Hiring a Landscape Designer / Contractor

It has been estimated that homeowners can recover as much as 100 to 150% of the
money that they put into landscaping when they go to sale their house. Landscaping
is the only type of home investment that literally grows with time.  You should choose
wisely with this kind of investment.  You should budget around 10% of your home's
value for landscape improvements.  Hiring a professional to help you with your
landscaping needs will help you avoid landscaping faux pas and problems that could
actually lower the value of your home. The following are some tips listed on how to
hire a landscape professional who is reputable, trustworthy, enjoyable and skilled in
their trade.

Hiring a True Landscape Professional, not just a "lawn guy".

Know the difference between the "lawn guy" and a "professional landscape
designer".  Landscaping mean more than laying sod, cutting grass and planting
flowers. Most people calling themselves "landscapers" started out as "lawn guys" and
still are "lawn guys". They do a great job with lawn care and some basic planting;
many of the better ones are considered "lawn professionals". They may have even
learned a few things over the years but usually do not have the depth of education
needed to be a good landscape designer.

A true professional landscape designer should have a degree in landscape
architecture from a major university along with good work experience. A true
professional landscaper designer must know which plants will survive in your yard
based on a number of factors including exposure to the sun, water requirements, soil
conditions, drainage, wind, heat, and many more. In addition, they should also know
the aesthetic values of hundreds of plants, when each one blooms and what they
look like during each season.

In addition to horticultural expertise, true professional landscapers should also have
skills in wood construction, patio construction, pond building, masonry, landscape
lighting, irrigation and much more. If required by local law, the company should also
be certified in the particular task being performed. These certifications and
professional degrees ensure that the contractor is fully accountable to clients and
only employs staff which has passed the necessary professional examinations.

Keep in mind that the education level and area of expertise of landscapers vary. If
you just need your lawn mowed or some real basic plants installed, you may only
need a lawn guy.   Depending on your home or landscape wishes, you may need
someone with specialized knowledge in certain areas. For example, if you have a
yard with dry shade that slopes and needs a retaining wall, look for a landscaper with
retaining wall expertise and plant knowledge who can also provide you with photos
and references from past projects.

Getting references

Check that the contractor you contact is a member of the Better Business Bureau or
BBB (785) 232-0454. The local Chamber of Commerce is another good organization
to belong too. (785) 865-4411. Find out how long the company has been in business
and go out and look at some finished projects or at least ask for some photos. If
possible, talk to a past customer to find out if they were happy with the end result
upon completion and years later. If there were any problems, did the contractor listen
and seem concerned about resolving it?  Ask if the employees were polite and
worked in a professional manner.

Taking bids and getting estimates

If you are taking bids, make sure you are "comparing apples to apples". Economic
efficiency is important, but if you opt for the cheapest you may find yourself paying
for it in the future. Experienced landscapers can often avoid potential problems that
less experienced landscapers might not even know exist or choose to ignore. This
may raise the initial price, but it could save you from such mishaps like getting plants
that require expensive maintenance, or like fixing a poorly designed drainage system
that floods your basement, or removing tree roots that cracked your home's
foundation, or other landscaping nightmares.  

A professional designer will usually require some payment for their professional
design services. If you in-turn have the designer complete the installation, you
should normally receive a refund or credit.  If you are offered a free design, there is
a reason and you will always get what you paid for. This is usually a sign of poor
reputation, a new business just starting out, or a lawn guy trying out landscaping. A
"free design" probably doesn't have much thought behind it and may even propose
hazardous ideas like a fire-prone juniper next to a wooden house.

Beware of unscrupulous and lazy contractors

While they may be few and far between, unscrupulous and lazy contractors are out
there. They usually change the name of their business every few years to avoid
getting a bad reputation.  The short cuts they take can do lasting damage to your
landscape. For example, fast-growing bushes may be less expensive and offer
quicker results, but they will later require high maintenance. Non disease-resistant
plants are cheaper but can also quickly become covered with fungus or insects.
Installing irrigation laterals 2-3" deep is much cheaper at first but expensive to fix
later when it snaps while digging with a shovel. Ask questions about the types of
plants and materials used by the contractor; check their knowledge and experience.

Any bid significantly lower than the others could indicate that the contractor has a
less than ideal reputation, is not including all the work quoted by the other
contractors, or is planning to surprise you with additional charges once the work
begins.  Some contractors will "job hop" meaning they will start the job to get the
deposit and they take months to finish the work if at all. Many landscape companies
also cheat by hiring illegal aliens. They are usually paid below minimum wage and
are not accountable for their work. You, the homeowner can even get into trouble for
this so make should ask if they hire illegal aliens.

Checking for insurance and guarantees

Your contractor should have general liability insurance. About one million dollars is a
reasonable amount of coverage to cover any accidental damage to your property.
Your contractor should also have workers compensation insurance to cover work-
related injuries that may occur on your property. Proof of insurance for workers'
compensation, liability, and vehicles should be available to you. Check the
company's limits and the policy’s expiration date. If you're offered a guarantee, ask
exactly what is and is not covered and how long the guarantee remains in effect.

Receiving a fair written contract

The contract should be in writing and specifically cover everything you have agreed
upon. A contract should contain a project outline which contains a clear definition of
all work that is to be done. A detailed landscape design should accompany most
contracts; you should be able to see whats being proposed.  A written description of
any warranties should be provided. A payment final cost and payment schedule is
critical; you shouldn't agree to an open ended contract. It is normal for contractors to
require some payment before work begins. Most expect half down to start work and
purchase materials and the other half to be paid upon completion. Some other
specific issues to address in the contract may include the equipment on the lawn,
damage to irrigation lines, cleaning up work site, and liability/workers comp insurance.