Hiring a landscaper to make your yard the envy of the block? Choose carefully. You could wind up with a wasteland and a big bill to go with it.
1. "My sprays are killers."
Sure, you want your lawn to be as green as Yankee Stadium's outfield. But does your landscaper need to poison it in the process? Gloria Megee knows what harm grass-protecting pesticides can do. A few years ago, after a landscaper had sprayed pesticides onto the lawn of her Arlington, Va., housing development, Megee's bichon frise, Monique, started to nibble the grass. Seconds later the dog was vomiting; she would experience seizures throughout the night. Monique eventually became riddled with skin cancer and tumors. The cause? Megee's vet blamed it on the pesticides. "The poor dog's paws were totally raw from walking on sprayed grass," says Megee.
The Environmental Protection Agency has linked pesticides to Parkinson's disease, Hodgkin's disease and liver cancer. One of the major culprits in insecticide poisoning, Diazinon (an active ingredient in Ortho, Spectracide and Real-Kill, among many other pesticides), is so dangerous that the EPA has banned it from all household and gardening products as of 2004.
But a spiffy lawn and long-term health are not mutually exclusive. Rather than chemicals, some landscapers now use bug-eating birds, kelp spray and insects that prey on vegetarian pests (the ones that harm trees and plants). Says Steven Restmeyer, a landscaper practicing such techniques: "When landscapers deal with pesticides, they deal with liability and health issues, and they are replacing the natural process of the soil microbes that feed the plants."
2. "Don't expect a refund if your garden croaks."
A month ago your landscaper planted new shrubs in your front yard. They looked great-for a day. Now they look like a wheat field. The landscaper blames you for failing to water them enough. You blame the landscaper for buying bush-league bushes. Who's right? It doesn't matter -- the plants are dead, and don't expect your landscaper to cheerfully reimburse you.
Jeff Herman, co-owner of Herman Brothers Landscaping in Fairlawn, N.J., says landscapers get no money-back guarantee from the nurseries on the plants and shrubs they buy for homeowners: "They figure that the landscaper ought to know what he's doing." Still, that doesn't mean your landscaper can't provide you with some protection. While you'll have little chance to get a refund on such things as rose bushes (they're prone to bugs) or ground cover (for instance, ivy, which will die quickly if not watered), you should demand some kind of payback from the landscaper if it's obvious you properly cared for the plantings. "Show your landscaper the grass around the dead plant," says Hugo Davis, president of the Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Association, a trade organization for landscapers and nursery owners. "If it's green and thriving, well, then you did all the watering you needed to do."
3. "Hey, I'm not qualified to do the job, but so what?"
Michael Torquato wanted to take advantage of the well behind his new home in Port Charlotte, Fla. So he hired a landscaper to build an irrigation system that would provide fresh, free-of-charge H2O. The plan quickly sprung a leak. The landscaper ended up connecting the irrigation system to a city water pipe -- a maneuver a city inspector later told Torquato was illegal.
Torquato's bigger mistake? Hiring a landscaper to do work he's not licensed for. (He should have had a well-driller's license.) Licensing regulations involving landscapers differ from state to state. Still, with jobs that result in water running underground (and possibly flooding your basement in a big and costly way), James Hsu, executive director of the New Jersey State Board of Architects, offers this rule of thumb: "Unlicensed landscapers should not do anything involving grading or drainage. Some landscapers tell clients, 'Don't worry, I'm capable. I can take care of this.' Often, it's impossible to tell what they're capable of."
4. "My budget grows like a weed..."
How much fine print can there be in a contract with a landscaper? You might be shocked. In ant-size lettering you'll find the kinds of clauses that can raise an annual bill by 25%. For instance, you may be obligated to pay a $300 spring cleaning fee or get charged extra for the trimming and disposing of excess growth on bushes. And all of these fees may be applied at the landscaper's discretion and without your prior approval.
Why not include the charges up front, maybe even in the big print? "They're trying to make extra money without the (customer) being aware of it first," says Jeff Herman. He tries to avoid confusion by sending out fliers that keep his customers informed of work that needs to be done. Many competitors, he gripes, "don't even give the customer a chance to turn down the service."
5. "...and don't expect me to pass on any savings."
If you want a deal on bulbs and plants and topsoil, go shopping with your landscaper. He'll know how to trim the bill. "Nurseries have a secret code for landscapers on the price tags," says one New York-area landscaper. "There'll be 10 numbers, and I know which ones to look at to decipher the professional price, usually around 30% off of retail." He then charges customers the retail price for the plants and pockets the savings.
Some landscapers are known to be even more enterprising. "Fly-by-night landscapers go out, steal plants and then plant them in other people's yards," says Mary Ellen Burton, whose family-owned business in Frederick, Md., has been selling plants since 1929. "We had $8,000 worth of plants stolen from a model home. I guarantee (they're) in somebody's yard."
6. "I buy cheap plants-and you'll never notice."
