By Jay Ladell
Did you know that any company can call themselves landscapers? When you go looking for landscaping work, it’s easy to get fooled by operators with a truck and low price who lack the skills to do the job correctly.
I’ve corrected other “landscapers” problems – from heaving pathways to wet basements and a collapsed retaining wall – that are costly to repair. Clients end up paying three times, once for an improperly installed job, once again for the headache, and finally to have the faulty work removed and landscaping installed properly.
To avoid these horror stories, it’s important to know what to look for in a landscaper. In a nutshell, search for landscape design and build companies that are the right fit, certified, guarantee their work, and have impeccable references.
Start off by checking out the web sites of landscape design and build companies. Look for firms that have ‘landscape industry certified’ staff tested by the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association (CNLA). Their certification is like getting an industry stamp of approval because applicants must pass a challenging standards test, have ample experience and a rigorous technical background.
Be sure that the company is a current member of the CNLA since membership provides continual design skills development and technical information training.
Next you want to learn about the reputation of the companies you are considering. Check to see if the companies you are considering are members in good standing with Landscape Ontario, a horticulture trades association, affiliated with CNLA.
This professional association verifies that members follow a strict code of conduct, ethics and principles. They also follow up on complaints made by unsatisfied customers.
Many homeowners want interlock brick or a stone pathway. If you plan on having this work done, verify that the company has staff who have completed the Concrete Paver Installer Course, offered by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute. This North-American-wide industry organization has high standards for certification: written exams plus and the installation of 10,000 square feet of pavers.
Next, look at the type of work the company does. Does the company even design their own projects or gardens? Can you see your style and taste reflected in their portfolio? Many designers have a certain look to their landscaping and while this may vary from project-to-project, it is good to start with a designer you like. If you want English gardens for instance, make sure their web site has images to match.
By this stage, you can narrow the number of companies that you are considering down to a couple. Call each one up for additional information. Ask if there be a designated staffer who will remain on-site at all times overseeing the project.
Some companies run multiple projects concurrently and rotate staff in and out of various job sites. That means a homeowner will have to interact with a different person for each project stage. As a result, communication becomes difficult, especially when questions arise, changes need to be made to the design, plants, or time schedule.
When you agree for a company to come for a consultation, be aware that you will likely pay a fee for this service. The landscape company will measure your property, consult with you then design a landscape plan for you.
This is the time to gauge how courteous, informative and patient the company representative is to you when answering your questions. Is your input being considered? Ask to see the company portfolio to see the range of work, quality, and if the gardens are creative. Do you feel confident with the professionalism of the company?
The landscaping company should provide a clear precise landscape plan showing the proposed work. This will be a scaled drawing, likely computer generated, showing different aspects of the project. A proper plan takes time, so there will be a fee for this service. Landscaping is a significant investment, if a contractor hands you a rough sketch scrawled on a napkin, walk away.
At the second meeting you will view the landscape design and receive an estimate. Does the design plan meet your needs and reflect your taste? Does the estimate work with your budget?
If yes, now is the time to ask for references from satisfied former clients. Have the company provide a few from projects that are older than 5 years. Ask the references if they would hire the same company again. Were the crews courteous and did they leave the worksite tidy and safe at the end of each day? Has the design and workmanship stood the test of time or have there been problems and ‘fixes’? Expect some plant replacements, but the interlock should not be sinking.
To protect yourself, request to see certificates of liability. Phone their insurance company to ensure that that the policy is current.
A reputable firm will take out workers’ compensation insurance for their staff through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Ask the owner if they have WSIB coverage for all staff working on the job and a clearance certificate for all sub-contractors.
Providing that the references are great and the liability insurance policy is valid, your next step is to discuss contract details. Be sure to ask that a warranty clause of at least a year for all products, plants and structures is added. Verify that the contract precisely details the work to be done, investment costs, and terms of the contract. Ensure that the contractor will also provide written change orders outlining the costs and details of the changes if there is any deviation from the original contract. This will ensure there are no surprises on the final invoice.
Checking out a landscaper is an arduous task but it is time well spent. You will avoid a lot of thorny issues! Plus, you will feel confident and stress-free. You will feel excited to get started because you know you have hired a reputable firm who will get the job done right, on time and on budget.
Article originally published in the O.S.C.A.R. newspaper