Before you dig too deeply into hiring a landscaping contractor, take time to do two things:
1. Be clear about what you want to achieve. If you only want yard work, check out companies that specialize in residential lawn services.
If you want design or installation services, you'll need a full service landscaper. These can plan and install patios and walkways, water features, drainage and erosion systems, retaining walls and other services.
They can take a job from design to completion, or provide a plan that you carry out.
2. Gather your ideas. Be ready to offer as much detail about your preferences as possible. For inspiration, print, copy or tear out images from landscaping websites, magazines and books.
Now you are ready for initial conversations with several companies that are, hopefully, appropriately licensed, bonded and insured and have earned recommendations from friends or family or users of a trusted online review site.
Keep in mind that while some companies offer free consultations, others charge but if hired will deduct the fee from the job price.
Here are questions to ask prospective landscapers, compiled by my Angie's List team and based on the experience of consumers and highly rated landscapers:
*Can I see your plan? A drawing is the best way to be sure you can envision what a landscaper proposes. Ask each bidder to provide a design sketch. They may charge a fee if you want to keep it, but they should at least be able to let you see it. In addition, ask for photos of projects they've done that are similar to what you want.
*What's your process? Ask about basic work practices and what materials and equipment would be used. For example, would they dig your patio out by hand or use machinery?
*What's your experience? Make sure the contractor you hire has the experience, manpower and skill to handle your project. How long has the company been in business? Does it have an office in addition to a website?
Ask for references and contact several. Consider visiting completed work. Relying on website photos alone isn't a good idea, since you can't be sure they weren't purchased.
Find out what kind of training the contractor and his or her staff have undergone. Do they belong to local, state or national landscaping associations?
*What's your guarantee? Reputable landscaping contractors should be willing to guarantee their work for at least two years, preferably five. Ask about separate warranties for plants.
*How well do you communicate? Ask each bidder for the best way to communicate so you're likely to get a timely response.
Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie's List, a resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home repair to health care; www.angieslist.com.
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