Landscape shopping

It may not feel as comfortable as checking out the latest kitchen appliance, but it is really the same as shopping for any other major household purchase.  Whether you are renovating an existing landscape or starting from scratch in a new yard, finding the right landscape contractor is doable and like other projects, easier when you break it down into a few steps.

Step one:  Think about what you really want in your landscape.

  • Will your yard be mostly viewed from the indoors or lived in?
  • Do you need lawn and other areas for kids to play?
  • Do you need barriers to create privacy or muffle street noise?
  • Will you be entertaining outdoors and need the amenities of an outdoor room?
  • Do you want customized elements like a flagstone patio, deck, fire feature or water feature?
  • Are there specific plants you want just because you love them?
  • Do you prefer low-water plants or those requiring less “care and feeding”?
  • Do you want a sprinkler system with state-of-the-art water-saving features?

Step two:  Set your budget and make a plan.

If you buy a car, you know before you shop whether you’re after a luxury vehicle or an economy model.   Identify how much money you can realistically allocate to your landscape.  Once you know what you can afford to spend, you can work to get the best value for your money.

A very general rule of thumb for new landscapes is to budget approximately 10 percent of the price or value of the home.  So for a new home in the $250,000 range, you should expect a basic landscape cost around $25,000.  But remember, as with a new home, upgrades can drive up the price tag.

In some new neighborhoods, covenants often require that landscapes be installed within a specified timeframe.  To meet that deadline, you might not be able to afford all the items on your landscape wish list.   So develop a master plan design that includes everything you ultimately want in your yard and work with your landscape designer or contractor on a staged plan.   Get the basics accomplished right away and move on to the next priorities when it makes sense financially.

Having a design and a game plan will save unnecessary expenses when you add the other features later on.   For example, moving heavy concrete blocks to build a wall at the back of your property requires access and heavy equipment.   It’s probably strategic to build the wall before your sprinkler system, lawn and other plants are in place so the equipment can be maneuvered without creating unnecessary soil compaction and other damage.

Step three:  Identify the landscape pros you want to consider.

There are two approaches to obtaining a landscape design. 

One approach is to work first with a professional landscape designer or landscape architect to develop a design that incorporates all of the elements in your wish list into a detailed drawing.   This approach allows you to get the master plan for your yard finalized before you take your design to contractors for bids.

The other approach involves working with a “design/build” landscape contracting firm that has designers on board.  This option is more of a “one-stop-shop” in that the company that consults with you on the design can also install the landscape.   The designer’s fee is often incorporated into the overall cost of the landscape work.

Step four:  Check out the firms

If you are spending several thousands of dollars on the landscape, you owe it to yourself to find out as much as you can about prospective contractors. Here’s what you should ask:

Are they reputable?

  • How long has the firm been in business?
  • Have they got YOU covered with the right insurance? Ask to see proof of insurance for liability and workers’ compensation.
  • What’s the educational background and work experience of the employees? Will there be a Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) working on your property?
  • What professional affiliations does the company hold? Is your prospective contractor a member of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado?
  • Does the firm intend to use subcontractors? If so, who and in what capacity?
  • Ask for client references. Take the time to check references and visit properties where the contractor has worked.
  • Find out what former clients have to say. Did the contractor display good work habits like returning calls promptly and keeping appointments, honor the terms of the contract and meet the customer’s expectations for technical competence?   Was the contractor responsive to concerns expressed by the customer?

Will they put it in writing?

 Ask for a detailed contract with job specifications.  Be sure the contract includes:

  • The scope of work—what’s being done
  • Total costs
  • How and when payments are due
  • Guarantees
  • How disputes will be resolved, if they arise.

Both the design and the contract identify the scope of the work to be done—in other words, these documents specify what you are buying.  If there is a dispute, these documents will be used to resolve it, so be sure you are comfortable with the final details.

When you follow these steps to identify what you want, set your budget, carefully select the professionals, check them out and get the details in writing, you become a responsible landscape consumer.  Landscape shopping is really like any other shopping where it pays to be a careful consumer. Plus, you get to enjoy your “purchase” for many, many years to come.