrong on a large job, and what they do to take care of those problems. I think you should hear the contractor acknowledge that some things are part of the job and that they would handle it as a professional. I also think an honest contractor would acknowledge that there are some things that may not be foreseen, and that they would immediately stop the job and talk to the homeowner about a fair way to solve the problem.

How do they handle problems?

If a contractor tells you that there are never any problems, or if they say that any unforeseen problems will be paid for by them, would you believe that? Does that even seem fair or reasonable to you? At that point you are dealing with a contractor that has never done a large job before or they are lying. Either way, this is not the contractor you want to hire. Again, I think this is a good question to ask, not to hear a specific answer, but to give you an idea of the honesty and character of the person you are considering hiring.

Common problems:

The two most obvious and common issues with Landscaping contractors are materials being unavailable (such as a specific type if stone is on backorder or a plant in the design is either not available or only available in a different size) and when we find something no one expected when we are digging in the earth. Again, I don’t know if this open-ended question is going to be made with a specific answer. But the answer should absolutely be professional, acknowledge that things go wrong on large jobs, and a verbal promise of responsibility when it is reasonable for the contractor to do so.

And other things are beyond the contractor’s control and that some things are NOT included and may cost more if encountered during the project. I know that this is not the same as requesting it in writing, but it makes it much more difficult for a contractor to act like it’s not their problem when they have already looked you in the eye and told you that they will be responsible for certain things.

Example:

Years ago, we were contracted to remove a concrete pad in the rear of a home and replace it with a beautiful, natural stone patio. That space had never been anything but a patio that we knew of. And most concrete patios are four inches thick, sometimes five.( There is never a reason to go thicker than that on a patio that just has foot traffic on it.) Also, most patios are almost never poured with Rebar. There is just no reason to make it that strong.

We started on the demolition at 7:30 a.m. and by 8 a.m., we knew we were in a heap of trouble. The patio must have been built by the owner of a concrete plant who desperately needed to sell some product or something! (I’m beginning to sweat again as I write this.) This patio was ten inches of thick of reinforced concrete. And there had to be enough Rebar in it to be the foundation of a ten-story building. The only thing that kept me from crying like a baby was that I didn’t want my men to panic.

What did we do? We stopped the job, cleaned everything up and left. (This was before cell phones.) I left a message for the homeowner to call me as soon as they got home from work and told them that I needed to come over that evening to speak with them about the job. When we met, I explained everything that we found and why there was no way I could do the job as quoted. There was no way I could have reasonably foreseen this.

Keep in mind, that if it had been six or seven inches of concrete, with no Rebar in it, Iย  would have suffered through it and never mentioned it to the client. But some things cannot be foreseen, and some things need to be discussed as they come up.

You and the contractor have to be fair and reasonable with each other to find a solution. At that point, you need to hope that your contractor is honest and professional enough to be reasonable. And you will need to be the same.

Just so I don’t leave this story unfinished, we ended up delaying the project, but in a few days, we went ahead and did the job with the added cost being spelled out to the customer before we started again. They were delighted with us and the finished product. And, we worked for them again on their next project. They told me that for that second project, they did not get bids from other contractors because they wanted us to do the work. They knew we had been professional, honest, and fair on the first project. That’s the only way to do business.

What happens if plants die?

Again, I’m always amazed that people don’t ask us this more often. You need to ask about this in the planning stage. Each contractor has a different policy, so don’t assume anything. I know of companies that guarantee plants for one growing season, some for one full year. Others make no guarantee at all.

Even though there are some exceptions, as a general rule, we guarantee anything we plant for one full year. Keep in mind that when a landscaper purchases a plant from a grower, the grower makes positively no guarantee of any kind. The landscape contractor is guaranteeing something that has no guarantee when he buys it.

The caveat to our policy is that the plants need to be cared for properly, which means you should ask for watering instructions. For the past 30 to 35 years, we have provided an entire page of written watering instructions for every seeding, sodding or planting job we’ve done. As soon as I realized people were very casual about watering, we instituted this policy, and we have never varied from it. Our foremen know that they are never to leave a job without providing written watering instructions to the homeowner.

I always tell clients that anything we plant is “guaranteed to die.” And I pause long enough to make sure that they understood what I just said. They are naturally surprised by that statement. And then after that pause, and recognition of what I said, I complete the thought by saying, “unless you follow our written watering instructions.”

What happens if plants die?

I could fill pages explaining how the nursery and plant industry has changed in the past 40 years. Customers think that plants are ordered, and then dug out of the field, and brought to the job. The truth is that almost all landscape plants and trees are now dug many months prior to them being sold to a landscaping company or even local nurseries. The root balls can sit on giant parking lots or stone for months, until they are brought to your house. They have been out of the ground, and yet perfectly healthy, because they get watered everyday.

