Monthly Archives: July 2010

Hardscaping Projects: DIY or Hire A Contractor?

You’ve decided to invest in a new patio, paver driveway, garden wall or other hardscaping project. You have an idea in mind for a beautiful outdoor home improvement project. Now you must decide how to make your vision a reality. Should you do it yourself? Or should you hire a professional?

Certainly, both cost and scope are key factors in your final decision. But to make the best decision, begin by considering the list of responsibilities that a competent professional hardscaping contractor will handle and ask yourself to what degree do you want to or are you willing to perform these roles. Treat the contractor responsibility list as your check list for your “DIY or Not” decision.

Once you have completed this evaluation, if you believe you want to DIY, you need to look at the project scope, i.e., complexity, and cost. Visit your local hardscaping dealer to discuss your project and construct a bill-of-materials. This will identify the bulk of your costs. (Your other major costs will be equipment rental and tools.) During this process, the dealer will develop a good idea of what you are planning to do and can help you determine if you are taking on too much.

If you complete the checklist and decide to use a contractor, you should identify three contractors to give you cost estimates. Based on these estimates, you can make the final decision whether to proceed as planned, scale down the scope to reduce costs, or postpone the project until it is affordable. Before selecting the contractors to bid on your project, please read our article on how to select a contractor. Selecting a good contractor is critical to achieving the end result you crave.

Responsibilities of a Professional Hardscaping Contractor

(or the “Do I Want to Do This Myself” Check List)

• Design – a professional contactor will convert your ideas into an executable design taking into consideration the specific physical characteristics of the area (such as grade, drainage, underground limitations) and of your home (style, color, texture, space).

• Permits – if your project requires township permits, your contractor will usually obtain these and bill you for the cost. For homeowner associations that require pre-approval, the contractor will provide drawings and material specifications but you must submit the request for approval.

• Power and Water Lines – the contractor will contact utilities to have underground lines labeled to ensure that nothing is damaged during excavation.

• Materials List – after you select the products you want to use for your project, the contractor will determine how much of each is required to implement the project. The contractor will order these products and take responsibility for the accuracy of the order within a standard margin of error determined by the size and type of materials involved.

• Material Availability – the contractor will time ordering materials so that they will be available as needed, whether he picks them up or has them delivered. This will keep the work moving at a planned pace, eliminate wasted time, and ensure that the project finishes as promptly as scope and weather permit.

• Equipment & Tools – the contractor will provide all equipment and tools needed to implement the project. For example, excavating equipment to dig out the area; a plate tamper for compacting subsoil and base; a diamond bladed saw for making finishing cuts; a laser level to assuring correct placement of material to achieve desired grade. In addition to major equipment, the contractor uses specialized hand tools for measuring, leveling, adjusting, lifting, moving, cutting, and splitting materials.

• Material Removal – if materials must be removed during the preparation of the area, the contractor will remove and dispose of these materials, e.g., concrete, soil, brush, rocks.

• Ground Restoration – when the project is complete, the contractor will clean up the area and leave it neat and orderly. You may also choose to include post-construction landscaping to finish your project.

• Warranty – professional contractors will provide a minimum three –year warranty on their work. Any flaws in your project that emerge that are caused by contractor error will be repaired at no cost. Contractors who provide such a warranty rarely need to return for repairs as they take care to implement properly.

• Insurance – professional hardscaping contractors will carry insurance which protects you in the event of unplanned damage such as hitting underground lines incorrectly marked by the utility companies or equipment damage to property that should not have been in the way.

• Heavy Lifting – finally, the contractors and their teams move, lift and place all of the hardscaping materials used to build your project…and everything is heavy!

Selecting a Hardscaping Contractor

You have decided to invest in an outdoor hardscaping project. After careful consideration, you have decided to hire a professional to implement it. Now you must pick the specific contractor. The hardscaping industry offers a huge selection of contractors, but not all of them are qualified to do your specific project. Unfortunately, it is easy to make a poor choice; so, the selection process is critical.

You will need to make two decisions:

(1) Who should bid? and

(2) Which of the bidders will you hire?

