Hiring a landscape contractor/pool company

mharris2007November 18, 2012

Hello! Boy am I glad to have found this place. Please let me know if I should be posting this in a different forum as well.

I have a large backyard and two large side yards that are currently dirt behind my new home. I need to hire a landscape contractor/pool company to get the job done and was hoping for some referrals. We have had 6 contractor/pool people out to the house and have been less than Impressed by this segment of the workforce. I was hoping for some assistance. We plan for a 20x40' pool with raised 9x9' spa, L shaped BBQ island, with ground lighting, grass, concrete, and plants. We have a reasonable idea of the design layout but need someone to help us get the job done. Maybe a landscape architect to direct? I don't know, but I refuse to be taken for a ride by these contractors.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. We are in orange county.


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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

There is a general process in construction that if followed will render favorable results.
First and foremost a good design should be developed.
Then after the conceptual design is finished a thorough set of construction plans is required so that you can obtain your building permits and receive competitive pricing based on the set of plans.
Your set of construction plans are a legal document . They will help the contractor(s) price the plans/ project accurately and it will ensure that you are not substituted a lesser quality than what was specified on the plans.

It is premature and foolish to ask contractors to provide a bid/ price proposal if you do not have a final set of building plans. Contractors are not mind readers. They will not know how to accurately price your job if they do not have an accurate and articulate set of plans to bid from.

A good set of construction plans will detail out the pool construction, call out the water line tile, spec the interior finish and the coping details.

The BBQ area will have all the appliances specified, the countertop materials + detailing , venting , backsplash, toe kicks, gas and electrical detailed.

A planting plan , a lighting schematic and all hardscape construction detailing will be documented so that accurate take offs can be done by the contractor so that you will be given an accurate price.

Once the contractor is selected you can opt to have the project administrated by the designer or an unbiased project manager for quality control. Fees for this service are either figured out by a percentage rate or by the hour.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2012 at 11:15PM
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Hi deviant,

I appreciate your insight. The way it has been going with our bids is the landscape contractor and/or the pool builder will make the design based on our input (which is the same for all of them) and price it out based on the design. All of the details u describe for a bid are included with all of the bids weve got. The process u are describing is what sounds like a landscape architect would do so that we would have a set of plans to have bid on.

We met with one landscape architect but did not like any of his prior jobs and was not in line with our conceptual direction. Is a landscape architect always 100% necessary for a job? From what I have gathered they are not but I could be mistaken.

Please let me know. Thanks so much.


    Bookmark   November 19, 2012 at 1:59AM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

A landscape architect is not always necessary for a residential installation.

It sounds like you are hiring the contractors to also be the designers.
In my experience most contractors are exceedingly good at construction but not exceedingly good at design.

As an example look at a highly regarded and experienced landscape designers portfolio and compare the design work to a landscape contractors design work. Chances are you will see a world of difference.
** go to the website HOUZZ which emphasizes good design work and then go the CLCA (california landscape contractors) website and compare the design ( not the construction but the design ) .

If you see a landscape contractors portfolio and you find the design work exceptional ask if they designed the project or if a designer designed the project in conjuction with them.

Some contractors have developed a fine eye towards design after years in the building trade, but generally speaking they are exceptional builders and not exceptional designers.

The question is, do you put a high value on good design work ?

    Bookmark   November 19, 2012 at 3:34PM
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A landscape architect (or designer) whom you have hired (as in, signed an agreement to pay them) will bust his or her tail to create a design that gives you what you want and gets you excited to build. A contractor who knows s/he is one of six (!) designing for free in the hopes of winning your business has a disincentive to put hours into the process. I'm always amazed that people seem baffled by this. Do you work for free?

    Bookmark   November 19, 2012 at 9:09PM
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I'll just add "ditto" to what Deviant has said. "...The way it has been going with our bids is the landscape contractor and/or the pool builder will make the design based on our input (which is the same for all of them)..." What FORM is the input in? ... verbal ... sketches on a napkin ... plans, specs. & details ...? If it's anything but the latter, you are not providing sufficient information to contractors for an apples to apples bid. If you are providing verbal information, or a list of components, even though contractors list and price these items, there's no guaranty that their finished products would match one another. Even with plans and specs. there's room for variables, and thus the need for designer construction supervision. You need a landscape architect or designer with hardscape expertise.

"We met with one landscape architect but[he] was not in line with our conceptual direction." What is unusual about the conceptual direction? Most designers are flexible to some degree about style, but most develop reluctance if urged toward implementing bad ideas... even if those ideas are considered great ideas by the owner. Don't know what yours are, but if they include anything unusual, you might want bring it up here for 3rd party input.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2012 at 9:16PM
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Thanks for the input. I've been trying to move towards a landscape architect, but my wife is resistant because she thinkks we'll have to go through the same process to screen the contractors when that time comes anyway. I really don't care about paying a landscape architect, that will just require the budget to be x dollars less than what it would have been.

What I am baffled by are people saying they are going to do one thing and either not do it at all or waste our time. If they don't want my $100k job then don't even show up and try to solicit my business offering xyz designs as part of the process. Apparently people on this board just like to be rude to any new person just trying to figure things out. Appreciate the reply marcinde.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2012 at 10:17PM
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Matt, let's return to your comment: "We have a reasonable idea of the design layout but need someone to help us get the job done. Maybe a landscape architect to direct? I don't know, but I refuse to be taken for a ride by these contractors.

