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Maybe You Shouldn't Hire A Landscaping Contractor

A landscaping contractor, by the California State License Board's definition,

...maintains, repairs, installs, or subcontracts the development of landscape systems and facilities for public and private gardens and other areas which are designed to aesthetically, architecturally, horticulturally, or functionally improve the grounds within or surrounding a structure or a tract or plot of land.

And we're great. Really, most of the c27's and general engineers who choose to specialize in landscaping who I personally know are the coolest. I've mingled with drywallers, roofers, plumbers, AV techs, electricians, all of them, but I like the personalities I meet at the California Landscape Contractor Association meetings the best. They know it's a difficult market. They know it's hard to scale since there's so much niche knowledge to train employees on. They're ready to tackle head-on the reality which most tradesmen are immune from - that reality being one where a literal award winning masterpiece which fulfills all uniform codes and best practice adhesion may instantly be branded a giant piece of dog shit by the client because "the vibe is off" and therefore the project is a massive failure.

But not everyone should hire me, or by extension, my friends in the industry.

Here's who should think twice.

  1. You're Skilled On The Tools

If you work in home improvement , you probably feel like you aren't getting a good value out of a landscape contractor. Because you're not. The desk jockeys get a great value out of it, but Tim The Toolman Taylor probably won't. Let's elaborate.

Framers, roofers, and tradespeople from the estimation process all the way to the cleanup crews, you possess a gift of intuition gleaned from many different processes of observing, measuring, joining, assembling, and troubleshooting. These things translate somewhat smoothly from trade to trade. A journeyman plumber can figure out irrigation easily because it's just more pipes. He can use his muscles, conditioned from lifting toilets around to plant a box tree. His skills measuring and cutting holes in counters for sinks and such can be used to cut pavers and stones. Even his ability in calculating flow and pressure will help him understand amps and volts when designing a landscape light setup. Construction skills can translate to other facets with a few helpful pro tips and the right tools.

Myself, a contractor, call professional office guys when it's tax time, lawsuit time, or I need to make a big change in my business. I hire the good ones, and pay them well because they do the things I'm not skilled with. It's not often I call a handyman to patch my drywall or replace a wall socket, because if you combine somewhat related construction trades skills with a set of manufacturer's instructions, nine times out of ten you get a good end project.

Maybe if you're sitting on disposable income and absolutely cannot find the time to put a project together, you should make the call to a landscaper. But maybe you could use a few vacation days and get it done. You'll save 1/2-3/4 of the money, and have pride that you built that!

2) You Haven't Liked The Other Contractor's You Had

Does every home improvement project feel like a massive letdown? Do you feel slighted or neglected by most service providers, from food servers to painters to CPA's ? Is it difficult to get ahold of home service providers after you used them? Does your pool cleaner or gardener seem to avoid you when you're around?

You may be the problem.

I'm not your therapist, but if there's a war going on in your life, and it's you versus numerous allegedly sucky service providers, you may want to look inwards and examine why you feel that way about them. If something didn't go the way you expected, was there a way to better convey those expectations? If you feel screwed by a term or a condition, did you read the document in its entirety? If you feel like your service providers dislike or don't care for you, is there something about you that's dislikeable or not worthy of caring about?

I have worked for thousands of people. The people who have a hard time finding a good contractor are usually the people I have a hard time with. And it's saddening. Not only because I'm a people pleaser, and I want everyone to be happy with me. Most commonly, dissapointment with my business occurs when the client fails to set expectations with me regarding project dimensions, what they need, what they don't need, or when they believe a certain product will look or act a certain way only to learn it doesn't. Oftentimes people have an AMAZING image in their head of what a fixture or item should be like, or work like, but I don't know until its too late!

One client I had asked me to build a wooden framed seating area with a drain rock infill. I wrote him a detailed quote with rock types, lumber types, etc, and asked if the specs looked good before he signed. He said "Looks great!" We built it, and he was very let down. He showed me a photo on his phone and said "Oh dear, I wanted it to look this way". Everything from the wood, to how high it sat off the ground, to the rock material was drastically different. Worse yet, the design he showed would have been much simpler and cheaper to construct. Sometimes the person who scams you, is you.

If you want to hire me, you've got to be clear, concise, and firm on expectations.

I want to also mention a sad phenomenon, where a good customer will get absolutely taken for a ride by a home service provider, be it a plumber, landscaper, roofer, etc. Someone else will get called to rectify the situation, usually the cheapest bid since the budget's already been blown on the initial scumbag. This person not only realizes he's underbid the job, but he's got a very paranoid and cold personality on his hands, and he does a rush job in an attempt to save his sanity and margins.

