Vet Your Contractor, SOS!
For real though, because “contractors be stealen”! I’m serious and I’m pissed off about it. So let me let you in a just a few of the one liners I’ve heard over the years that told me we aren’t in a handshake environment anymore.
I’ve installed landscapes large and small, commercial and residential, for about 20 years. Over that time I developed not only a love affair with the Central Texas plant pallet, but a true love of my craft, a love of my clients and an appreciation for the vulnerability they are exposed to by not really knowing the ropes. My favorite part of providing landscape installations as well as design, was to give my client the greatest value for their dollar. An education was part of the package and I never have taken a referral fee so I have never referred anyone I didn’t believe was qualified. I’m all about the handshake contract because I believe my word is really the only thing I have. Furthermore, I’ve volunteered thousands of hours over the years to give back to our community and to share the love and appreciation of nature and gardening. It is who I am and why I love what I do.
I suppose I’ve always hoped that a love of nature is what drives us all, but that’s not the only green that motivates all landscape companies or contractors. Out of all of my many experiences on properties over the years, the worst of them were with contractors. Not the employees (typically), but the contractors and subcontractors, themselves. Just because you clean up well and can speak English, does not a professional make. A professional is on time or better yet, early. Every single thing you request should be in writing for your protection and theirs and they need to be qualified for the job; but how do you know? Do you check out YouTube, blogs like mine or hundreds of others, check out a neighborhood page or ask for referrals from people you trust? The answer is all of the above.
If you can find an independent Consultant / Garden Coach like me, start there. I am not there to give you referrals for contractors, I am there to teach you how to avoid being taken in by deceptive practices of unscrupulous contractors. For example…did you know that it is standard to ask your buddy for a 10% and sometimes 20% kickback for the referral? Standard practice is to charge you an extra 10% per party that they bring to the table and this can cost you thousands. If you’re able to manage your project, you don’t need them. BTW, this doesn’t mean that person is currently working on the project, that means Joe told Bob about it, so now Bob sends Joe a kick back. An honest system, is when you refer people because they’re good at what they do and vice versa, which gets you more work. Period.
Now, let’s talk about the blatant misleading and frankly theft of the less than professionals. One of my all time favorite lines after receiving a ridiculously high bid on a project was, “Well, I need to make payroll, Friday ”! I’ve heard, “believe me, they can afford I’d it, have you seen where they live”? I’ve had contractors offer me 20% for referrals because many of my clients are affluent. This mean YOU will pay more to HIM to pay ME for referring him to your job or project. One fellow told me my client had told him what they were willing to spend, so he said he was going to spend every penny…. let that sink in. I’ve had them take the jobs I’ve brought them to, I’ve had them tell my clients they could give them a better deal on the next leg of a project if they used them next time and left me out of it. Most of my clients like me enough to tell me what these fools will do, so…I’ve heard it all and I wish that were the end but that’s not even counting the Upsells and PIA tax.
So, let’s start with Up-sells. These are when a contractor talks you into stone or plants that bring more money into their pocket, but it doesn’t really help you that much either way. Many contractors have arrangements with stone and plant yards to purchase items in bulk for a better discount. This doesn’t always mean that’s a bad idea for you, But it could mean that you’re getting something you don’t need from a design perspective so they can make a greater profit from it. Having a designer that is not your contractor can be of value here. A utility space covered in river rock for example, would not need to be an upgraded selection of rock. So be thinking about continuity throughout and it’s certainly important to also understand the price points before you make the decisions. Also, always ask for the samples before the rock work begins. Another “trick “ is the switcharoo. I have absolutely had guys show up with cheap rock and charge for the good stuff. For example, Lueder and regular limestone 2 x 3 are very different in price. Black Star and basalt are the same thing but one is lighter and if you didn’t know, you could be paying for the pricey version and getting the short end of the stick, or rock as it were.
Would you know the difference?
PIA tax stands for “Pain In the Ass“ tax. It’s a real thing, and this is one time I can attest to having perhaps, succumb to the strategy. This is an increased price to any client who presents him or herself right upfront to be a pain in the ass. Now, while I say that tongue-in-cheek, I have worked with some. They are the over thinkers, the over analyzers, and the basic fun suckers of a project who can frankly take up more time than is needed for the same detail. So, my suggestion would be that you might put your thoughts on paper, do you homework such as plant selection light requirements and things that are necessary to create a really impactful design. Give that input up front, and then choose your fights when it’s necessary but let the creative lead the way. If you were working with a stonemason, or professional landscape company they should be able to bring something to the table, but if you are too controlling in the process you may miss out on solutions you might not otherwise be aware of. You should expect your vision to be clear and understood, you should expect your timing and execution to be met, you should expect your budget to be respected and you should quasi-supervise and photo-record the process as you go. Ask the contractor for time each morning or end of day to do a quick walk through to talk about any issues and send photos of questions or concerns as they arise, but don’t babysit. Don’t-a be-a PIA! I’m Italian, I can get away with that.