Most of us have seen this exact scenario before. A "reasonable idea of the design layout" is not actually a design. It's a general idea that needs a great deal of refinement before it can be built and finished. Thinking that one can get bids or make contractor comparisons on a "reasonable idea" is not possible. In spite of this, IF YOU CAN FIND THE RIGHT CONTRACTOR, you can probably get him or her to turn your "reasonable idea" into a design that you're happy with. You won't save any money on the design fee because it will be included (hidden) in the price of the contracting work. Design takes time and skill and everyone--even contractors not expert at it--charges for it. What's being suggested is that you pay the design fee up front and have a qualified, experienced person hone that "reasonable idea" into a construction plan that is exact and specific. Then, when contractors bid on it, each knows every detail of the plan and will bid on the same, correct thing. You may possibly even recoup some of money you spent on the design fee by not wasting it in a flawed bidding and construction process. If you want value for your $ you cannot leave the design part of the construction process to contractors. Doing so would be a craps shoot.

If by chance you find one of those contractors that Deviant mentioned earlier who ARE capable of doing design because of their past experience, then you can stick with him or her, forget about other contractors and bidding, and just negotiate the contract instead. But finding such a contractor might take some doing and some luck. And you will still pay a fee for design quietly hidden in the work.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 12:24AM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

It might be helpful for you to visit a few forums where other homeowners have undergone the same process that you are now trying to navigate. ... or visit the ASLA website and click on residential design to read how a design professional can take you through the whole process from start to end.

My firm is a full service office so we help the customer understand all the various and sometimes complicated steps that will be required at the first meeting. We actually even have a detailed "Process" sheet that we send out by mail before we have our first meeting so that everything is covered and the client is fully informed of what to expect.
Most full service firms will help you navigate the Planning and Building Departments, interview and choose a contractor(s) , engineers ( if required) review + choose materials, understand any change orders, and over see the project.

Most people have no idea how a modestly large scale landscape project gets off the ground and running.
Do you know that you will most likely have two fees to pay even before you dig a hole ? There is going to be the Plan Check Fee and then the Permit fee.

We have just finished up one set of plans for a pool and surrounding landscape and there were 22 full sheets in the set of drawings. That represents alot of information. ... Granted the project is quite complex with a pool built on a 1.5 to 1 hillside and a full pool house. There are 7 pages of just structural details.

Even if your project is pretty simple and straight forward I think you will benefit greatly from having an advocate ( that's what we designers are ) on your side helping you navigate the process.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2012 at 3:52PM
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Matt, first time posters to this Forum are often confused and sometimes downright shocked by answers received to their queries. Lurking and reading here is a cadre of landscape professionals who no longer share their expertise. They used to in the early days but have given up. Please note that one of the top CA designers has taken the time to provide you with very professional advice. You are most fortunate to receive her guidance and thoughts.

May I suggest that the next time you build your dream house you might consider hiring both types of architects, house designer and landscape architect, at the same time. For some reason it is seldom recognized that the 'yard' is an extension of the house. There are many benefits when the two are planned together including working with persons who know the best contractors in the area for specialized services. Cost benefits and guidance through the permit process are realized, also. Makes sense to have a complete package together, building and landscaping, before construction begins.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2012 at 10:20AM
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One other thing should be noted about having a set of plans. It shows the contractor that you are quite serious, know exactly what you want, and all they need to do is build it.

When you don't have a solid plan, you are essentially telling the contractor that (s)he has to invest in an effort at designing the pool which you unwilling to do. That is not a strong pre-qualifier for a viable client (this is confirmed by the fact that 6 contractors have been interviewed and none have been hired). That does not make you a bad person, just naive. Instead of an all out effort to land your job, you get what is essentially an equal effort back from the contractor - a quickie design to see if you bite or a recycled plan from someone elses back yard.

It is very rare that a contractor, or a designer for that matter, will be comfortable making a bigger effort, prior to getting paid, at getting the priveledge to work on your project than you will make to have the priveledge of them working for you.

I don't charge for initial consultations, but I will not work for people who say "go by the house, look at it, and give me a proposal". If I have to show up, you have to show up. It is not a matter of respect, it is a matter of showing that you are committed.

Without that, those contractors know from experience that it is more likely a waste of time - that you might be doing the same with 5 other contractors and no one gets the job ...... and the proof is in the pudding because that is exactly what happened.

Take control. Hire a designer, whether it is a landscape architect, a very experienced designer, or a design/build contractor and pay for just the design. Everyone else will take you very seriously and put a lot more effort in landing your job because they know you are committed.

No slam on you here. You just did not know what the people you are trying to work with go through, what they learned from experience, and how they protect themselves from wasted effort. Now you know and can take control.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2012 at 8:01AM
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I would say that you're very smart not to get your hope going about these several contractors that you've already talked to. Something that is especially impressive is that you talked to so many contractors and didn't get sucked in with just wanting to get the job done. With this big of a job, being able to have someone who you know that is experienced in some way with contracting, would be a great option. I personally would just keep looking for contractors until I found someone that I felt was being honest with me.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2015 at 9:09PM
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