During your first meeting with a designer or contractor, they may ask you what is your budget. How to establish a budget before you are educated as to how much things costs may be difficult at first, but in my last post, How to Handle Your First Meeting with a Landscape Professional, I discussed the industry standard of offering the “free estimate” which can take the form of an actual quote, bid, proposal or simply an initial meeting where costs are discussed in ballpark figures. Most professionals who have experience with homeowners during the first meeting will want to discuss budget.

The problem is that most homeowners usually have no idea what the costs are for their desired project. One of the goals of the initial meeting is to listen to the homeowner’s wants and needs and then see if they are being realistic with a stated budget or if they are way over their head thinking they can get a Mercedes for the cost of a Kia. So the question of the budget is important so the contractor or designer can provide meaningful feedback based on your stated goals. Here are a few typical responses that most homeowners state in response to the question of budget:

  1. They will state they have no idea  what things cost (they may believe that is the purpose of a free estimate – to educate them about what things cost so that they can then arrive at a budget)
  1. They do have a budget in mind but do not reveal it assuming the company will spend the whole budget even though the project can be built for less.
  1. They say they have no budget and will spend whatever it costs (the ideal client).
  1. They will not give you a budget saying they don’t want to limit your creativity in coming up with a design.
  1. They will not state a budget, but instead ask the designer/contractor to give them a ballpark cost on the spot and usually state that they will not hold you to it.

The last response is the most difficult for the company since both parties are trying to arrive at some mutual agreement about what the budget should be. If the contractor throws out a figure that turns out to be lower than a follow up written proposal, the homeowner can use that as leverage for expecting a lower number. If the contractor throws out a much higher number, they may be labeled as expensive provided the homeowner has previously talked with other companies and received lower ballpark estimates.

If the designer or contractor does not get a very clear direction as to a budget from the homeowner, the contractor may feel they are being used for the purpose of establishing a budget. This is evident when the homeowner states they are getting several “bids”. This is a red flag for a contractor who senses that the homeowner may just be interested in the lowest price for what was desired. But if the stated wants and needs are not detailed in some kind of plan, how can the “bid” be accurate? A contractor who draws up a plan for free during the “bid” process is simply preparing a design based on what they think the homeowner wants and what they are willing to spend.

Again, why should the contractor draw up a plan with costs without a clear budget? A wise contractor may consider an unwillingness to provide a budget as a way of qualifying the prospect. A wise contractor who does not get a straight answer on the budget question will have ways to ask the question indirectly. Do not let a designer or contractor go back to their office without some kind of budget. At least agree to a range so you are not wasting each others time.

Design and Budget Must Be Realistic

Budget is certainly a major factor in the landscape design process. It is simply an exercise in design if there is not enough money available or allocated to construct it and implement the original vision and intent of the design.
The pitfalls of designing without a budget may seem obvious, but it is often the case when homeowners talk with contractors about their landscape needs and desires, but are in the dark when it comes to giving the designer/contractor some guidance in terms of budget.
Some homeowners want what they want and allow a design to be prepared so they can determine the actual cost. Sometimes, that becomes their budget. Other times, people will want things in their landscape that far exceeds their expectations of what they cost.

So if you are working with a designer, don’t be put off if you feel they are overly concerned about knowing your “budget”.  It makes the design process much easier and saves a lot of “pie in the sky” scenarios that will never get built.

If you are paying a landscape designer for their time and want to explore different scenarios, that’s fine, but always have an idea of the cost to build each of the scenarios. Working with a designer who knows construction costs is a very valuable asset.

An efficient way to design with cost in mind as you go along, is to hire a design-build contractor. One who has the capability of providing costs per their design. If you pay them separate for the design process, you can explore variations in the design that meet your budget or to find out how much things cost so you can adjust you budget.
Not knowing how much things cost stops many homeowners from establishing a budget. Often they go through the process of getting bids (with “free” designs) so that they can get a feel for how much of a range they are looking at with what they told the contractors to design for them.
If the range is way over expectations, then you now have an idea of how much things cost.  Another way to work with a budget is to phase the construction to give you time to fund the entire project or as funds become available. The downside to this method is not getting the benefit of those items you are going to install later. They may be important for you to have immediately, so then you must defer some other part of the project.
A good designer who understands construction can put together a phasing plan based on cost, but also on what makes sense in terms of construction logistics. Some components jut have to go in the initial phase such as underground drainage, irrigation and sleeving.  Another factor is access. It doesn’t make sense to defer items such as swimming pools, ponds or waterfeatures that require significant excavation and underground plumbing with equipment that will destroy half the yard just getting to the location.
The goal is to minimize the amount of disruption or having to re-do parts of the yard due to construction methods and access. One way of phasing is to install the underground piping such as waterlines, electrical, or gas lines and stub out the end for later connection. Trenching for underground lines is extremely disruptive and should always be done in the first phase.
If you are to build your own landscape project or garden, do factor in the cost of all the materials and the amount of labor you will put in vs. hiring labor before you finalize your design. Knowing how much things cost will also allow you to possibly phase the installation if you intend to build the project exactly as designed but need to defer a portion of it until you have the money.

From a design stand point, the worst mistake to make is to spend all your “budget” on the pool and have very little left for the surrounding landscape.  If the pool contractor talks you into building the pool, the decking and the bbq but downplays the plantings and related components, the design will not be balanced. Work with a designer who looks at the entire yard thoroughly and doesn’t defer decisions about what goes around the pool to another contractor or yourself to figure out.

That is why it is best to work with a designer who understands all the components of the landscape and is not biased towards any one component such as the pool. A pool is often the major focal point of the yard, and deserves special attention, but don’t have blinders on when designing the rest of the landscape and know what the costs are for everything, not just the pool.
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