Wise Decisions – Sept.

September 2010 – PDF Download

Welcome to our September edition.  I recently met with a new client who inadvertently trusted the wrong landscaper. His story reminded me of how important it is for you to know how to select a credible contractor, and how working with one is a wise investment. Instead of doing it twice, you only do it once.

To put this homeowner’s story in perspective, I want to make note that I am in three to five homes weekly discussing landscape, and since the start of June I have only had three incidents of this nature. It is not the norm, but when it happens it is heartbreaking for the homeowner, and it hurts the industry at large. In the case of this particular hom-eowner, the contractor basically took the money and ran—leaving the backyard with a lawn literally under water with the balance of the yard dirt. I needed to teach the homeowner how to program his timer, to get control of the over watering and give the lawn a chance to dry out. So, with that clarified lets start.

First and foremost, make sure the contractor has a valid license that is in good standing. You can check this by going to the State Contractors Licensing Board. If there are any concerns, they will be noted under his license, just type in the company name. Also check to see that the contractor is bonded, which is a state requirement and it should be noted under his license. A contractor’s bond is basically an insurance policy for the homeowner. It is purchased via an insurance company, listed under his license, and you would call the insurance company directly to file a claim. In my field, contractors must carry a $12,500 bond, which would be released to a client upon proof that the contractor failed to fulfill his/her contract with the homeowner. The bond is released either because the work is not finished or it can be proven to be substandard. However, before the bond is issued as payment, the homeowner must give notice to the landscaper so that he has an opportunity to complete or correct the work. If he fails or chooses not to, then the money is disbursed to you. The insurance company will work with you in these matters, and act as a mediator between you and the contractor. Many times the contractor has lost the trust of the homeowner, and you as the homeowner must express that concern to
the bonding agent. I have been called upon to review other landscapers work and submit a statement in writing to the insurance company of my findings. I have no problem listing procedures that were done incorrectly, or below acceptable standards. As mentioned, it hurts all the trades when someone does not uphold correct procedures.

It is important to understand that the bond is not a ‘moneytree.’ The bond is a one time thing, which means that when it is paid out it is gone. That’s why checking the status of the contractor’s license is in your best interest. It is also possible that the bond amount is not enough to complete the work. This was the case for my new client, who had paid out more money than the bond would cover, so they are currently seeking legal advice. We will discuss how to avoid this problem shortly. First, we will look at other legal protection for the homeowner.

In addition to a license and bond, we are required to carry liability insurance. If we have employees, we must also provide workers compensation. Both insurances are very important. The liability policy protects you in case of damage to your property in the process of completing the job. Workers comp protects you in case an employee gets hurt while working on your property. Without workers comp, the worker can actually sue you! I carry copies of both policies with me, and list my insurance contacts in my contract.

Verifying that the contractor is properly licensed, bonded and insured will provide you with legal safeguards. It is also important to know what to expect with payment schedules. Like many landscapers, I take a deposit at the signing of the contract. Typically, the deposit is a thousand dollars, but the law says that the deposit is to be 10% of the job or a thousand dollars, whichever is LESS. From this point once the job has commenced, we have what are called progress payments, which are also typical. If the job is scheduled to take four weeks, I then divide the balance by four equal payments, less the deposit, and collect a payment each Thursday.

What I want you to understand is that these payments are called progress payments because they relate to actual, visible progress.This is where my new client made a mistake. He made payments to the original contractor without questioning the progress. If there is no progress, no payments should be made—no matter how the contractor pressures you or what kind of excuse he gives you about why he needs the money to proceed. Lack of progress, pressure for money and excuses are all very bad signs, and you should consider terminating the contract immediately.

The contract you sign is designed for mutual protection. You promise to pay the contractor for work done. He promises to do the agreed work with as strict regard to timing and budget as is within his control. It is entirely appropriate for you to hold your contractor accountable. Withholding progress payments when work is not progressing is one way to do that.