And when the next project begins, this client's already expecting a screwing, and will self-fulfilling-prophecy their way into ruining their own positive change.

It doesn't have to be like this.

Investigate why you're feeling so bad about the people, all across the board, who you've paid to help you. Talk about it with a friend or a colleague. Look at old texts or emails and figure out when or where things went south. Maybe consult with a third party, like a therapist or a highly rated home improvement person who just happens to be your friend. Maybe it's time to find a cool apartment in a nice part of town, or somewhere you don't really have to fuss with the anguish of home improvement or contractors. Me, a contractor, chose to live in a 900sqft apartment, because I understand how simplifying your living can lead to far less stress.

Now let's have a word on contractor/client relations in general

If you feel this way, or feel like you may be taken advantage of by a contractor, here's your cheat sheet. It's also wise to only pay for work that's complete, ask for your contractor to estimate a "complete" date, and if you're really concerned, to break down the cost of goods sold. All companies use different estimating procedures and have different overhead numbers.

apples to apples
Download PDF • 74KB

And before you ask,

  • we don't take deposits bigger than 10%,

  • it's always going to take slightly longer than you thought

  • It's always going to be ~ 1.5 to 2x whatever those goofy "national average" third party home improvement websites say it's going to cost

  • it COSTS 73.88$ per man onsite to operate our build crew, and 62.06/hr to run maintenance, and we require 15% margins on anything we sell. What does that mean for our bare minimum hourly rate? You do the math.

Grocery and retail stores don't even sell as low as a 15% margin and I guarantee you no grocer or retailer is starting their pay at 24/hr with benefits. I am not the bad guy in your life, or anyone's life. Also, have fun getting that info out of literally any other licensed contractor you call. It's pulling teeth, and they're probably mad that at my loose lipped'ness.

  • Side note on therapy, I have contacted therapy myself. I found that, although I lavish in sitting in a quiet room and kvetching for 1.5 hours uninterrupted, I was further stressed out by the fact I paid $180/hr and did not get a breakdown of labor and materials. We spent the exact same amount of time training for our respective licenses, pay the same $1300 of rent for our place of business, and yet I do not see a few large trucks or additional employees or 22% workers comp policy, and I'm not consuming any materials besides tap water. I'm fooling here, but there's truth in jest.

3- You're A DIY-Aholic

Alright. You watched some Home Renovision and The Lawn Care Nut, read the Call Wingle blog, spent a whole month's salary on things that said Milwaukee and Stihl, and you're ready to roll. Oops, you messed up. That doesn't look like it did on Pinterest. Why is this leaking? Why is this dying? Why did the city just pull up to the driveway and issue a stop order due to mud leaking into a storm drain?

Call me.

I'm going to give my honest opinion based on experience. Then I ask if you need my services. It's going to be tempting to say yes. You should say "No thanks, maybe next time!"

Finish the job. Persist until it's just the way you want it. Don't quit now.

I'm a DIY nut myself. Rarely does a project go pear shaped, but if it does I ask a contractor buddy how and why I messed up, and how I can rectify the issue. And I finish the job. With this somewhat measured gusto and okayish tools, I have built a boat, a shop, a monolithic slab, painted houses and restored furniture, made a trailer, a hog enclosure, rebuilt totaled pickup trucks, and squeezed 20 years out of ailing appliances that were designed to fail in 10. And you only get there by MESSING UP A LOT.

After you get done with the project, take a good hard look at the next one you plan and ask yourself, If something goes wrong, can I afford to do it twice? If you can afford a goof or a learning moment, DIY it. If the potential of defeat is a little too crushing to handle... I believe it's time to call your favorite contractor.

DIY'ers usually revel in the ornamental - maintaining the grounds, planting, installing yard art or fixing a hole in the drip lines, and things such as. When permits, heavy math, or special equipment begins to be necessary, oftentimes we come in for the boring, mort infrastructural tasks. DIYers usually love when we do excavation, grading, sprinkler timer installs, big tree planting, driveways, walls, or concrete for them. We've even been known to stop for a few minutes and show off a trick, tool, or skill for them to use later. Our employees really like working outside, and if you're interested in it, they'll talk shop for a bit as they work. Pick their brains, ask questions, take notes.

I hope this article helped you make the right choice on your home improvement journey. Whatever you do, plan for as long as you need, save to get exactly what you want, execute without fear or hesitation, and do it right so you never have any regrets.

-Sam W

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