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”.

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