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How to Choose a Contractor

Choosing a contractor is probably one of the most difficult decisions that homeowners face on a regular basis.  All you have to do is listen to all of the horror stories consumers share regarding their experiences with bad contractors:

  • not returning phone calls,
  • leaving the job unfinished,
  • poor workmanship,
  • using substandard materials,
  • damaging the homeowner’s property,
  • leaving the worksite a mess,
  • not showing up for work,
  • inappropriate language and dress code,
  • stealing from the homeowner,
  • drug and alcohol use while working…and the list could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

So, what is the number one way for contractors to gain customers:  Word of Mouth!

Word of Mouth Advertising

We value the testimonies and reviews that our existing customers share with us as well as sharing them with their neighbors, friends, and family.  It is a well-known fact that when a consumer has a negative experience with a contractor, restaurant, or a store that the consumer usually shares that information with at least 10 people right away (or in the case of social media hundreds or thousands of people right away).  However, sometimes the opposite is true when a consumer has a fabulous experience with a contractor, and that’s unfortunate.  My hope is that we can all learn to spread the positive more often than the negative.

What is the first step you should take when looking for a contractor?

  1. Ask your friends, family, and neighbors if they know a contractor they can personally recommend.
  2. Visit a local garden center or distributor and ask them for recommendations. Don’t be afraid to ask them for their top 3 contractors.  Also, if you have a specific need, like you want someone who is good with custom designs and ideas or a local family-owned business, just ask them which contractor fits that bill.

Research, Research, Research

The second step you should take is to do a little bit of research on the contractors you are considering before giving them a phone call.  Why is any of this important?  Because the first thing you need to establish is, "Is this a legitimate business?"  Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where there are fraudulent businesses and scams as well as con-artists and "fly by night" companies, but probably one of the worst offenders is the guy who decides to start a "side" business to make a little extra money.  These guys (and gals) usually don't have the licenses and insurances required to protect themselves or the homeowner, but they are usually less expensive than the professional. For example, take the guy who has a pick-up truck with a trailer hauling a lawn mower.  He goes around the neighborhood mowing grass and maybe doing a little bit of mulching in the evenings and on the weekends.  His customers love him, and he's less expensive than the professional mowing companies.  Then one day a customer asks him, "Do you install paver patios?"  The guy responds, "Sure, I can do that."  Here's the first problem:  Under Maryland Law, a mowing company is not required to have a MHIC (Maryland Home Improvement Contractor's) license; however, as soon as a hired individual puts a shovel in the ground--to dig a tree, plant a flower, or excavate for a patio--this license is mandatory.  Secondly, there's a whole lot more to properly installing a paver patio than just laying some bricks on the ground. Now, obviously it is entirely up to the homeowner if they want to take that risk.  But, if you end up having a problem, good luck getting it resolved.  As my husband, Tom, always says, "You are free to make your choice, but you are not free from the consequence of that choice--good or bad."

Here are a few suggestions for things to look for:

  1. Explore their website. A website is a snapshot of the company.
    • Does it look professional?
    • What is your first impression?
    • Do they have pictures of their work?
    • Are there any customer testimonials?
    • Is the website useful and informative?

  2. Check different media outlets for company reviews.
    • Facebook
      • Do they post regularly?
      • What are people saying?
      • What is their review rating?

    • Google+
      • Do they have a profile?
      • Does the company location show up on Google Maps?
      • Do they have any customer reviews?

    • Houzz
      • Are they active on Houzz?
      • Do they have any customer reviews?
      • If consumers are asking questions, do they respond?

    • Videos
      • Does the company have a YouTube Channel or Facebook Videos?
      • Do any of the videos show actual construction footage (not just pictures)?

  3. Checking their credentials and licensing.
    • Is the Contractor licensed to do business in your state?
    • For landscaping, does the contractor have a Plant Dealer’s License?
    • For hardscaping, is the contractor ICPI certified to install pavers?
    • For hardscaping, is the contractor NCMA certified to install retaining walls?
    • For water features, is the contractor Certified by Aquascape?
    • Does the contractor carry worker’s compensation insurance for the employees in case they get hurt while working on your property?
    • Does the contractor have a commercial liability insurance policy to cover any accidents while working on your property?

Right now you're just trying to establish legitimacy, and whether or not you could work with this company.  If you are satisfied with the results of your research, then the next step is to request an estimate.  Please understand that while you are in the process of locating the perfect contractor for your project, your contractor is also looking for the perfect customer to work for.  This is when the mutual interview process begins. Not every contractor is a “fit” for every homeowner; likewise, not every homeowner is a “fit” for every contractor. This is what contractors call “The Pre-Qualification Process," and it works both ways.

