Enhancing the curb appeal of your home, whether through foundation planting or an outdoor living area, is an investment of your time and money. Many people choose to do most of their projects themselves, but there are those projects that require a higher degree of expertise or are too involved to do yourself, and for those jobs you may need a qualified contractor. Choosing the right contractor or landscaper to help with your project is one of the most important steps in a successful completion. Mike Bishop with Blue Max Materials shares some tips on selecting the right contractor for your job.
The relationship between a homeowner and contractor should be a true partnership - one in which both parties are comfortable communicating suggestions and/or concerns in an open dialog. This requires a high degree of trust in your landscaper or contractor and it's important to determine if he/she is worthy of that trust.
Here are several questions you should check out:
1. Observe a prospective contractor on a jobsite, if possible. One of the first things that you notice about a contractor is the appearance of his personnel and equipment. Companies that are proud of their name and reputation will most likely display them on their uniforms and equipment. Chances are if they respect the appearance of themselves and their equipment, then they will most likely respect the quality of work that they do for you.
2. Ask to see proof of licensing. A trade license typically means they have passed competency tests in their field. Beyond state or local licensing, some contractors go the extra step and receive additional certification by trade organizations, such as ICPI for paver installation. Investigate what the certifications really mean - sometimes they're nothing more than a piece of paper while other times they involve an extensive amount of classroom and on-the-job training. See which contractors have made the additional investment and commitment to their field.
3. Ask to see proof of insurance and bonding. Liability insurance covers property damage and injuries caused by their work while workers' comp provides payment to injured workers. Bonding covers the costs of repairing or replacing shoddy work. If a landscaper/contractor doesn't have these types of coverage, you as the homeowner have to pay out of your own pocket to cover these expenses if your homeowner's policy doesn't cover the bills.
4. Discuss the scope of your job. It's very important to determine if the installer is actually qualified to do the type of work you want or need done. Some companies may do an excellent job at landscaping and irrigation, but may not have the expertise to handle a hardscapes installation. You want to avoid finding yourself stuck with a project requiring lots of money to repair and redo because it was beyond the scope of experience of the people you hired.
5. Ask for references. Concentrate on similar types of jobs they have completed, and then actually contact the references and visit those jobs. Be sure to look at jobs that were completed 3-5 years ago as well as recent jobs; it's important to make sure that their work holds up and still looks good over time. Problems often take a year or two to surface, particularly in hardscape applications.
6. Check with such places as the Better Business Bureau, Angie's List or reputable suppliers to investigate the legitimacy and credibility of the company.
7. Get everything in writing:
a. The contractor's contact information and license number. Make sure to verify a physical address where he/she can be located and ask for more than one phone number.
b. The scope of the project, including a detailed list of materials (color, model or style, brand name, etc.).
c. Estimated start and completion dates.
d. A payment schedule, including who will be responsible for paying the contractor, subcontractors and suppliers.
e. Contractor's responsibility for clean-up.
f. Who will be responsible for obtaining necessary permits.
g. How change orders will be handled.
h. Warranties for materials and workmanship.
Talk to more than one prospective company and get written estimates from several of them. Understand what each offers and the installation process each goes through. The company that can provide sound back-up for what they do and why they do it is oftentimes the more knowledgeable and experienced crew. Remember and heed the old adage, "if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true."
Beware of the companies that ask for all their money up front or want you to provide your credit card to them when picking up supplies. You would be shocked at the number of times landscapers come to pick up materials from a supplier using the homeowner's credit card; even with the most trustworthy landscapers, it's putting temptation right in their faces. Don't set yourself up for credit card fraud!
When the job is complete, verify that the materials have been paid for. It can be frustrating and embarrassing to find out after the fact that the contractor has not paid for the materials used and have the supplier threatening to lien your home.
One example of a nightmare turned into a success is shared below (shared from an article in the January/February, 2009 issue of Today's Custom Home magazine entitled "Rest Assured") :
When one Charlotte family decided to tackle a landscaping project they had dreamed of doing for 18 years, it quickly turned into a nightmare. "We had a huge slope in the back of our yard that we were trying to terrace," the homeowner explains. His family worked with a designer to create a landscape plan that fulfilled their vision, then found a contractor they felt they could work with to execute the plans. That's when things literally began to go downhill. "Frankly, we didn't do our homework. We liked the contractor, so we didn't check his credentials. We were a couple of months into the project and the walls were falling over, because they were not installed properly from a structural standpoint. We were in a real jam." That was when the family started doing more research about the Belgard wall products they had selected and discovered that the manufacturer had an Authorized Contractor program.
"We called one, and he has been a real savior to us. He tore down the faulty walls, started over and has done a tremendous job. I wish we had called them first, because they are true professionals who can give you great advice, who will tell you honestly whether or not something will work, and who know how to work with the product to ensure that what they are building is structurally sound," he notes. Seven long and costly months later, the family is ready to begin enjoying the space they had always envisioned - and more. "We actually ended up doing a lot more landscaping than we initially planned to because they just did such a tremendous job," the homeowner reports. "But it was a very expensive life lesson."
This family's nightmare is documented with following pictures:
Retaining walls were not constructed correctly, causing wash-out beneath them and structural failure.
Stairs and adjoining walls were not installed correctly, both structurally and aesthetically..
Re-constructed walls and steps are now structurally sound and beautiful!