The last procedure that you need to be aware of is change orders. A change order is when something else about the job has been discovered or the client has asked for more services not included in the contract. Let me give you some examples. We often work on slopes when we are landscaping. Slopes are very difficult for several reasons, one is the composition of the soil. We have had jobs where upon digging or running irrigation lines we have hit lava. The lava can at times be broken through, in other words it is a thin sub-layer, other times it is too thick and we have to reroute our lines, or re-dig our holes. So because of this variableness in landscaping slopes I always forewarn the client that a change order for additional labor to complete the work may occur. Other times as mentioned, the client wants to “up size” the plant material, or add a water feature that they saw at a friend’s home etc., for this a change order would be given. The change order is an extension of the contract, and is to be treated as such with both parties signing. In this way expectations stay clearly defined, both in scope and price. In the end, we want a win win for contractors and homeowners, and following these steps is the best way to assure us of this—with one last addition.

Remember the truly unscrupulous contractor is the exception, not the rule. Understanding what to look for and what to avoid should help you feel more comfortable with the process but remember trust is key, steps and procedures are not a substitute for trust. It is steps and procedures with trust, that completes the whole “package”. If you are uncomfortable with a contractor—even if you’re not entirely sure why—you should not proceed. The contract defines expectations and responsibilities, but without trust the relationship and the job will suffer.

My purpose in speaking so frankly about contractors is not to scare you off, but to equip you to approach a landscape or any other project with confidence. Knowledge is a powerful tool. It helps you make wise decisions. I trust that the information I have provided here will help you to be confident as you approach your home improvement projects. Until next month, Good Gardening!

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, please use this article as a guide. If you need help, please do not hesitate to call at (916) 765-9040 or visit our website www.executivecareinc.com. Executive Care Landscape Management, Inc. is a local full service residential and commercial landscape company. We specialize both in commercial (H.O.A.s, etc.) landscape maintenance and residential custom installs and re-dos.  If you have missed previous articles, they can all be found on our website under publications. To schedule an at-home consultation click on “contact” then fill out the form. Lastly we appreciate the support of the community, and ask that if we do not return your call in a couple of days, that you would recall. I am not always able to understand the message.


In landscaping, there must be a flow, a rhythm. This is not achieved with notes or instruments, but with color, texture, size and shapes. As with music, there are parts that all the other notes and sounds seem to lead to—the high points of the composition. In landscaping, we call this a focal area. It is a part of the landscape that catches your eye, causing you to walk over and take a closer look.

There are several ways to create a focal point. You can use larger boulders, mounding, brightly colored flowers, pottery, spot lights or plants with interesting structure. As the pictures show, the most effective focal areas use a combination of these features. You ladies do this when you get dressed to go out. You start with a nice blouse and pants, or a dress and then you accessorize it with matching purse, shoes and jewelry. Individually, the elements of your outfit are attractive, but they are more exciting together. Each piece adds interest to the other so that the whole outfit gets our attention (mission accomplished), especially when you add your smiling face! The design of a focal point begins with the plant. You want to choose something so unique and/or lovely that it makes sense to build the landscape around it. There are just a few cate-gories of plants that are so “hot” that they could stand alone, particularly weeping, serpentine and bonsai plants. When these are accessorized with other elements, they become destination highlights in the garden –a place to go walk to, or to sit by.

Weeping, serpentine and bonsai plants are typically pricey, but cheaper than a pair of nice shoes, so it’s all relative. The pictures shown are those of Serpentine Blue Atlas Cedar and Serpentine Snowfountains Cherry. The Cherry is spectacular when in bloom and always a plant of interest when in leaf. The Cedar is such a strong feature with its heavy trunk and short gray needles that it is a year-round conversation piece. Both the Cedar and the Cherry are fabulous plants to light because their unusual shapes lend a kind of mystery to the garden. I often use these trees in Asian and or Northern Ca. landscape themes; I have even used them in English garden themes. So find a place and enjoy the beauty. Until next time- Blessings.

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Executive Care Inc.

Executive Care Inc.