Advice for Homeowners Archives

Licensed Contractor Builds Trust

unlicensed_contractorMany homeowners are simply unaware of what constitutes “contracting” as it is defined by the Arizona Registrar of Contractors who is the state licensing agency. Anything over $1000 requires that the person with whom a homeowner engages to do work is a duly licensed contractor. Having a license is not an optional way of doing business yet it may seem that way when local classified ads end with the phrase “not a licensed contractor” as if they elected not to get a license. Homeowners also group anyone who does building, construction as contractors whether they are licensed or not. However, the Arizona Registrar of Contractors does not refer to such people as contractors as that implies they are licensed. They are referred to as “unlicensed entities”. Referring to them as contractors gives them a form of legitimacy. Just as the classified ad phrase “not a licensed contractor” claims they are a contractor, just not a licensed one.

Despite the warnings from state agencies, consumer protection boards, Angie’s List or the Better Business Bureau homeowners continue to take risks and hire unlicensed contractors for any number of reasons.

8 Reasons Why Homeowners Do Not Hire a Licensed Contractor

  • Your neighbor hired them and they were pleased and recommended them;
  • They shop for the best price and take a risk as to quality of construction;
  • They are willing to overlook the lack of license, insurance and perhaps knowledge and skill to “save money”;
  • Everybody wants a “good deal” don’t they? Why pay more if you find a bargain? That bargain may fall apart after 6 months with no way to track down your “lowest price guaranteed” contractor;
  • You just need a retaining wall rebuilt to correct some erosion problems and a guy in the local classified ads says they do that kind of thing. You are enticed simply because that person says they can do what you need – to solve your landscape problem. You don’t care about insurance or anything, you just need this done right away;
  • They haven’t yet been burned from hiring unlicensed workers.
  • They were conned by door to door fly by night guys who took advantage of needed storm damage related work;
  • They are elderly and are not as sharp as they used to be especially in areas of judgement and trust.

 

I am in the middle of rebuilding a waterfeature that the homeowner had built by an unlicensed contractor. In fact, he tried hiring a replacement contractor after the first guy stopped answering his phone to fix a leak. Now the second guy did such an awful job and also did not respond to multiple calls to return and fix it. He found me on a list put out by the local homeowners association which several neighbors had mentioned I was a reputable landscape professional. Yet he did not say he hired me because I was licensed but since I am, I am not going to bring it up.

 

9 Red Flag Warning Signs That you May be Hiring an Unlicensed Contractor:

  • You call someone from your local paper and he doesn’t even have his voice mailbox set up;
  • He doesn’t have a website or email;
  • He doesn’t have an address on his business card or better yet, he spells shrubs as “scrubs”;
  • He gives you an estimate on a hand written note pad right then and there;
  • He uses a can of spray paint to “design” your backyard instead of putting it to paper or God forbid a computer;
  • His cell phone number goes to someone other than himself because the minutes on his phone expired;
  • He doesn’t show up when expected or only shows up to ask for money;
  • He answers his phone by saying “hello” rather than using a business name or his own name;
  • He says he wants to get paid in cash because you will get a better deal that way when the real reason is he has no bank account

 

Individuals that know they should be licensed but who choose not to be are not only doing business illegally, but who are probably avoiding paying sales tax, getting a city business license, insurance and all the other “paperwork” required to be legal and legitimate. Why support such an individual? You are certainly not contributing to the “keep it local” movement and may in fact be contributing to the flow of money across the border.

 

That being said, there are many good, skilled workers who are sincere about doing a quality job for their clients who for whatever reason are not licensed, cannot get licensed, but are otherwise good people. The problem is not picking one of these and ending up with a bad apple. Why take the risk?

Invasive Plants of Sedona

TREE OF HEAVEN

Tree of Heaven

There are two species of plants in the Sedona area that top the list for invasive species and they are the Tree of Heaven and Vinca which is a ground cover. The difference is that nobody deliberately plants Tree of Heaven, however Vinca is widely available at nurseries and is planted often.

Plants that grow out of control or spring up in unwanted spaces are a nuisance to the average gardener. Naïve homeowners who plant these species in the first place unknowingly are creating a potential maintenance headache. Some of these invasive species are so difficult to eradicate completely, that only containment is possible.

The Tree of Heaven or Alianthus is one of the worst culprits to fit the category of invasive plants of Sedona. It is also invasive across the entire United States and is extremely difficult to kill, let alone keep under control. It spreads from seeds that are so prolific and blow through an area, easily germinating in almost any conditions. Once it takes hold, it starts what is called a “colony”.

