CLCA East Bay Chapter
How to Hire a Licensed Landscape Contractor

Sooner or later, most people will hire someone to landscape their house, an apartment building they own, or a city block of business offices. Regardless of the size of the landscape project you're contemplating, its success may well depend on some careful planning and the hiring of a landscape and irrigation contractor who is licensed by the state.

Why a Licensed Contractor?

State law requires anyone who contracts to do landscape work to be licensed by the Contractors State License Board, if the total price of the job (including labor and materials) is $500 or more. Licensed contractors are regulated by laws designed to protect the public, are bonded, and must complete four years of journey- or higher-level experience in the same trade to apply for a license. Unlicensed persons, typically, are not bonded and may not have liability or workers' compensation insurance. If you hire an unlicensed person, you may be financially responsible if injuries, fire, or other property damage results.

Planning and Preparing

Producing a finished job that looks good and will endure requires skill and knowledge of landscape and irrigation materials, and proper installation methods.

You should ask any contractor you consider hiring for advice on types of irrigation controllers, plant sizes, and ground preparation that will enhance your property for years to come. To ensure a quality job, you should discuss with your contractor any possible inconvenience your landscape project will create. For instance, the patio furniture may have to be covered, your pet may have to be boarded, and vehicles may have to be moved.

Make necessary arrangements before work begins to prevent possible delays or other problems.

Choosing Your Contractor

One of the best ways to select a contractor is through recommendations from former customers who have recently contracted for landscape and irrigation work. Another source for referrals is the California Landscape Contractors Association.

But, regardless of recommendations, before hiring a contractor, you should:

  • ask for the contractor's state license number and call the Contractors State License Board to verify that it is issued for landscaping, is current, and is in good standing.
  • request a list of similar jobs the contractor has recently completed in your area. Look at the work and talk to the owners, if possible.
  • ask if the contractor has liability and workers' compensation insurance. Request certificates in writing.

Bids

It's a good idea to obtain more than one bid so that the prices and work offered can be compared. Request all bids in writing. Remember that the lowest price may not always be the best. The contractor may have made a mistake or may not have included all the work quoted by competitors. Be certain that each bid lists all the preparatory and finish work that the contractor has suggested, as well as the amounts and types of soil amendments, and brand of sprinkler equipment.

Bonding

A landscape contractor is required to have a license bond posted with the Contractors State License Board. However, this bond does not ensure that your job will be completed.

It's a good idea to ask your contractor to provide you with a "payment and performance" bond that covers the full price of your job. Although nothing can totally ensure your job will be completed, a payment and performance bond provides a financial guarantee against mechanics' liens (which can be filed against your property by subcontractors or material suppliers should your contractor fail to pay them).

A payment and performance bond also provides a source of funds for completing the job in the event your contractor does not do so. The bond should be for the full amount of your job, as the bonding company is only liable up to the amount of the bond.

A payment and performance bond will usually add one to five percent to the total contract price, but it can be well worth the cost, particularly on large projects.

A contractor must be financially solvent and have a proven track record to obtain a payment and performance bond. A contractor who is new to the business or who has a small operation may have difficulty in obtaining such a bond.

If your contractor is unable to provide you with a payment and performance bond, or if you want to use an additional method of security, you might consider using a joint control company. A joint control company is an escrow company that specializes in construction. Instead of paying the contractor directly, you pay the joint control company, which in turn pays the contractor(s), material suppliers, etc. A good company will inspect the project before making payments and provide a guarantee against valid mechanics' liens. In looking for a joint control company, check with your lender or contractor for recommendations.

Payment Arrangements

You should be cautious about contractors who ask for payments prior to beginning the job. Most landscape and irrigation contractors do not require a down payment; full payment is usually requested on completion of the job or in installments if the job will take a period of weeks. If a contractor does ask for a down payment, remember that on home improvement projects (including landscaping) the legal limit which may be asked is ten percent of the full price of the job (excluding finance charges) or $1,000, whichever is less.

If your contract provides a payment and performance bond covering your total job, or if a joint control company approved by the Register of Contractors is used, the cap on the down payment does not apply. Be certain that any down payment or schedule of installment payments is specified in exact dollars and cents in your contract. Make payments by check or money order, not cash.

Your Contract

The law requires that home improvement contracts over $500 must be in writing. But even if your job is less than this amount, you should INSIST ON A WRITTEN CONTRACT FOR YOUR OWN PROTECTION. A contract should contain:

  • the name, address, license number, and telephone number of the contractor, and the registration number of any salesperson involved
  • a complete description of the work to be done, materials to be used (including quantities and sizes of plant material and brands of irrigation equipment) guarantees on work and materials
  • approximate date when work will begin and be completed
  • a statement that the contractor will do any necessary clean up and removal of debris after the job is completed
  • a "Notice to Owner" explaining the state's mechanics' lien laws and the ways to protect yourself and your property
  • a statement that the contractor will furnish a payment and performance bond or joint control company, if this has been agreed upon
  • any guarantees made verbally on the work to be done or the materials to be used.

After the contract is signed, any changes that you and the contractor agree to make in the work or materials to be use must be in writing. The written change order must also include any additions or reductions in the total job price. If you have carefully planned the job and selected a licensed contractor, the job should proceed without any major problems.

If Problems Occur

Sometimes, in spite of all the precautions taken, problems will occur. If this happens, first contact your contractor. Usually problems can be worked out and corrections will be made willingly. If not, file a written complaint with the Contractors State License Board. The Board's staff assists consumers with questions about contractors and will investigate all valid complaints. For more information on the Contractors State License Board or the license status of a contractor, call: (800) 321-CSLB or consult your local telephone directory.

Copyright: California Landscape Contractors Association 2004 - 2013


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