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Tips For Choosing A Pro
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Tips For Choosing A Professional is designed help make your life outdoors as pleasant and carefree as possible. In this section are some pointers and tips for choosing a landscape contractor or a retail garden center or nursery to help you fulfill your outdoor living dreams.

Landscape Contractors
Do your homework!
For many homeowners, finding and choosing a landscape contractor to undertake a project, large or small, can be daunting. Here are some tips, for finding and qualifying a landscape contractor to handle your project:

Define the scope of your project
The first step in this process is to try to think through what you want to accomplish. Look at your yard and landscape and take some time to ride through neighborhoods and think about your likes and dislikes. Browse the "idea gallery" on this Web site  Look through magazines, like Garden Design, Fine Gardening or Horticulture and start an "idea” file. Start a list of the things you want to accomplish. Be as expansive as your imagination will allow -- at this point.

Set priorities
At this stage, most homeowners’ ideas will outstrip their budgets. So take your "wish” list and decide what’s first, what’s second, etc., even though you may not have any idea of the costs, at this point. For example, is setting pavers for a new front walk and entry plantings more important to you than the patio in the back? Or the other way around? Once you begin to talk with designers and contractors, having thought about what is important to you will help as the estimates start to come in.

Independent designer or design/build firm?

There are two ways to go about this. The first is to hire an independent designer who will work with you in developing plans. Once the plans are finalized, the work can be bid to a landscape contractor. The second way is to select a "design/build” landscape contractor who will do the plan and also construct the project. There are advantages to either method. Hiring an independent designer can give you the flexibility to have several companies bid on your construction and installation work. Hiring a design/build firm can shorten the time from design to construction and help avoid finger pointing if the design does not anticipate some site conditions. Either method can bring great results.

Expect to pay for good landscape design work. Avoid the temptation to accept "free design.” You get what you pay for, especially if your project is at all complex. Having a design that you own and have approved is your first step in getting the landscape you desire. You should also consider having the designer incorporate all or most of your wish list into your plan. That way you have a master plan for your property, even though you may not be able to do it all at once. An investment in a master plan up front can save money in the long run and assure that the individual phases meld into an integrated whole.

What to look for in a landscape contractor
There are a variety of questions you should ask when interviewing landscape contractors:

State Licenses
In Pennsylvania, there are three licenses that a landscape contractor must have, two from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and one from the Pennsylvania Attorney General. The first is the nursery dealer’s license. Anyone who handles or installs plant material in Pennsylvania must have a nursery dealer’s license. This assures that the plant material you receive is free of pests and disease. The second is a pesticide applicator’s license. Anyone who applies pesticides in Pennsylvania must have passed a written exam and be licensed. In addition, licensed pesticide applicators must have their "BU” identification number prominently displayed on their truck or vehicle. You can verify that the landscape contractor has a current nursery dealer’s license Department of Agriculture Web site by clicking here.

In Pennsylvania, landscape contractors who do more than $5,000 in business a year must register with the attorney general and display a "Home Improvement Contractor" registration number on all of their marketing materials and trucks, know as an "HIC" number. In addition, they must use a contract that has specific language and other consumer protection provisions. You can verify that a landscape contractor is registered with the Pennsylvania attorney general by clicking here.

There may also be local licensing requirements. Check with your county or municipal government for any licensing requirements they may have. As well, your local or county government may also require permits and plans before your work can proceed. Be sure that your contract specifies who is responsible for obtaining and paying for these local permits.

Industry affiliations and certifications
Ask the landscape contractor if they are members of state or national trade associations. Trade associations provide educational opportunities and information to keep their members up-to-date on government requirements and the latest industry trends and techniques. The Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association (PLNA) is the leading state association for landscape contractors. You can check a landscape contractor's membership in PLNA by clicking here to go to the directory on this Web site.

National associations for the nursery and landscape industry are AmericanHort and the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

In addition, many trade associations have professional certification programs. For example, PLNA provides the Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist (PCH). In addition, there are more specialized certifications, such as those offered by the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute (ICPI) for paver installation and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) for those who work on mature trees. Ask what certifications are held by the staff of the landscape contractor you are considering.  Click here for more information on the certifications that PLNA tracks.

Many trade associations have award programs that allow landscape contractors to show off their best work. Ask the landscape contractor you are interviewing how many awards they have won and ask to see them. PLNA annually holds the Awards for Landscape Excellence, judged by an independent panel. Many of the photographs that you see on this Web site are from companies that have won awards in this annual statewide competition.

You will want to make sure that the landscape contractor you choose has adequate liability and workers’ compensation insurance should any accidents happen while their employees are on your property. Ask for their insurance company, policy number and contact information, then call and confirm they have coverage in force. The Pennsylvania Home Improvement Contractor law requires that companies doing more than $5,000 in business per year, have liability insurance of not less than $50,000.

Probably one of the best ways of checking the reputation of the company you are considering is to ask for three to five references who have had similar work done within the past two years. Then put together a series of questions and call the references. Ask about the nature of the work, quality, timeliness, would they hire company again?, etc. Ask if you can stop by and see the finished product. Most people will be happy to show off their new landscape.

You may also want to check the local Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against the company.

Ultimately, everything that you are expecting the landscape contractor to do for you should be reduced to a written contract. In Pennsylvania, landscape contractors that do more than $5,000 in home improvement work per year must be registered with the attorney general and incorporate specific language in the contract required by law to protect consumers. For more information on the requirements of the Home Improvement Contractor law, click here.

Many times reputable landscape contractors will have a standard contract that can be amended with the particulars of your job. The contract should incorporate the landscape plan and a detailed written scope of work, including the completion timetable and payment schedule. Most landscape contractors will require a down payment to bind the contract and begin work, then additional payments as certain milestones are met in the project.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, weather is one variable that neither homeowners nor landscape contractors can control. Be reasonable in your expectations if the weather conditions hold up a portion of your project. Your landscape contractor knows when the quality of work might be compromised by the weather and will advise you.

OK, Now Start!
The Web is a good source of preliminary information on landscape contractors. Follow this link to the searchable list of landscape contractors.

Insider Tips
"Understand that landscape designers are artists. Each artist tends to have a specific style. Look at their portfolio and, if possible, jobs they’ve done in the past. Do you like Monet, Picasso, Gaudy, etc. Pick someone whose jobs match your taste as closely as possible. It will be easier for both of you to come up with a design you like.

If you pay for the design, you can then take it to any landscape contractor you wish. You might like one firms designs and another firms construction techniques. If you bid the job, the price that’s way cheaper almost always is not giving you everything the others are. Either the plants are not as nice and healthy or the workmanship is not as good or the other materials are not the same quality. Think about other things you buy. If you price the exact same car, most dealers are going to be fairly close. They have to or they’ll go out of business. The same is true for landscape contractors."

Phin Tuthill
R. P. Tuthill & Associates

"Is the company staying current and hip? ...check out the company on Facebook!"

Travis Breininger
Nature's Accents Landscape Services, Inc.

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