Choosing a Contractor

Generally speaking most landscaping work is not urgent, although for instance a fence blown down might require reasonably prompt action to secure a boundary.

Landscaping is a relatively recent addition to most peoples’ ‘Wish List’ of home improvements and necessary costs and might take low priority when compared to the need for the car, the holiday, school fees, etc. As such there is a risk that low priority or the instinct to get a bargain, can tempt potential clients to view the least price as the best offering.

But the need for any building and horticultural work to be conducted by appropriately experienced and qualified people, to an appropriate level of specification is essential, because by their very nature these services will not only become an integral part of your property, but the result of its alteration, hopefully to the good.

Some potential clients for such works will engage the services of a professional, such as a garden designer or landscape architect for their creative input and to help define scope of works and specification ; and particularly when it comes to both identifying and assessing the best contractor to do the proposed work.

But typically the cost of such professional involvement is seldom seen as justified for small garden projects [say under £5000-00] or if single or a limited number of elements of work are required; and particularly, if the client feels that they have sufficiently well developed ideas of their own.

Many potential consumers of landscaping services, will therefore simply identify contractors as best they can, invite them to visit to discuss the potential work, relying heavily upon what they are told as part of a learning process, which they hope will enable them to subsequently judge the best service offering and therefore best value for money.

Whilst it should be evident that such judgements are fraught with difficulty, requiring insight and experience so as to accurately evaluate one contractors proposals and costings from another, most consumers will not have the time or inclination to try to become budding quantity surveyors.

Our aim here therefore, is to provide some basic guidelines, prima facie measures and questions to help the consumer when considering who to employ.

Before inviting a contractor to visit

With so many information sources available, particularly the internet, a bit of research is now quite easy and will stand you in good stead helping to refine your product knowledge and ensure that you are identifying the best possible candidate contractors for the job.

The more precisely you can describe what you believe you want, particularly if you can us the generic name for the type of, fencing [close board or panelled] or paving [ random rectangular Indian sand stone] etc. , that you might prefer; the more you suggest that you are a serious potential client, with some insight and even some preferences, and although you may also be asking for the contractors opinion and recommendations, you are less likely to give the impression that you are a potential ‘time waster’ or ‘quote hunter’.

Contractors tend to be inherently guarded against such potential enquirers, particularly if the enquiry is vague or a response to advertising. Some contractors might agree to an appointment but just not turn up ! Whilst this is infuriating and completely unprofessional, it is not entirely surprising when one bears in mind that the contractor’s visit is usually ‘speculative’ and their time and expertise effectively offered ‘free of charge’, unless there is a chance of being awarded some work. Consequently, many highly professional and skilled contractors will also decline to visit or quote for work, if they believe that they are just being used as a source of information and that price is the over-riding criteria irrespective of what they might recommend in good faith. But, even if a meeting is fulfilled, it is worth remembering that unless engaged as a fee paid consultant, the contractors commercial impetus is to make a sale and this is perhaps why, with limited insight, any contractors advise and recommendations are best viewed within the context of wider and more potentially impartial researched sources.

Generally research sources fall into 4 categories:

  1. ‘The-Web-of-Mouth ‘, of family, friends, neighbours, working colleagues and owners of other properties where work has been completed. Although these sources are often technically unqualified, they are most often able to share their experience of progress of works as well as bear witness to immediate and long term results, will very often comment evaluatively on costs involved and depending upon their relationship with the contractor, most often have your best interests at heart.
  2. The Media, can clearly be a pretty mixed bag of commentators and advertisers. Nevertheless, local, national, ‘subject specific’ and directory publications, both ‘hard copy’ and increasingly ‘on-line’ titles, are most peoples’ first source of reference. Clearly subject specific articles and books by well respected practitioners, might be the best sources for product information, whilst local press and the Net might be the most ready source of potential contractors; but remember a large or well presented advert, doesn’t necessarily reflect a large well organized business.
  3. Related Commercial Organisations such as garden centres, landscaping centres, builders merchants and manufacturers will also very often carry contractors’ advertising or have their ‘approved lists’ of contractors. But be aware, approved or not, it’s all advertising and although perfectly legitimate, the expertise of these organizations is retail and manufacture.
  4. Specialist Educational Institutions & Professional Bodies, are arguably the best sources of technically qualified product and service information. A contractor’s graduation from or membership of such organisations, particularly if they have a remit to declare and help set standards, clearly serves to underwrite consumer confidence. Having identified these organisations [see 4. Links to Related Sites] one can often verify qualifications and obtain regionalised members’ lists and details of declared specialisation. And as a starting point it might help to know that there are directories which list educational institutions and professional bodies as well as all publications in the UK [British Rate And Data & see on the Net]

Making Enquiries & Arranging Contractors Meetings

For many clients potential research time is very limited and the simple desire is to get a garden or element completed as soon as possible. Indeed most of what one might need or want to know can be answered by interviewing contractors; and they can also tell you how much it will cost.

