Thinning the Herd: Making Sure the Landscape Design Company You Hire will be Around to Finish the Job

As more landscaping companies close their doors due to the slowing economy, you can take simple steps to make sure that the company you hire today will be around to finish the project tomorrow.

  1. Is the landscaping company established? Most companies these days have websites that will tell you exactly how long they have been around. Or you can simply ask. Chances are, if the company has been around for 10-20 years, it has experience in getting through slow economic times.
  2. Does the company have a proven track record? Ask to see the company’s portfolio. Pages and pages of glossy pictures displaying beautiful landscaping projects are worth a 1,000 words. Also, many landscaping companies will provide references upon request. Word-of-mouth is probably the greatest example of a company’s past performance.
  3. Is the company professional? We know your mother told you not to judge a book by its cover. But when the landscaping contractor shows up to give you your estimate, take a look at the truck. Is it in good shape? Is it professionally labeled with a logo? Some other things to consider: does the landscaping company have an office? Does a person, such as a receptionist, answer the phone when you call? Does the contractor have business cards?
  4. Is the landscaping company licensed? To make sure the company you’re about to hire isn’t just some guy-in-a-truck, double check its certification, as well as its standing with the official board in your state. In order to become a licensed contractor, landscaping companies are required to have background checks, complete a certain number of hours of on-the-job training, and obtain proper insurance.  In Maryland, that board is theMaryland Home Improvement Commission. And in Virginia it’sThe Board for Contractors.
  5. Insurance is your best policy. If you have gone ahead and checked with your state contractor’s association to verify your chosen landscaper’s certification, you won’t need to worry about their insurance coverage (since the state already requires it.) But, if you haven’t checked with your state board, you should definitely ask to see the certificate of insurance (because even the guy-in-the-truck can obtain insurance without a contractor’s license). In addition, for large jobs, you can also ask the landscaper to provide a “payment and performance” bond, which will provide a source of funds for completing the job in the event that your contractor leaves it unfinished. The bond will protect you against mechanics liens on your property that could come from subcontractors and material suppliers if the landscaping contractor fails to pay them. The bond should be for the full amount of your job and it will add three to ten percent to the total contract price. (But if your project is a large one—say over $150,000—it can be well worth the expense).
  6.  Go official. Various agencies are in place to protect you from hiring a bad contractor. Use theBetter Business Bureau  or the Consumer Protection Agency to verify that the contractor you would like to hire is in good standing and doesn’t have any complaints against his or her company.
  7. Cheapest isn’t always best. Good landscapers know how to estimate their jobs accordingly so that material and labor costs are covered. If an estimate seems too good to be true, chances are it probably is. Have competing landscaping companies break down the estimate for you so you can understand the various costs—and go with your gut.

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