Over the many years I have been a professional designer and landscape contractor, I have seen patterns of behaviors, misunderstandings and a general  lack of how the landscape industry works from a homeowner’s perspective. Here are the top 7 landscaping mistakes homeowners can avoid.

“Isn’t a gardener the same as a landscaper?”


1)  Being your own general contractor and architect

You should have a good handle on big picture thinking and a good sense of design if you intend to be your own general contractor/supervisor of the workers that you hire. Where most homeowners make mistakes is when they have a larger project that may involve several components such as grading, irrigation, lighting, masonry and  plantings — even for a very small area and rely on their gardener to give them design advice and a quote.

  1. 2)  Peacemealing the installation over time often results in a hodgepodge appearance.

Hiring multiple tradesmen to do work one “project” at a time usually results in a hodgepodge appearance and which may lack cohesiveness after its all completed.  Do these individual “projects” fit into an overall plan or are you shooting from the hip as you go?  Piecemeal installations often result in inefficiencies and additional expense.

3)  Asking your regular gardener to perform work and/or design advice beyond their expertise

Arizona law does not require a contractor’s license to maintain landscapes, i.e. tree trimming, mowing, weeding, etc. but do require a license for any work that exceeds $1000 which is then considered to be contracting.  Thus most ‘gardener-landscapers’ are not licensed but often advertise that they install pavers, walls, etc. which all could easily fall into the category of contracting.

4)  Getting “Free Estimates” to compare different designs

Homeowners may feel they do not want to pay for a separate design even though the project may warrant one. Here’s the scenario: Homeowner calls several contractors to give them a free estimate which requires some kind of design to be put on paper, perhaps an entire backyard. Some contractors will not charge a design fee, others will credit the fee towards construction costs, but many will do a design and proposal in the hopes of getting the work and perhaps present the design but not let the homeowner keep it.

What happens is that these contractors are preparing a design and a cost proposal based on what they think they heard you tell them what you wanted. You end up comparing essentially, the “best design for the best price”. With different design variations in terms of material, area and scope of work, you are comparing apples to oranges.

5)  Sacrificing quality of work, expertise, credentials and legal issues for the lowest price

We all are driven to get the best deal on our purchases, but in the field of construction, we think we are like the government who sends out a call for bids and who then selects the lowest bid. Governments have lists of qualified contractors who are previously approved so that the only decision made at the bidding stage is to select the lowest price. As homeowners, we need to go through the process of qualifying those from whom we obtain bids, not only licensing requirements, but other credentials such as education, experience and references.

6)  Hiring unlicensed contractors

Not only is it illegal for a homeowner to hire unlicensed landscape professionals depending on the licensing laws of their state,  a person who engages in the work of contracting which in Arizona is defined as any scope of work of at least $1000, requires that person to be duly licensed. Hiring someone without a license allows you know recourse to file a complaint with the state for shoddy work or non performance. It is tempting to get the work done for a cheap price especially if your neighbor thought they did a good job, yet you are taking a risk nonetheless.

A small classified ad in your local newspaper offering landscape services with the disclaimer at the end “not a licensed contractor” does not exempt them from the licensing rules. In Arizona, all advertising by licensed contractors must include their license number. It is most likely the policy of the newspaper to require ads to include the disclaimer.

7)  Not having a written contract

A verbal agreement alone is a recipe for disaster. Even if you get a written quote, is it in the form of a contract with clearly identified scope of work, progress payments, specification of materials in terms of type, size and quantities? or does it simply say “install paver patio in backyard”?

In summary, the vast majority of homeowners simply do not regard “landscapers” as professionals. Because of the overlapping services between an architect and a contractor, or blue collar vs. white collar if you will, the average homeowner lumps most all services provided in this industry to that of the “landscape guy”.

If your needs are to simply do some clean up around the yard, you don’t call an architect. But if you need an entire backyard remodeled, you do not ask your gardener to prepare a design.

