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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Filed under: How to Work with a Landscape Professional

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