There are chemicals that are used to both spray the foliage as well as to inject or spray into a wedge cut into the trunk. Personally, I have tried using RoundUp on some small seedlings, but all that does it cause the leaves to wither and not really kill it down to the root. Best way to control young Tree of Heaven is to remove the entire plant. Knowing what these look like is important so if one pops up in your yard, you should remove it right away.

vinca major

Vinca aka Periwinkle

Vinca major, also called Periwinkle is an evergreen ground cover that likes shady areas and can be seen all over Oak Creek canyon under the shade of the Sycamores and Pines that line the canyon. In a garden, it can quickly take over by sending out new runners and rooting along the way. The good thing is the roots are not that difficult to remove and a patch out of control can be removed or contained provided you pay attention and spend the time to do it. 

Another invasive plant of Sedona that I see much of is the Trumpet Creeper. Having an orange tubular flower in spring and summer, it is a popular deciduous vine that clings to walls. The problem is it seems to like to spread underground as well. It spreads like it has rhizomes for a root system. Fortunately, Trumpet Creeper does respond to RoundUp. I would not plant this plant in the first place though. It is perhaps better used as a container plant against a fence or wall.

Bamboo Horror Stories

Bamboo is a type of grass spreading by rhizomes that stem out from the mother root rhizome mass. Some are considered “clumping” while others are “running” types. For a thick screen, many people opt to plant the running kind because it will spread and fill in gaps better than the clumping varieties. The problem with the running bamboo is when a shoot comes up in a spot you don’t want it to. But it can be controlled by simply cutting the rhizome. Enough space must be given to allow the running bamboo to spread. The problem is not understanding how bamboo rhizomes grow and not paying attention.

golden bamboo

Bamboo – you either love it or hate it

Typically, the only bamboo you will see for sale in the Sedona area is Golden Bamboo or Phyllostachus aurea which does well in our Zone 7 climate. Bamboo is usually planted to create a screen. Golden bamboo typically reaches about 12 feet high. Planted along a property line or fence can be risky if it is not contained with a rhizome barrier. You wouldn’t want it popping up in your neighbor’s yard and answer to their complaints.  Therefore, it is best to be prudent and do provide some kind of containment or barrier to the boundaries that you would like the bamboo to spread and cover. Thick plastic material that comes is rolls 24″ wide is available specifically for the purpose of containing bamboo or other root systems.  The key is to not ignore the growth of your bamboo, rather keep an eye on it so that you will notice any new shoots popping up where you dont want them and then can easily cut the rhizome. The reason bamboo is feared is that most people plant it and forget about it until it is too late to be easily controlled.

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica) is an alternative that does not spread and would have to be planted fairly close together to provide a screening effect. If you like bamboo because of its Asian theme, consider planting it in containers in groups, otherwise do use a rhizome barrier and keep an eye on it.

Research Before you Buy

Many homeowners may the common mistake of buying the pretty plant at the nursery because of its flower and general form whether it’s a shrub, ground cover, vine or tree. Think about this: why would a vendor selling a plant at a retail nursery put a description on the plant label that it is invasive? Of course it would put up a red flag and discourage the sale. Descriptions about the characteristics of plant growth are best researched online or in a good gardening book such as Sunset Western Gardening. There you will find objective useful information whether a plant is considered invasive or not.

 

 

Patio Surface Options for your Sedona Landscape

The choices for paving surfaces outdoors in the landscape are many and most homeowners moving from another part of the country to Sedona may not be aware of the choices for patio surface materials used here in northern Arizona.

It’s easy to get confused with too many choices let alone what color to select. You should take away from this article some tips and pointers about the pros and cons among all the different patio surface options for your Sedona landscape.

Natural paving materials include flagstone, travertine, slate, Cantera stone, wood, adobe, clay, gravel, and river rock among others.

Manmade materials are mostly concrete based and include poured concrete such as colored concrete, salt finished concrete, exposed aggregate, stained concrete, decorative concrete coatings, stamped concrete, interlocking concrete pavers and tile.

There are many criteria that affect which material is “best” for your situation. These factors below are objective criteria that can be assigned to each patio surface option.

Cost

Cost is based on material cost and the labor to install it. Most all natural stone needs to be installed over a concrete slab with a few exceptions. Typically, individual stones or tiles are fitted together with grouted joints. These steps add to the overall labor costs for natural stone making it more expensive than most manmade materials.   

Random, irregular sized pieces of stone such as flagstone, river rock or field stone needs to be manually cut in order to fit together. Precut stone tiles such as slate or travertine are easier to install because there is less cutting.

Maintenance

Natural stone is inherently porous and should always be sealed to keep water from undermining the stability of the stone and the sub slab. Flagstone and slate are particularly prone to flaking. The more porous the material, the more likely it will be harder to clean off stains.