Part of the problem is caused by the services offered by these “landscapers”. Many who are not licensed, qualified, skilled nor educated will claim they can do virtually everything a landscape would need from tree trimming to building a retaining wall.

So now you know the top 7 landscaping mistakes homeowners can avoid.

Contractors and designers qualify you at the same time you are qualifying them. By asking these questions, you can flush out the core essentials about how they operate and be better prepared to have a meaningful consultation.

1) Do you give free estimates?

If the answer is yes, they will come out to your property at no charge, discuss your plans, listen to your ideas, explain how they typically work and ask you if you have a budget or a range of expected costs.

Most contractors that do piece meal work such as install a patio or a fence give free estimates because it’s the nature of the industry. A project that is involved enough to require a plan drawn to scale may trigger a request for a design fee so that the “free estimate” can be accurately based.

Most savvy contractors will not answer yes or no to this kind of direct question, but first ask the prospect for some information to qualify them. If a prospect asks someone if they give free estimates, it indicates that the prospect may be under the assumption that the contractor will provide a design along with the cost to install it for no charge.

A better question to ask a landscape contractor during the initial conversation is after first briefly describing your project, you then ask them “So tell me how you work”.

2) Are you interested in my type of project?

Before assuming that the contractor will be eager to come over and give you your free estimate, understand that the contractor will be sizing you up to see whether it’s worth their time and effort. The ideal client is one who is looking for a professional who delivers value and exceeds expectations and are willing to pay for that value.

If you are shopping around for design ideas among 4-5 “bids” from several companies and don’t intend to pay for a unique design, then the contractor will quickly figure that out during the first on site meeting by the way you treat them.

The contractor may realize that your project justifies a design be prepared and at the same time, sense that you are trying to simply gather design ideas from several people so that you can go back to the lowest bid and have them revise their quote based on other people’s input. This is not fair to those contractors who give away free and valuable advice in hopes of building a rapport and trust.

3) Do you charge for your designs?

Not every project requires a carefully drawn plan, especially if the budget is fairly low. The other case is where the needs of the client are so straightforward, that putting it on paper would primarily be to calculate square footage and quantities.

The question of whether to charge for a design or not depends on the individual contractor and how they work. Some may indeed charge a separate design fee for a project that certainly requires a carefully thought out plan and other may not. I do know that the pool industry is so competitive that they never charge for a design.

Contractors also know that they may be risking losing the job because they charge for a design. Why risk say a nice $10,000 contract if the client balks at paying $300 for a design?

Some contractors will not charge the fee but go ahead and prepare the design and estimate so they can close the deal on the contract. They may not however, be willing to let you have the design to mull over without first signing a contract or hand over a deposit.

4) Are you capable of providing me with my needs?

This may be an unspoken question, but you must first ask yourself, what is your project and what type of expertise do you need?

Do you just want a landscape contractor to do a “small job“? Then don’t call a designer who will say you need a plan. If you already know how the small job will be laid out and the materials to be used, then go ahead and get a “free estimate”.

Do you want a new pool, gazebo, outdoor kitchen, garden and lighting? Then be careful before calling a contractor who advertises, “free estimates”. They may not be capable of handling this kind of design. In this case, you should separate out the design from the construction contract to make sure the design is modified sufficiently so that your needs are met rather than settling for the one shot deal a contractor put together based on a single meeting. The more you think about a design the more often you will tweak it and think of different ideas to accomplish your goals. Sit down with a design professional to go through this process and not the contractor who say they can design.

Most every job will require some kind of design consideration and all will require a contractor to install it. Ask the people to whom you contact, whether they have design capabilities and are licensed as a contractor if required by law.

If your project has multiple trades involved such as the example given above, then call a full service landscape contractor. If your project is a single trade project such as a brick patio, then you may contact someone who advertises they do such work.

Do you need help with the design? Do you need a designer who can give you options and design ideas as well as a scale drawing so accurate bids can be prepared? Then start with someone who is capable of providing professional designs. If they are also a licensed contractor, then you have a strategic partner who not only can design, but knows how to build their own designs too.

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