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.

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