Lastly, let’s talk money; the shifty contractors favorite topic. NEVER pay for a job up front. I don’t care how much you think you know them, pay 50% up front and the balance upon completion. No, “I’m almost done and I’ll come back and finish, but I need to pay my guys”, they get paid when they’re finished, or they don’t get paid. Even better, pay 33% up front, another increment in the middle and the final pay upon completion. In my business, I do 50/50 and I’ve never strayed unless it’s for plants delivered to your property without my supervision.
Needless to say, I never used any of these shifty characters but after a contractor brought two clowns to one of my jobs that was ready to throw down when I told him to put out a cigarette, I knew it was time for a change. I thought of quitting all together to be honest but I knew, and I know, that there are lot of other Lisa LaPaso’s out there who just want to work outside for a fair wage to create art, or a product we can be proud of that brings value to the world.
Take away here is to do your homework. A community page is a great place to start for small local landscape businesses and start ups. Spread the word when you have good workers and businesses and spread the word when they’re bad. Let them know you found them on a page so they know that you can also spread the good word, or if necessary, the bad. When you have a good person you can count on, support them, share their information and let them know you appreciate what they do. Landscaping and gardening, tree care and general maintenance is extremely difficult, dangerous and at times, an unrewarding job as people think you are there to do what you’re paid for. While that’s true, many of us are awesome artists and water warriors, tree huggers, bug savers, bee thankers and entrepreneurial go-getters, who are just grateful to do what we do because we love it, so we do the right thing because that’s all we know. Find us, support us and share us with your sphere.
* Find an independent consultant/designer in your area who can choose what to bid on so you can compare the same concept with contractor. You can also create your own online for free.
* Find online resources and take the time to educate yourself.
* Watch videos about patio, stone, irrigation and such…, if you don’t have time for any of this so far, keep your lawn and mow it. 🙂
* Check references and ask for solid referrals or stop and talk to people working at a neighbors or in your neighborhood.
* Get everything in writing. Pay only 50% max, up front and the balance when they no longer need to come back to your house.
* Ask for samples of all hardscape materials such as stone, rock and metal color for clarification. Specify plant sizes and amount of materials being used unless it is a turn key project which is a one price for the whole job. In this case, you get every item listed for a total.
* Never allow them to say they’ll take care of it without writing it down and NEVER make the final payment until your completely satisfied. I’ve seen countless contractors make fast friends with clients because they want to get the check with every excuse from I need to pay my crew, I need to pay off the materials. Frankly, that’s not your problem it’s theirs, they should’ve planned accordingly and you need to have the stuff fixed before you finalize the deal, or you probably won’t see him again. This goes especially for pools, patio and stonework.
* Find your own contractors or expect to pay for a “one stop shop”. Unfortunately, the referral fee is still alive and well. Ask for a copy of their insurance for tree work and stonework. Most reputable companies will carry a million, for your protection.
* When you find the good guys, hang onto them like grim death and help them grow but don’t be their lab rat. Just because they do lawns, doesn’t mean they know plants, but if you do your homework first maybe you could work together and everyone wins.
A client once called me ”A Good Egg“, I took that to heart.
“Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time”
This is a wonderful website, and filled with information. I, unfortunately, have not had any luck with finding anyone to plant anything in my yard. They talk the talk, but when I start asking questions they cannot answer them. I know my yard could look great, and have asked nurseries and they do not provide any contractors. I have used people from the Nextdoor app that say they have had certain people do excellent work for them, and I then find out that were a friend or neighbor that is trying to help them get business. I have been in this house for years and have tried to do what I can to help my yard look better, but still do not have anyone that has the knowledge of what I need. I have full sun and deer in one area, shade and deer in another area, then sun and shade and no deer in another area. I have lots of live oak trees that are constantly dropping leaves, moss, twigs, etc. Love the shade, however, have leaves and something to clean up daily from the driveway and side walk. I am getting older and it is difficult for me to get up and down like I used to, therefore, keep trying to find someone with the knowledge I need to plant what is needed in the appropriate area without my having to spend everyday in the yard to try and keep it up. I know I am probably praying for the nearly impossible. I do not want three plants together and one takes lots of water and the next one likes it dry. Sorry to go on and on, but I have been trying for years to find the right person to help me. If you know someone in the San Antonio, TX area that may have the skills I need and not want to take me to the cleaners on pricing, I would appreciate any referral you may have. They just have to know what plants go where and grow well together. If not, I have had the opportunity to vent my frustration with living in TX and not having enough knowledge of how to handle my problem. Moved here from WI where everything we planted in our yard looked beautiful and we did not have any deer. Thank you for your time. Thank you for such an informative website, however, I cannot remember it all. Blessing to you for what you do!
Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, I understand the struggle all too well and I am praying for a new wave of gardeners to be formed through the pandemic and beyond. To be brutally frank, we haven’t been appreciated the way we should have been over the last 20 years and professionals like myself are often replaced by some person with a Weedwhacker and blower who are unskilled and uneducated but because they charge $7 an hour and I was charging $20 an hour. I watched the whole transition and the people who wouldn’t pay for organic gardening because it cost too much even though we were polluting the planet. My only hope now is that we recharge the need for this talent and skill set, we insist that our grounds keepers and personal gardeners are educated, and then we pay them the money they deserve for the task. We have some work to do… wishing you all the best on your search in San Antonio!