There are some very good reasons you hire a landscaper to keep your garden looking like Versailles: You don't have the time or the know-how to do it yourself. And crooked landscapers thrive on this. "Less-than-reputable people will do whatever they can to get by," says Hugo Davis. One trick Davis says some landscapers favor: planting fast-growing bushes that are less expensive than slow-growing bushes, but will later require more care and labor from the landscaper. Also, instead of planting high-tech trees engineered to repel insects and resist diseases, they'll simply plant a cheaper, old-fashioned version -- a distinction you won't notice until the tree becomes riddled with fungus.
What can you do? Not much, according to Davis, who admits that even he can be tricked by look-alike plants. "It's similar to buying a car and being told that it gets 22 miles to the gallon," he says. "You won't know that for sure until you've owned the car for a while." All the more reason to choose a landscaper with a good local rep.
7. "I don't finish what I start."
Deborah Labate hired a landscaper she'd found in the Yellow Pages to plant trees and bushes at her Florida home. Before taking the job, the landscaper wanted $1,000 up front, $1,000 when the job started and $2,000 at the job's completion. Sounded legitimate -- until she gave him the initial $2,000. "I didn't see him for a week," LaBate recalls. "He'd tell me it was too cold to work, that it was raining, that the ground was too wet to dig. Anything to keep from working on my yard."
You might suggest that she file suit. Bad idea. "You can't prove fraud or deceit because these guys start the job seeming like they intend to finish," gripes Erin Mullen-Travis, a certified code-compliance officer in Charlotte County, Fla. "The way to protect yourself is to get job parameters in writing and parcel out the payments very carefully. If somebody asks for a 50% deposit, that should throw up flags." A more agreeable figure is 30%. Mullen-Travis says that if you do run into a snag with a landscaper, consider going to small-claims court -- "especially if money was given and no work has been done. Under any law, that is theft." Or just do what LaBate did. "I relentlessly called the landscaper -- every day," she says. "Finally, he came back, and I told him, 'Finish the job, this week, or I'll become your worst nightmare.'" The threat worked. LaBate says she now has the best lawn in the neighborhood.
8. "What I'm doing won't make your home more valuable."
Good landscaping can keep a home's value blooming. Debby Bright, a real estate broker in Gilroy, Calif., estimates that homeowners can recoup 150% of their landscaping costs when they sell. The one hitch: You need the right landscaping. Oleander bushes, for example, look great, but they're poisonous and a turnoff to botanically knowledgeable house hunters.
Bright's ideas for home-enhancing landscaping include trees that block noise and shrubs that create a sense of privacy; you don't want just a large, house-exposing lawn. While Bright points out that lattices and high hedges are more appealing than brick-and-cement walls, one quaint touch to avoid is climbing ivy. "It attracts roaches and termites. You'll think your landscaper's ivy is very nice until you are about to sell your house, you have a termite inspection and wind up spending $8,000 to resolve the pest problem."
9. "My workers chug your beer when they should be mowing your lawn."
A man in arizona claims that his landscaper stole pills from his medicine cabinet. A Tennessee woman says she left a group of landscapers home alone, then later discovered they went down to her basement to drink her beer and play eight ball on her pool table.
Because the landscaping profession has a generally low barrier of entry, homeowners need to be particularly vigilant in checking references and finding out about a company's track record. Mary Ellen Burton says be wary of so-called pickup truck landscapers. These nefarious gardeners will affix magnetic signs to their trucks as identification rather than using the more permanent painted-on logos. But their inexperience can do lasting damage. Burton says these landscapers will commit such mistakes as applying too little mulch to soil or planting a tree too deeply. She has even seen landscaped homes with Leyland cypress planted near the front door -- a major foliage faux pas. "Typically, Leylands are used as a screening plant," says Burton, but if you plant one too close to the house, "in two years it will grow to be as tall as your entryway." To avoid such foul-ups, make sure the landscaper has liability insurance (about $1 million is a reasonable amount of coverage), and vet him through the Better Business Bureau.
10. "I'll make the neighbors hate you."
You're relaxing on a crisp autumn afternoon, planning to do nothing more than catch the Rams-Packers game on TV. Suddenly, your couch time is blasted to pieces by the roar of a leaf blower. Suburbia's equivalent of Black Sabbath practicing in your basement, leaf blowers can pump out 75 decibels of rumbling, high-pitched noise. How bad can it get? Last December, in the posh New Jersey town of Far Hills, Chubb CEO Dean O'Hare had a gardening crew working on his 20-acre estate day and night, letting their leaf blowers rip. Neighbors complained so much that a town ordinance was proposed to limit the hours of noisy leaf blowing.
O'Hare and his crew should take a tip from the gentle people of Palo Alto, Calif. The city has set hours when leaf blowers can be used (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week), and landscapers must take a "leaf blower etiquette" course offered by the Palo Alto police department. They're also required to use low-noise leaf blowers. "We tell gardeners to use the full extension on their leaf blower," says Lieut. Don Hartnett. "That allows it to run at fewer rpms, so the motor doesn't need to work as hard -- or as loud."