I've worked closely with a number of landscaping companies and contractors over the last few years as I go about the process of communicating and revising design plans between homeowners and the installers they have selected to bring our designs to life.
There are some common themes I have noticed with clients who end up very satisfied with the work their landscaper does for them. Likewise, I have noticed similarities with those homeowners who need therapy when its all finished.
The contractors who I personally have had the best experiences with and been the most impressed with seem to typically excel in three categories:
1) Good communication
2) Running organized operations
3) Commitment to high quality work
You may have noticed that I put the quality of the finished product as number three, and not number one. Let's consider how these qualities might impact your experience and the result of your finished landscape. Below are some categorized questions to help you weigh your options as you meet with contractors to discuss your project. Selecting a good contractor is a bit like dating in that a lot of it comes down to "chemistry" and your intuition.
Is the foreman or manager easy to communicate with?
If you want your landscape install to go smoothly and with minimal surprises, this is crucial. Notice how well they listen to you and if they seem to understand your priorities and plans easily.
Do they respond promptly to your messages and calls and take the initiative to update you before you have to ask them for an update?
Do you get the sense that the owner of the company runs a tight ship?
Again, one of the biggest clues is how prompt they are in responding to your messages and calls, and how good they are at keeping you updated on the process.
After a contractor does an initial consultation with you, how long does it take for you to receive an estimate? Did you receive it approximately when they said you would? And if not, are they quick to communicate the delay with you so you are in the loop? This will be very telling of how the rest of the project will progress and if there will be delays, etc.
Look for other clues of organization.
Did you receive an itemized estimate or just a price with no description of what's involved?
Do they have a website?
Is their branding professional-looking?
Are they licensed and insured?
An organized contractor is more likely to finish your project on time and as close to your original budget as possible. Most homeowner's headaches comes from delays and overshooting the budget, which are usually results of being disorganized.
Perhaps the easiest way to judge quality is by talking to other people who have had their yards installed by that contractor in the past. How was their experience? How have things held up? Have they had to replace or repair a lot of things since the work was finished? Recommendations from neighbors or friends can be priceless.
Pictures of their past work on their website and social media feeds can also give you an idea of what to expect, though its not always easy to see if something has been constructed well or not from pictures. But if all of their projects at least seem "well designed" from pictures, that's a good sign that they take pride in their work and are not just moving as quickly as they can from one project to the next. My uncle, a former aerospace engineer was once told by his boss "if it looks good, it'll fly good!"
What can you do?
In conclusion, I would recommend meeting in person with 2 or 3 contractors and receiving estimates from each of them before selecting one to work with. Just remember that selecting a landscaper solely on their price is likely not a smart move. Factor in what you imagine your relationship with that contractor will be like. After all, you will be seeing a lot of them for at least a few weeks, and maybe for a few months if its a bigger project! You will go through highs and lows together. There will be mistakes and imperfections and unforeseen delays, as there always are when you are working with Mother Nature. You will laugh and cry together. Maybe you will invite them to your children's weddings. Okay, maybe not. The point is, the relationship with your contractor is just as important- if not much more important- than the actual work they are planning to do for you.
If you find someone who meets the above requirements, don't worry if they are not your cheapest bid. They shouldn't be, and for good reason! An organized contractor who knows his trade and communicates well is worth his weight in gold, and you will be glad you made the investment.
Landscape plans make it easy
Having complete landscape plans finished and available for your contractors to review and bid on is perhaps the single greatest investment you can make to ensure a better outcome. Clear design plans make it easier to communicate your ideas and requirements without the worry of them being misunderstood.
Having a design also gives you confidence as you compare bids from different landscapers, as there is no ambiguity about what is being bid on. Landscaping estimates can vary wildly, so being armed with a design complete with material estimates definitely helps.
Having actual plans allows crews to work faster, more efficiently, and with less waste and mistakes that lead to costly re-work.
Being able to view different material options and layouts in 3D before building can also help you to stay in your budget while still getting something you will love. I do my best to give clients a ballpark idea of the average costs of different features like pools and paver patios, so they aren't going into the install process completely blind. And if you receive a bid for the install based on my design and its out of your budget, no need to worry! I'll work with you and your landscaper to revise the plan as needed while ensuring that it still looks amazing and meets your needs.
To put it another way, hiring a landscape designer not only promotes a better end result, but its very likely to be cheaper than if you didn't use one! My average client spends between 3 and 5 percent of their total landscaping budget on the design work I do with them. Most of them spend more money on their fill dirt than they do on their design. I call that cheap insurance, if nothing else!
Beautiful and well-made yards do not happen by accident- they happen by design.