Consumer Guide to Hiring a Landscape Contractor
YOU’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR HOW LONG?
Finding a landscape contractor with specific experience in the type of work you are looking to get done is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of selecting a contractor. Past performance is a very strong indicator of future results. Viewing extensive project portfolios and/or physically walking through completed projects will enable you to see firsthand the quality of products and craftsmanship. Small details reveal a lot about the ability of a prospective firm. Look at the details, evaluate how materials are cut and installed; look at the integration and relationship of one component of the landscape to another. Attention to the small details speaks volumes. Landscapes are complex and involve several trades. Experience in managing and scheduling is important. I have long believed that it is natural for the landscape contractor or designer/architect to act as the conductor for the entire project because we are the one trade that sees (and is responsible for) the final result. Should the plumber really know that he can’t put the gas line there because that is where the 30” maple tree is going? A long track record of successful projects is a strong indicator of a successful outcome for your project.
MAY I SEE YOUR REFERENCES?
A beautiful portfolio demonstrates artistic ability and will help stimulate your ideas, likes and dislikes. A glowing testimonial from a previous client will inform you how the project went. It is also important to ask for a reference that is a few years old, so that you can make sure the warranty service (if any) was performed satisfactorily. Inquiring about the project schedule, contractor’s reliability and professionalism are important factors to consider when selecting the landscape contractor for your project. Again, a strong track record of successful installations, customer service, and satisfaction of warranty services that have stood the test of time are the best assurance you can have that your project will run smoothly and satisfy your needs.
LET’S SEE THE PAPERWORK HANGING ON YOUR WALL…
Education and continuing education are vital and are critical factors to consider when evaluating your contractor. The Professional Landcare Network is an international trade organization that offers both training and testing for the landscape contractor. Many a client of mine and neighbor of yours have found out the hard way that landscaping is truly a job for trained professionals. A Planet certification for exterior landscaping (CLT-E) is an internationally recognized standard that demonstrates skill and ability. Visit Planet.com for more information.
The International Concrete and Pavement Institute (ICPI) is another international organization that provides training and certification for the installation of interlocking pavement and segmental retaining walls. Again, certification by this organization demonstrates skill and ability. Please visit ICPI for more information. Membership in local trade organizations such as the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA) or the New Jersey Nurserymen’s Association (NJNLA) are also good indicators that your prospective contractor values education and learning.
A college degree or college coursework in landscaping- related areas is clearly an important component of a landscaper’s preparedness. Since landscaping is part science and part art, I believe that making a choice based solely on education would not truly reflect a firm’s ability. While education is extremely important, it is my opinion that the ideal way to evaluate a firm’s ability is to consider the quality of its work and its craftsmanship in addition to its level of education.
LICENSE REGISTRATION, PLEASE.
In New Jersey, all firms engaged in landscape implementation MUST have a NJ Home Improvement Contractors Registration number. Several NJ towns require township registration in addition to the required NJ HIC#. NY State does not require a state license. Rockland County, NY requires county licensing of home improvement contractors (including landscape contractors) and Orange County, NY requires landscape contractors to be registered with the county in order to conduct business.
REST ASSURED: INSURANCE MATTERS
Whenever you have someone work on your property, you should request a certificate of insurance; ask to have the insurance company mail it to you. This is the only way you will know that the insurance is in place and active while your project is in progress. If the policy is canceled for any reason you will receive notification from the insurance company. I recommend at least one million dollars minimum coverage.
The most obvious program would be an established safety program that continuously teaches and reinforces jobsite safety practices. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is also a tremendous statement of professionalism. All workers should be wearing PPE’s when appropriate: eg., hearing, eye, hand etc. Beyond safety, you would be surprised how few companies actually have formal education programs in place. The implementation of formal training again speaks volumes about the integrity and character of a prospective firm.
WHO WORKS FOR YOU?
We seek to hire the best employees possible and have in place rigorous standards and practices to make sure that happens. All of our employees undergo background checks and Department of Motor Vehicle checks, as necessary. We hire only legal resident aliens, many of whom have been with Magic Landscaping for more than ten years.
