Selecting a Landscape or Tree Contractor
There is no time like the present to prepare you for selecting a landscape contractor. A need for one may occur now or in the future. Therefore, homeowners need to be prepared to select and hire a contractor. Many people have limited expectations: they expect contractors to be prepared for being hired, but don’t expect themselves to be prepared for hiring and signing a contract.
Depending on what state you live in, landscape or tree contractors may, or may not, need a license. In the Pacific Northwest, most states require a license with the state to perform landscape installation, tree removals, and patio or deck construction. Most states that require licenses also require bond and insurance. If a license is necessary in your area, be sure your contractor has one. Inquire to ensure that the company has liability insurance and a bond. This is for your protection. The insurance covers damage to structures or people, besides employees. The bond is useful when you make a down payment for supplies, but the contractor may charge the supplies on credit. The bond covers you if you need your money back.
Insurance limits are rather large - $100,000 (for landscapers), $300,000 (tree service) or $1,000,000 (frequently voluntarily). Bonds are rather small, from $3,000 to $15,000. The small bond limits are exhausted quickly. It’s relatively rare that a bond comes into play, considering how many landscape and tree contractors there are. If you know the contractor well or their reputation is easily ascertained, then a small bond is reasonable. However, if the contractor’s “wake” of business dealings is not easily accessed, it is advisable to request a higher bond limit. A bigger bond for a temporary period is not very expensive. The contractor doesn’t need the higher bond–you do. The added bond expense is part of the cost for your project, and it is fair for you to cover the added expense of a higher bond within the contract total.
A good reference is better than none; however, a reference is not equal to a guarantee. What do you do when a good contractor is new to your region and their references can’t be reached? Hand-written references can be acceptable. The reference area is one where you may need to rely on your common sense, patience and gut instinct. There are plenty of “schmoozers” in our world, but there is another group, too. The other group contains craftsmen that can explain the project in such a way that there is no doubt about their integrity or ability. Common sense you have developed in your life may help you in your choice; however, the only safety net you may have is a bond and insurance. A license board can’t tell you who is good or bad. You can check into claims history. A previous claim does not necessarily mean a contractor was dishonest. A claim indicates that something went wrong or that somebody disagreed. Some good contractors have had claims against them–but it’s rare. If you find out about multiple claims, you probably want to choose another contractor. Other things to look for are college training, certifications and licenses as part of the reference criteria.
Suppose the contractor you called has 30 years of experience. Questions to ask are, will that person be the one doing the work, or will they be on the job site at all? If not, find out who will be doing the work. This is good to know even for lawn maintenance, which rarely requires a license.
The state of Oregon requires landscape contractors put a completion date or statement into a contract. If no completion date is promised, a statement about it must be included in the contract. Most Oregon tree services are licensed with the Oregon Construction Contractors Board. That board requires no completion date on contracts. Ask the contractor to name some basic time frames in the contract.
It may not always be necessary to look for two or three bids from different contractors for a project, especially if a contractor has a sterling reputation in your area and you know the bid you have fits the generally known price for similar properties.
Before acquiring and comparing estimates, determine your criteria for competency. Do you want excellent work from a professional with credentials, or "so-so" work at an economical price? Professionals with many years of experience often provide work of greater value.
With tree contractors, certification provides more value. Consider getting estimates from just certified arborists and comparing those costs, or getting estimates from only non-certified tree services and comparing those costs. Gather estimates from professionals of comparable training and comparable education. The more experience and education a contractor possesses, the more competent he is at their trade.
Comparing a 2-year contractor with a 20-year contractor is like comparing meal prices of a fast food cook to meal prices of a gourmet chef—it's not realistic. The kitchens and food of both food handlers can be expected to meet state health standards, but the preparation and quality is separated by a chasm of ability and education. Landscape and tree care is like that. There are "fast-food" contractors, “gourmet” contractors, and several levels in-between. All contractors have the potential to be good people, but they don't have equal ability. Our job as clients is simpler; we need to define the criteria we want in a contractor.
Many contractors are required to give you a right to lien notice. It changes nothing for you; however, it lets you know what they could do if you didn’t pay them. A right to lien means they can and will place a lien on your property if you don’t pay them!
Don’t forget web sites. License boards and agencies have good web sites to help you find more information about how to select a contractor. You can validate a license in “real time” if you call, license board staff are often pleased that you inquired about protecting yourself. This raises your level of confidence, knowing resources are available to help you make wise choices.
Mario D. Vaden
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