Decades ago we needed to worry about infestations, funguses, etc. All of that has pretty much been removed because this is a billion dollar industry. Due to millions of dollars being spent on research and development, plants have been hybridized, sprayed, fertilized and maintained in such a way that all they need to live is to be watered. When a plant arrives in your garden, the correct amount of water is the only ingredient missing.

I always tell people that if we plant 1,000 plants, 25 of them will die. And 23 of those 25 died because of improper watering.

So, ask about plant guarantees. Most contractors provide some kind of guarantee. But no contractor can reasonably be expected to guarantee plants that are not properly watered. And you should ask for written watering instructions for anything you’re planting or seeding. Our watering instructions are different for plants, trees, sod, flowers or seeds. They each need different watering schedule.

These same questions should apply to whatever is being installed; even hardscape needs maintenance to keep it looking great. It is reasonable to ask about any guarantees on materials or workmanship. I just picked plants to deal with here because it’s a little more unique to landscaping contractors, but the bottom line, ask about guarantees.

Example:

Probably the last job I did without providing written watering instructions was when we planted an entire new landscape for a doctor’s new home. His home and office were on opposite sides of a beautiful home. I was young, and this was one of the biggest jobs I had done up to that point in time. It was gorgeous! People would slow down to look at it as they drove past. I don’t even think we had lawn signs or lettered trucks in those days. But, man, was I proud of our work.

Well, the Doc was excited. He loved me and paid us. I went on to the next job. After some time passed, he called and told me everything was dying. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him how often he had been watering. I can still hear him asking me, “You mean I have to water the plants?” That was was when we started handing out written watering instructions on every job.

How soon can the work begin?

This is a reasonable question to ask before you give a deposit. But you need to keep two things in mind.

First, landscaping in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is seasonal, and there are busy times and slower times. You, as the client, need to make the initial inquiry early enough to have your project done when you want it done. Spring and fall are the busiest times for planting because the weather is optimal. Summer and fall can be the busiest season for hardscaping because the ground is dry enough and not too frozen to dig and grade.

I suggest you speak with your contractor in December, January, or February, about your project. These are the months when landscape companies have the most time to talk with customers and work on plans. If you wait until April or May, you may find that the contractor is scheduled well into the summer by then.

How soon can work begin?

Second, if a contractor tells you that they are booked up for 8 to 10 weeks, you may not want to wait for them. That is your decision to make. But if you call three companies in the middle of April or May and they are all booked up for two months (which is common for larger landscaping or hardscaping jobs), but then you find a company that can start next week, you may want to inquire as to why they are not busier.

Now, I want to be careful here. There are plenty of reasons why a good company could start a job quickly. And you may have been very fortunate in finding such a landscaper. But, please,ย  be aware that if every company that has a good reputation or has been around awhile is booked for months, and you find a company that seems to be sitting around waiting for your call, that should affect your decision. Just my two cents, because I’ve seen this backfire too many times.

Negotiate the price.

What happens when you’ve found a contractor you like, and the plans provided are just what you wanted, but the numbers look a little higher than you were expecting? I don’t think it ever hurts to ask if there is any room for negotiation on the quote. Most contractors won’t like this statement, but the truth is that many (not all) times, there is a little room for negotiation.ย I can’t think of too many large jobs that we’ve done that I would have walked away from, rather than doing it for 2-3% less than the proposed price. Now, there are many that I would have walked away from rather than doing it for 8-10% less than the quoted price. There just isn’t that much profit in most jobs to just lower it by 10%.

Here is something else that some contractors may not like me to say. Let’s say a contractor gave you a price. Now, let’s say you tell him he can do the job, but for 20% less than the quote.ย If that contractor agreed to the job that much cheaper, in my opinion, you would be fool to hire that contractor.

Any landscaper who can instantaneously take 20% off a price is only telling you that they were trying to rip you off with the first price. There isn’t enough profit in a patio or full-blown planting design to remove 20% off the cost unless the first estimate was ridiculously high to begin with. Is that the kind of contractor you want to do business with? They were just throwing money on top of the job to see if you’d be willing to pay it. It makes no sense to me, yet I know this happens often.

Negotiate the price

Negotiating is reasonable. It’s good business. And no contractor that is in business for the long haul should be offended by the questions or negotiating of a price. But you need to be careful that you don’t lose a good project over a few dollars. And you need to be aware that sudden discounts are often red flags of something else you don’t want to be involved with.

One last word on negotiating with a very reputable contractor. If it’s spring time, and the contractor is working from sunup to sundown, six days a week, and he is booked up for eleven weeks, can you see that it’s not very likely that the price can be negotiated very much? Why would a company lower its price if they are already working maximum hours at normal pricing? There is no incentive to work for you at a reduced price when your neighbor is already paying him more to go to her house.

However, in January, maybe you need some tree work done. Now, you’re talking about a different ballgame. That same company may give you 5% off just to keep their men busy in the winter.

What do you think?

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  • Rich (Owner)

Before you hire a landscape contractor

What to Ask a Landscape Contractor Before You Hire Them
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