Modern Phoenix Neighborhood Network

Picking a Landscape Pro Who’s Apropos

By Allen Kalchik of DesertDesigners

Whether installing a new home’s first yard or revamping the landscape of an older property, many homeowners are flummoxed by the available options when hiring help to tackle their outdoor projects. For most homeowners, the two prime factors in making the choice are cost and confidence, with availability of service coming in a close third.

Most landscape design and installation professionals will fall into one of three categories; the journeyman, the landscape contractor, or the landscape architect /designer. The differences between each of the three in costs, experience and their availability to complete your project are what make them distinct. Understanding those distinctions can be very helpful in choosing the right person or team to help turn your outdoor-living dreams into tranquil reality.

THE JOURNEYING TRADESMAN

The professional on the most affordable end of the price spectrum is the independent journeyman, basically a handyman or tradesman specializing in outdoor projects. This person is generally not licensed and therefore not a member of the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, a drawback for some homeowners concerned about warranties. But because they have few marketing expenditures and little overhead, these folks are often the best deal going for smaller projects and limited budgets. And another plus, if time is an issue, is that they are often more readily available to get your project rolling than their larger counterparts can be.

Most journeymen find new clients through word of mouth. That’s vital, because consumers need to have confidence that the job will be completed on time and will turn out as specified. There’s nothing better than a glowing referral from a neighbor or coworker to help build that confidence, and every homeowner should ask to see other projects that the journeyman has finished. For homeowners with specific design ideas but little DIY inclination, a journeyman can be an excellent choice for bridging the gap between a sketch or magazine clipping and a stunning new water feature. Conversely, many journeymen will be very adept at installation but offer little help when it comes to creative design. So for the property owner who needs an overarching design plan and honest creative input, the journeyman may not be the right choice.

There are lots of reputable and experienced people working successfully as journeyman landscapers and, as with all trade professionals, there are also disreputable people taking advantage of the real estate boom and ripping off naïve homeowners. What seems very affordable at first may not prove a good deal in the long run.

The bottom line for homeowners is to get everything in writing, don’t pay in full until the contract is fulfilled, and use common sense. Ask who’ll be helping onsite, and how long the project will take. The most common complaint about independent tradesmen is that they’ll begin projects and then suddenly skip entire days on the job, leaving homeowners with uncompleted work for much longer than originally agreed. If something doesn’t feel right, if you get a negative review from a past client, or if your tradesman seems impossible to track down before the job even begins, then don’t write that first check.

THE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR

More costly but, for many, of better value than the independent journeyman is the licensed landscape contractor or landscaping firm. This group makes up the largest share of overall landscaping business in the current market. Firms within this category vary widely in size and reputation, so it is important, once again, to ask plenty of questions and be sure of exactly what you can expect before signing an agreement or contract.

Landscape contractors are insured, bonded, and licensed by the R.O.C., which requires their work be guaranteed for some period of time following a project’s installation. For many consumers, the effectiveness of that warranty is well worth the standard retail markup that a landscaping firm charges.

A landscape contractor will normally offer free design assistance. A designer or salesperson will visit with the consumer at no charge in order to measure and photograph the property and to list the homeowner’s ideas. The designer will then produce a design or drawing and bring his or her plan back to the homeowner, along with a bid for the project’s cost and an estimated start date. The designer is paid by the firm, not the client. If the client rejects the bid, he or she pays nothing and the plan remains with the contractor. Most contractors are willing to sell the plan at this stage, should the homeowner decide to use another source to install the firm’s design.

There are many advantages to choosing a landscape contractor for an outdoor project. Contractors can get the work done efficiently and as promised, and are held accountable by their licensor. They know which plants will thrive in the desert environment and which won’t, and they’ll have had experiences with projects similar to yours that they can draw from. Which company to select depends on your specific needs and your comfort level with their construction experience and the designer’s knowledge and background.

A consideration when using a landscape contractor is the time factor; most contractors are very busy right now and will quote a four-to-eight week lead time for new residential projects. Another thing to consider is that most firms will have a job minimum, which could range from $2,000 to $5,000 in the current market. If you only need a dripline moved or an 8x10 paver patio, then the journeying tradesman may be a better choice.

Again, don’t be taken advantage of by a fast-talking salesperson. Larger firms have well-established reputations in the Valley and will be able to provide several examples of past work, together with multiple references. Large firms will also have their own crews and equipment, and will utilize fewer sub-contractors. This not only helps control costs, but ensures the job can be completed within the proposed time frame.

Smaller firms, on the other hand, may provide more personalized attention. Prices do vary; a smaller firm or one that’s just starting out may come in with a lower bid. The smaller firm may sub out more of the installation, or offer a shorter warranty period to cover the profit margin. Designers nowadays expect prospective clients to seek one or two additional bids, so do some comparison shopping before you come to an agreement with the firm you like best.

THE LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT/DESIGNER

At the top of the scale in both cost and design/botanical education are landscape architects or landscape design firms. Homeowners who enlist these professionals can be confident that their projects will be in keeping with their vision and will include more exacting creative input. They may be the best choice for the homeowner with limited design ability or whose site presents unique or distinct design challenges.

Unlike a landscape designer working for a contracting firm, the landscape architect or upscale designer will likely charge a fee for his or her time right from the start. Clients can expect to pay for the initial consultation, as well as for the design and any subsequent changes to it. Sometimes a flat fee will cover all of the pre-installation work, including a set of design plans. Other times, the designer might charge an hourly rate and an additional fee for plans. As with interior designers, the more locally popular a degreed landscape designer is, the more he or she can and will charge for design services.

After the architect has produced a design, the installation and construction process can be handled in a variety of ways. Some landscape architects work on designs almost exclusively, and expect clients to then hire a contractor (or multiple contractors, depending upon the project’s scope) to install the plans. In these cases, the architect will usually have contractors to recommend whom the client will hire and then pay separately. Or, the architect or design pro will oversee the project from start to finish, with the contractors and subcontractors working under the umbrella of his or her firm; in that situation, homeowners continue to deal directly with the designer when paying for the work.

Because their time is so invested in each clients’ installation, the most popular landscape architects may need to schedule new projects months--maybe even a year--in advance. But it varies. As with contractors, there are those architects and designers who are just starting out who are eager to earn new business and will get things started more quickly. Homeowners who want to be enjoying their new fireside spas by this winter will need to take availability into consideration, as well as reputation.

If style and originality are paramount to your project’s scope, you may wish to utilize a landscape architect or designer’s skills to complete your vision. It is generally the most expensive route, but for many people, the results are well worth it.

THE CLIENT’S ROLE

Whichever landscape professional you pick, you can help the process go more smoothly by being clear about your needs, decisive about your choices and realistic about how long things might take. Don’t schedule that garden party for the weekend the fireplace is supposed to be finished; give the dust a week or two to settle before mailing out any invitations. And don’t wait until a project is underway to speak up about an aspect of the design you aren’t comfortable with. Do visit the site often, and be open to evolving design changes or suggestions that may become necessary as a project is installed. Pay as promised, and continue to refer your landscape professional--whomever you choose--to your friends and neighbors if you are pleased with the result.