Generally, the more commercially proactive and professional the contractor is in their response to your initial enquiry, the more likely the work will be done to a lasting standard and with due respect to your wishes; although one should perhaps be mindful that you are trying to employ well managed artisan services, not a salesman.

Accordingly, it’s not just a question of what will be done and at what price, but the how, by whom, when, to what recognised standards and with what guarantees?

One should reasonably expect all these questions and issues to be answered by a contracting professional unprompted and so the degree to which your questions are answered before you can ask them, can also be used as a ‘yard stick’ to measure the likely thoroughness and communication skills within a business and possibly reflect future performance.

  • So does the contractor have a good reputation, are they personally recommended, have I seen some of their finished works, are they recognised by a professional body?
  • How easy were they to find and does their name pop up in several sources and what’s the value of those sources?
  • Were they easy to make contact with, if I left a message was it passed on or responded to within a reasonable period of time [say within a couple of days] and if not, was an apology given and an explanation for the delay in response [eg. holiday absence]?
  • Did the person I spoke to volunteer their full name, express themselves clearly demonstrating familiarity with the work in question? Did they express interest in the potential work, clarify both when it could be done [their current working commitments] and when they could visit to look at and discuss the same. Do they sound reasonably well organized?
  • Having set a specific time and confirmed by name and title who would be visiting, what contact contingency [eg. by exchanging mobile numbers] has been made should either party be delayed or unable to attend the meeting as arranged and has location and perhaps parking arrangements been checked to ensure the contractors timely arrival?

The Meeting

  • Did the contractor show up on time or call to inform of any delay or re-arrangement?
  • Was the individual courteous and respectful to your property? As builders and horticulturists we often look scruffy and get covered in mud and ‘all sorts’ from time to time, but there is no reason why we should walk it through your house.
  • Did you feel confident and at ease with this individuals’ presence and do you feel that this contractor would respect your wishes and reasonable requests?
  • Did the individual ensure that you had their contact details and preferably given you a business card to achieve this?
  • Did the contractor then allow you free expression to tell him/her what you might want specifically and what you may want their recommendations on?
  • Whilst covering your requirements and offering suggestions and advice, did the contractor start to give you some product/service specific information, helping to explain the reasoning for their recommendations? Did the contractor for instance explain the hierarchy of costs associated with different elements of landscaping works, which can be combined or varied to achieve required budgets without sacrificing appropriate specification?
  • In other words, did the individual try to help in organizing your thoughts and understanding of the nature of the work under consideration?
  • Again whilst discussing product and service options or perhaps subsequent to this conversation did this person write it down and/or make sketches; as even the most retentive memory is unlikely to recall so much site specific information.
  • Did they take time to thoroughly investigate the site of works, taking note and measuring, with a tape measure , both what is to stay as well as what is to go to enable calculations of cubic capacity for waste disposal?
  • Did the contractor measure the site of works overall, taking note of existing levels and taking time to reasonably estimate possible level changes particularly at the building line where good drainage and access are critical? Again if there are any issues such as historic problems with damp one would expect the contractor to know the paradigms of good building practice and explain them to you.
  • If there is likely to be more than one element of work, has the contractor notionally worked out and agreed the position of each element and agreed to itemize their quotation accordingly, stating for each element of work quoted, the proposed choice of materials and working specification.
  • Did they take note of services and ask for your knowledge in respect of the same?
  • Did they take note and consult you about your daily routine, access to the property and general easement , access to electrical and water supply, storeage, security, neighbours’ sensibilities, where skips might be set down, materials received etc; in other words all the administrative details associated with making the job happen?
  • Whilst the contractor, however experience, is unlikely to give accurate estimates as to costs and associated duration for works during this first meeting, perhaps needing to do a fair amount of calculation and checking of material costs, he/she should be able to confirm their current work commitments and it would certainly be surprising if the work could be done immediately.
  • Finally one would expect the contractor to confirm what follows the meeting and over what time scale. If a quotation is to be forthcoming, when can that be expected, for how long will it be valid, how might an order be confirmed, whether references/examples of work can be seen, whether samples of finished materials would be supplied or the source where they can be seen; and whether in ‘follow-up’, another meeting might be possible to arrange, if proposals are agreeable in principle, so as to meet partners or other interested parties first hand for assurance and clarification of scope of works prior to practical commencement?

Post Meeting

From here on, with the receipt of written proposals regarding the work discussed, any insights into ‘Tender Analysis’, would be a waste of time, unless as an informed buyer, the bids and service offerings of the various contractors had been set within a well defined framework so as to overcome any misinterpretation resulting from contractors’ different presentation styles or project segmentations.

But one can still ask as a consumer:

  • Who has done what they said that they would do and sent me a quote in the time promised?
  • And do I understand it and any associated conditions before I accept any such quotation, as it is usually…’A Contract’?

To go on from here would be facile, but keep asking questions if you know or believe they are reasonable, as most landscaping is easier and less expensive to get right in the first place, than to have to have it rectified!