Obviously, one of the contractors who bids on your job is going to be the one you hire. So, you need a great “short list.” You should be looking for three contractors to bid on your job. Three bids allow you to determine high, low and average cost. More than three is unfair to the contractors as they will bid at no cost to you but at significant cost to themselves. And more than three bids is also unnecessarily complicated for you as three bids will provide more than enough information for you to make a good decision.

Factors to consider in selecting the short list of bidders:

1. Understand the value of a professional hardscaping contractor. You may know a good general contractor who built your house or remodeled your basement; but, unless he has explicitly implemented hardscaping projects, he is not a hardscaping contractor. If you have a lot of confidence in a specific GC and are willing to pay a premium for his management skills, then you can consider hiring the GC to find and manage a good subcontractor. In this scenario, you do not need a bid process as you are selecting a GC based on past experience and personal confidence.

You may have a great landscaper who mows your lawn, fertilizes, plants, trims or prunes; but, unless he has explicitly implemented hardscaping projects, he is not a hardscaping contractor. If you are willing to reduce your costs by allowing a landscaper to learn on the job, and if you have confidence in the landscaper’s commitment to finding out the right way to do the work, then consider your landscaper.

However, most often, you will be looking for a professional hardscaping contractor who has the experience to deliver the full set of responsibilities a successful project requires.

2. Get a referral / reference. Each contractor on your short list should have good references. If relying on a friend or neighbor for a referral, make sure the project that inspired the referral was completed prior to the last winter, i.e., the projects needs to have survived one freeze-thaw cycle intact. A project can look great the month after completion and not so good a year later. Freeze-thaw will expose errors made below the surface in the sub-base and base of the project.

You may also use a manufacturer’s authorized contractor program to obtain recommendations. This is particularly useful if you think you know what brand of products you plan to use. This list is usually accessible on the manufacturer’s website or by completing a form on the website from which the manufacturer will mail you a list.

Dealers vary in how they provide referrals. If relying on a dealer reference, make sure the dealer screens his referral list. At Woodward Landscape Supply, we check out the work of the contractors we recommend, making sure they follow generally accepted hardscaping standards. We also monitor customer feedback and remove contractors from our list if valid complaints come to our attention.

3. Look for local coverage. Make sure that the commute to your property is financially attractive for the contractors you pick. If too far, the cost of getting their crew to and from your location can make the project unnecessarily expensive.

4. Confirm specific expertise. During your initial meeting with each name on your short list, make sure they have the expertise you need for all elements of your project. For example, pool decks have some unique below-ground issues; masonry projects such as fireplaces require unique skills and tools; flagstone has very different installation characteristics than manufactured pavers. If you know you are going to need a special skill, make sure you ask if the contractor has that experience. If the special element is a small portion of the project, it is reasonable for a contractor to subcontract that element. If the specialty skill is a major portion of the project, it should also be a major portion of the contractor’s portfolio.

5. Check out timing. Is the contractor going to be available to do the work on a schedule that meets your needs

Using these guidelines, you will pick your short list, meet with each contractor to discuss the project and await your bids. Once you have the bids in hand, the following factors should be considered in making your final decision:

1. Cost. If one bid is especially low, beware! Make sure you understand what that contractor is not including. If one bid is especially high, find out why. Did that contractor consider something relevant that the others missed. Exceptionally low bids usually have left out something really important.

2. Warranty. Proposal should offer a minimum three-year warranty.

3. Insurance. Proof of liability insurance should be a requirement. Incidents are rare in this industry, but accidents do happen.

4. Material Selection. The proposal / contract can be written in one of two ways:

a. If you have already selected the materials, the agreement should explicitly identify your choices.

b. If you have not yet finalized your choices, the agreement will assume a basic product and final pricing must be adjusted to reflect your ultimate product choice. The contract should both require you to make your final choice within a specific timeframe and provide you an understanding of what type of material is assumed in the baseline proposal.

5. Construction Issues. The agreement should explicitly cover the contractor’s responsibility for removing and disposing of any excess excavated material as well as his responsibility for final clean up and ground repair. If you expect finishing landscaping, the agreement should cover that as well.

6. Comfort. Finally, is the contractor a person whom you feel comfortable having work at your home unsupervised? This is a very individual and subjective issue, but you will develop rapport and trust with some individuals and not with others. You need to consider your comfort level in making your final decision.