Manmade materials such as concrete, concrete pavers, porcelain tiles are not as porous and may or may  not need to be sealed to maintain their structural integrity but may be recommended for ease of maintenance and cleaning.

Durability

Most any natural stone is subject to cracking and poured concrete is also prone to cracking as well. In fact, hairline cracks in concrete are considered “natural”. It is only when the soil is expansive or there may be moisture and/or drainage issues undermining the concrete that the slab can show cracks that are unsightly. These cracks may get worse over time. Cracking in concrete can show through to tiles laid over the slab.

Cracks within a slab under a decorative concrete coating cannot simply be repaired sufficiently. The underlying cause of the cracking must be fixed. This is why reinforcing steel is used in many concrete pours and expansion joints built in to create stress points so if any cracking is likely, it will hopefully crack along the expansion joint and not be visible.

Concrete pavers have a real advantage over concrete and manmade stone in that they do not crack. They are manufactured to be placed over compacted aggregate with sand between their joints. No concrete is used except sometimes to reinforce the edges. Concrete pavers are designed to be flexible if there is some ground movement and can be easily removed and replaced if there is a significant issue with drainage in the underlying soils.

Safety

Manmade materials are not any safer than natural materials. What affects safety are issues of slipperiness, heat absorption and uneven surface leading to trip hazards.

With some exceptions, materials that are generally considered slippery when wet are manmade tiles, honed and filled travertine and any smooth surface that has been sealed.

The darker the material the more it will absorb and retain heat making it not only hot to walk on with bare feet, but the overall areas around will be hotter due to the radiated heat. Heat absorption is always an issue when deciding on the decking around a pool.

No one wants to intentionally create trip hazards in their landscape, but using uneven and rustic stone surfaces can do just that. Consider the surface texture of the materials in terms of who will be walking on them. Will you be hosting gatherings where everybody will be in high heels? Do you walk outside barefoot a lot? Do the corners of the natural stone you are considering stick up above the rest of the surface? Keep in mind the more rustic the material, the more likely it will cause you to accidentally catch a toe.

So which is better? There is one more criteria to consider and that is aesthetics. In my next article, I will discuss why aesthetics is the primary factor in the decision making process when selecting a paving surface material.

Climate Concerns

Here in Sedona, we average about 4500 feet in elevation and the low temperatures in the winter can drop below 20 degrees.  Therefore, freeze – thaw is an issue for any patio surface material that can trap water. This is especially an issue when laying natural flagstone over a concrete slab where mortar is used to set the pieces. If the mortar is not set and cured, and still has a certain amount of moisture, it can freeze and expand and lift the flagstone. Same with anything that is set on a mortar base. Do time of installation is important to consider.

Those more porous materials which include flagstone, slate, travertine, adobe brick all need to be properly sealed to keep water out.

PATIO_SURFACE_OPTION_COMPARISON

Patio Surface Options

Most homeowners who live in Sedona have been around and may have previously had landscape work done working with a contractor and or designer. They may be somewhat familiar with the costs. But if you are just starting out with considering a new landscaping project, perhaps remodeling a home you just bought and moved into, here are some guidelines to consider when interviewing prospective contractors and or designers. Hereinafter, I will just use the term ‘contractor’ for ease of writing.

1. Tell the contractor what your needs and wants are and walk around the property. Part of the interviewing process is not just to give them an idea of what you want so they can come up with a price. People buy from those whom they know, like and trust. So you have to go through a bit of a process to determine those factors. For some, it may only take one meeting. For others it may be over several meetings. At the end of the first meeting, if it is not clear, ask the contractor “How do you work?”

2. What you say and how you say it to the contractor may reveal your intentions and may or may not be in alignment with how they work. So it is better to show the contractor around and let them ask questions without being in control of the whole experience. Homeowners who march you through the project and describe it without hesitation as if they have done it several times before, tells me they have no intention of knowing anything about me and they are just going through the process to get another bid, perhaps the third of fourth. Believe me, I can tell when this is happening and these prospects are not my client.

3. A contractor who gets marched around the property and is then expected to get out his tape measure and give you a bid may stop you and state how he works and that he charges a fee to come up with a design. Most landscaping is sufficiently complex that spray painting it out on the ground and preparing an estimate on the spot is highly suspicious and should be a sign of someone who is not professional and probably not licensed.

4. If you have already talked with several contractors, know exactly what you want and have been given perhaps “free estimates” from others, you now have an indication of what your budget is. Did you pass on the contractor(s) who wanted a design fee to prepare the proposal? That was a mistake because any contractor who prepares a design and proposal is not going to spend the time nor be very thorough with the costing out process nor spend very much time on creativity.