The Pre-Qualification Process

For Kingdom Landscaping this is a time of gathering as much information as possible from the homeowner before setting up an appointment for an in-home consultation.  This step is very important.  Why?  Because all time is valuable—yours and ours.

Here’s what you can expect when you contact Kingdom Landscaping.

  1. We are going to ask you to “Send a Picture.”
  2. Tell us what you want: Landscaping – Hardscaping – Waterscaping
    • Give us details of your project.
    • Provide a rough sketch if possible with dimensions.
    • Have a budget in mind; we are going to ask you how much you want to spend.

  3. We will respond with a FREE ESTIMATE by email giving you a ballpark price based on the information you provide us with.
  4. If you are okay with the projected price range, we will schedule an in-home consultation. At this time the contractor will advise you if there is a fee for the consultation and how much that fee will be.  The fee is deducted from the balance due on the executed contract.

For additional information, please read my other blog post, Communicating with Contractors 101.

Meeting Your Contractor in Person

By now, after receiving a “Word of Mouth” referral, after researching your contractor online, and after a phone call and a few emails, you should be getting a “feel” for the contractors you are interviewing.  As a matter of fact, maybe you’ve already narrowed your search down to one or two contractors. Why is it important to spend so much time on choosing a contractor?  One word:  TRUST.  You need to be able to TRUST the contractor you are choosing.  This contractor is going to be working on your property.  This contractor is going to be around your children (if you have kids).  This contractor may be going in and out of your home.  You need to trust them. It is important that all decision makers are present during this first meeting.  Generally allow for a minimum of one hour of your time with the contractor. If you haven't already asked these questions by email, here are a few questions to ask during your face-to-face meeting:

  1. Will you be on the job overseeing your employees?
  2. Do you have any nearby jobs that I can visit in person?
  3. Who will be working at my home? Do they speak English?
  4. Do you have a list of references that you can provide, and can I call them?
  5. Do you provide itemized estimates?
  6. How long do you think it will take to complete this job?
  7. How soon can you start the project?
  8. What time do you start working in the morning? When do you quit for the day?
  9. Do you work weekends?
  10. Do you offer a warranty?

Making the Final Decision

Depending on the project, are you prepared (based upon the free estimate you received by email) to make a decision to sign a contract and pay a deposit during that initial meeting in order to get on that contractor's work schedule?  This is something you need to think about ahead of time and be prepared if you are ready to move forward with the project.  Likewise, are you prepared to tell the contractor up front that your answer is no? Be honest with the contractor.  If you decide after the face-to-face meeting that you just don’t like this contractor (for whatever reason) and you have no intentions on hiring them, let them know that before they spend 8 to 16 hours preparing your drawing and job proposal/contract.  That’s just professional courtesy.  In the same way, your contractor should be able to be upfront with you and tell you that they’re not interested in your project.  Fair enough? It is entirely up to you to make the decision on which contractor to hire.  What is important to you may not be important to someone else.  Maybe the contractor you really like doesn’t meet all the criteria listed above; it’s up to you to weigh out the pros and cons.  One thing is for sure, price alone should NEVER be the deciding factor.  As the saying goes, “The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low pricing fades."

Final Thoughts

Maybe you’re wondering why I would bother taking the time to write this article.  Well, after more than 20 years in business, I’ve spoken with hundreds of homeowners that chose the wrong contractor the first time because they didn’t do their homework.  Just recently (fall 2016) we were hired to fix a large hardscape project that was installed incorrectly seven years ago.  Where’s the contractor?  Out of Business!  The homeowner spent $50K on this project originally and ended up spending close to another $20K to fix it.  This is just wrong.  The problem?  The hardscape project (patio and walls) were not installed per ICPI and NCMA guidelines.  Big price tag for a job installed wrong. Unfortunately, there are many, many contractors out there who operating their businesses illegally without a home improvement license as well as contractors who are installing patios, retaining walls, and water features without sufficient training and education.  These companies may look good on the outside--business cards, nice truck, website--but please take the time to do your research before hiring them.   We work very hard, and we invest money every year in our employees for continuing education and training.  This is important to Kingdom Landscaping, and we are proud of our accomplishments.  Quite honestly, it is disappointing when we “lose” a job bid to another contractor when that contractor is not licensed or adequately trained in this industry, and we know the homeowner isn't going to get a long-lasting project. My desire is that this article will help you “Choose the Right Contractor”  even if it isn’t Kingdom Landscaping.

  • Jodi L. Tyler, President/Partner – Kingdom Landscaping