WILL A PERSON ACTUALLY ANSWER YOUR PHONES?
There is nothing more annoying than having a question or concern and not being able to reach someone for the answers you need and deserve. It is worth looking into a firm’s customer service policies and practices. You need to know that there are customer service personnel behind the scenes handling details, available on a consistent basis to assist with you and your project’s needs and to act as a conduit of information as the project unfolds. Ask for testimonials from previous clients to ensure that you will receive the service and attention you will need. At Magic Landscaping, we really do treat your project as if it were our own; we know you’ll love the level of care you receive.
NO SCRAP METAL, THANK YOU VERY MUCH
In the early days, a lot of contractors start their businesses out of the back of a pickup truck or station wagon. In fact, I started without the benefit of either: my business started with only a lawn mower. My point when considering equipment to evaluate is to make sure the prospective contractor has the appropriate equipment to perform the job you are considering. Renting equipment is always an option but can potentially cause delays. The condition of the equipment is also important to consider: let’s face it, you don’t want to be looking at a broken down piece of equipment in your back yard… you want to see the final product. Newer, well-maintained equipment will definitely correlate to a higher performance standard due to less breakdowns and delay.
WHO’S ON FIRST, WHAT’S ON SECOND?
How a firm is structured is an important factor in how well-prepared a firm is to do business with you. You want to know that there is sufficient personnel available to do the job right. You don’t want to get into a project and find out that one guy is handling every aspect of the job- landscape design and construction projects are often complex and require coordination from numerous departments within the company. Check to make sure your prospective contractor has the personnel and the resources to properly handle the project you are considering.
SPELL IT OUT FOR ME
All agreements and specifications should be spelled out. In fact, the NJHIC (NJ Office of Consumer Affairs) requires that the details and specifications be included in your agreement. You also have three business days to cancel your agreement should you change your mind. I am a firm believer in itemized price detail so you are an informed consumer and you know what you are buying and paying for. You should know how many inches of gravel are going to be installed under your paving stone driveway or patio. You should have the tools (specification) to check for yourself when the installation is in progress. Specifications and implementation practice play an enormous role in the long term stability and durability of the landscape. With driveways, patios and walkways, the base (gravel) is extremely important, so is the fact that the base should extend beyond the edge of the patio so the edge remains in place and does not “fall away” from the rest of the surface. In the landscape, high quality plant material is obvious; equally important and commonly overlooked is the fact that planting bed preparation is often overlooked and not performed adequately for the plantings to survive. Planting beds should be tilled, the soil should be TESTED and the appropriate amendments should be added. Soil PH is the simplest and one of the most important factors in a garden’s health and plant health. PH should be between 4.5 and 6.5 so your plants can “USE” the available nutrients in the soil.
BUILDING LANDSCAPES AND RELATIONSHIPS
I often hear from clients “you’re the expert” which may be true. As landscape contractors, we have tremendous experience, but beauty lies within the eyes of the beholder. You need to be be very comfortable with the contractor you select. Landscape plans are an important tool, but an installation seldom goes in exactly to the original plan. Things happen and adjustments are often made due to unforeseen circumstances or site conditions. The ability of the client and landscaper to communicate and work together as a team during project implementation ensures a successful project. I almost always take my client to the nursery to pick out the plants for their home; I don’t think that I should be the one to pick out what you like. My role is to guide, advise, provide alternatives and offer the horticultural information. I have set up a process where we start with the big plants and continue to work on through to the medium and smaller plants. We then bring all the material back to the residence and set it out to obtain approval. We often make adjustments by sending some plants back and or bringing more of a particular type etc. The bottom line is that the design and construction process is interactive. Through my experience, I have found that if you like a plant at the nursery, you’re going to love it at your home. As your project and the process unfolds, we will be building a beautiful landscape and a relationship. Most important, evaluate the warranties and guarantees a company is offering you, that alone will tell you 90% of what you need to know.