A homeowner who is going through the process of “interviewing” several contractors and getting “free estimates” and or “bids” should not be limiting their evaluation based on the lowest bid. There are many other factors the homeowner is assessing while going through this process such as experience, credentials and references. But the question is, should the homeowner pay a fee to go through this process if the “bid” requires significant time and creativity to develop a thoughtful design upon which the costs can be accurately determined compared to an “off the cuff” ballpark estimate?

What I have learned over the years as a designer and as a contractor, what the client really wants is to experience the finished project. If the project is complex enough and requires a design to be prepared, then requiring a design fee is justified. Other simpler projects may be more straightforward and can be sketched conceptually on paper to show a visual of the design without a lot of time being spent. Again, this goes to the question of asking the contractor how do they work?

It will be up to the individual contractor to determine if they should charge a design fee to prepare a proposal. They could end up working for free, providing valuable design ideas and solutions and never get the job.

The most reasonable way to handle this is for the company to require some kind of design fee that may be credited towards the construction contract. That way, the design/free estimate is prepared with sufficient detail where assumptions are not made, materials are specified and the input of the homeowner is reflected in the design to make it truly custom.

As a design-build contractor, I emphasize the design aspects of a project which allows the homeowner to compare my creativity and value with others who may be more focused on the construction. A design fee on a project where it is justified truly shows my creative skills and allows the homeowner to get to know me as a person, not just another “bid”.

Landscaping in the Front Yard Right of Way

Most subdivisions that create individual lots, also have streets, drainage systems and utility easements that are either dedicated to the local jurisdiction or an easement over your private property. Streets are often designed to certain standards and their overall width as shown on the subdivision plat map often encroaches onto what you may think  is your property. The right of way goes beyond the edge of pavement.So don’t assume your property line is at the edge of the pavement.

A Right of Way or Rights of Way (ROW), is typically the section of land between the edge of the street and your actual front property line. This Right of Way allows the city or county to do a number of things including access utility connections, maintain drainage ditches, curb and gutter, sidewalks or even to widen the road if that is in the master plan. So what can the homeowner do to install landscaping in the front yard right of way you may ask.

In the City of Sedona, a Right of Way permit is required for any kind of development within the ROW including mailboxes, drainage ditch rennovation, driveways and even the placement of dumpsters. The County of Yavapai also requires Right of Way permits for the same kind of improvements.

Most homeowners are not aware that this section of land has restrictions on its use. In fact, many Sedona homeowners assume they can do what they want with it since all the surrounding homes appear to have landscaped all the way up to the edge of the pavement. Whether it is an easement across your property or the Right of Way is city or county owned, you may not build or construct anything you want without risking it being removed if access to land is required. A Right of Way permit is required to do any kind of improvements, yet most homeowners are unaware of the rules.

Landscaping in the front yard right of way is not entirely up to you. First, you must determine exactly what you own and what the city or county owns. In a Right of Way, typically you may install a driveway across the ROW to access the street. But building any kind of wall is typically not allowed within a Right of Way or Easement. If the city or county was to grant you a permit to build it, who then would maintain it and if the city had to dig up utility lines and remove the structure, who would pay to replace it? These are the reasons, only minimal improvements are allowed such as driveways and landscape plant material.

You will also find out about your front yard building setback which is different than an easement or a ROW. It is a part of the Zoning District setup by the city to regulate how close buildings can be to their lot lots on all four sides. Front yard setbacks restrict how close to the front yard property line you can build your house or any extension of it including low walls such as for a courtyard.

In planning the design of residential landscape, I check with the city as the first step to determine where the Right of Way, Easements and Setbacks are located. These are all building restrictions that must be followed, especially if what the homeowner wants to do requires a building permit.

Jurisdictions have different regulations and use restrictions as to what can be done and who will maintain it. The city may turn maintenance responsibility over to the homeowners even though they own the underlying property. If a homeowner improves the Right of Way with landscaping for their benefit, then it is in their best interest to continue to maintain it so it looks good. The one thing the city is most concerned about is liability. If the Right of Way is subject to flooding or has excessive weed growth, it may go ahead and perform maintenance because, legally it is the owner of the property.

Restrictions on the use of one’s property is part of the due diligence everyone should perform when buying new real estate. Locating the property corners will often reveal that a good portion of the front yard is really not your property, or may have restrictions that may not be acceptable to you. This is often the case with raw land where the actual property lines are not obvious.

I have seen where a person property is actually the center line of the street and also where the property line is about 25 feet away from the edge of pavement.  These Right of Ways and Easements can vary widely among jurisdictions. If you have an issue with your Right of Way landscaping, I may be able to help.

 

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