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Tips, questions and secrets to contracting a landscaper

Joe speaks with Mike Duncan a local landscaping professional about the questions to ask and services to expect when seeking a landscaping contract for your community.


Joe Wise:         As boards consider their landscape contract, it’s important to understand the variables that ultimately drive price.


Female:            Welcome to Community Wise, brought to you by Wise Property Solutions.


Joe Wise:         I’m joined today by Mike Duncan, co-owner of East Tennessee’s Englewood Lawn and Landscapes.  Welcome, Mike.


Mike:              Welcome.


Joe Wise:         Mike, what are some common misunderstandings that you see homeowners associations’ and condominium association boards make when they begin the process of considering taking their landscape services out to bid?


Mike:              Well probably from the beginning, probably the most important thing that the board can do is to have a very clear and specific request on what they want a contractor to bid on.  A lot of times they’ll say they want a particular item and then as they receive bids they don’t really come back apples to apples.  So making sure that they are very specific in what they are asking for as far as quantity, quality, and what services they want ’cause it’s extremely helpful.


Joe Wise:         What are some examples of being specific that you’ve seen associations miss?


Mike:              Well, typically like for instance lawn care.  That’s kind of a general term and it can mean many things to many different people.  To me, lawn care means applications of fertilizer, **** leaf, weed control of insect and disease control.  To some, it means mowing.  So being specific on how many applications and what they want in those applications, and if they don’t know, which is fair, then to at least solicit some of that information from a qualified landscaper or from the University of Tennessee in regards to what type of program they should be running on their turf.  In that aspect, that’s one of the – that’s one thing that I typically find.  Another one is making sure that we have the quantities of service.  You know, one contractor may price in 32 mowings and another one may price in 28, and when the bid just calls for mowing throughout the season then which one are you getting.  Are you getting 32 mows or are you getting 28 mows?  It’s these little things that can start adding up and one contractor will look more expensive than the other but in reality he’s probably going to do a lot more.  So if they can look at those.


Joe Wise:         And probably along those same lines, what happens if the contractor bids 28 and ends up needing 29 or 30, where the contractor who bids 32 and ends up only mowing 30.  How that difference is accounted for?


Mike:              Well, and some times that difference can be accounted by the contractor coming back and asking for additional funds that he only priced in.  And some times, unfortunately, it may be that the contractor will look at other areas that he can maybe not perform as well in to compensate for the fact that he’s having to mow additional areas.  So, again, the nice thing about a homeowner association’ is they’re not supposed to have to be out there to police and follow up on their contractors.  So if they do all their prep and homework from the very beginning, they’ll find that it’ll self-police itself.


Joe Wise:         Okay.  When you’ve seen RFPs or requests for proposals specifically for landscapers tell me some of the strengths and weaknesses of those that you’ve seen over your career with Inglewood.


Mike:              Well, some are very detailed.  Some proposals that I have given in the past have been so detailed that the homeowner association actually had to go back and downsize it because what they were truly asking for was way outside of the budget that they had to spend.  Some are very vague and have been very challenging for me to even attempt to give them a price because I don’t truly understand what they’re looking for.  A lot of times they’ll say they want a service, especially if it’s chemically related, and they need to make sure that the people that are bidding on that have a Tennessee Charter Number.  That is a number that is issues by the State that allows companies for hire to be able to apply pesticides to a property.  If that company does not have that Charter then they really can’t do that work unless they’re going to potentially sub it out to another company that does have that Charter.


Joe Wise:         And that’s going to be pretty universally true across state lines.  We serve clients in other communities and have listeners outside of Tennessee and that’s generally going to be true within the state of the association.


Mike:              Yes.  Most states – Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia – they all have a pesticide license or regulatory service that requires a company that is for hire to have some type of licensing before they can apply pesticides to properties.


Joe Wise:         When you look out at homeowners associations’ and we work with homeowners associations’ as do you.  Very often they are trying to balance what I’ll call Walt Disney World expectations with County fair budget.  What are some of the mistakes you see associations making when they’re trying to maximize their budget and where are opportunities to maximize their budgets that you see them missing?


Mike:              Well, sometimes, and a lot of situations when the association was under construction and originally built there was no say so in the plant material or the things that were originally planted.  In some cases, we’ve done some consulting work for some homeowner associations’ and we would make recommendations like just take certain things out.  The absence of a plant or a section of plants that are fast-growing that are constantly needing trimming and pruning, in the long haul removing it from the property might be the best way to handle a situation where there’s not extra funds to continuously keep trimming and trimming.  Sometimes it’s removing plants that are highly prone to insect and disease.  So sometimes going through and looking at your property, maybe the answer is to remove things and to take out some of the items that are going to cost you maintenance over the next five to ten years.  Sure, they’ll be maybe an initial cost of doing some removals or some corrective pruning, you know.  I know a lot of people do a lot of sheering of plant material and we do too because it’s quick, it’s fast.  We can get a lot more cut.  Is it the right thing for the plant?  Not in all cases.


Joe Wise:         And can actually, in many cases, create more problems, some maintenance issue down the road.


Mike:              It can.  It can be unhealthy for the plant and it can cause a lot of insect pressure that is being caused by the cultural practices and sometimes it’s best just to do selective pruning.  Now, of course, that does cost more because it takes a little bit more time, but in the long haul it may end up – it may cost you less.


Joe Wise:         And that’s, I think, ultimately what associations are trying to do; they’re trying to look at I’ve got X number of dollars to spend and how can I get the greatest amount of value out of those dollars.  I think that’s where looking at landscaping as a long-term project and not a short-term fix is probably a prudent way to look at it so that you don’t come at it and say, okay, we’re going to hire this landscaper and six weeks from now the place is going to look radically different, because it didn’t get to the place its at today in six weeks.  So talk a little bit about how to manage your own expectations of a new landscaper and how to set reasonable benchmarks for progress so that we hire a new landscaper today, what are the first areas we should see noticed improvement?  And then progressively over time, how should we anticipate things improving over time with a good quality landscaper?


Mike:              Well, one of the advantages you have with a single-family home owning unit is you’ve got one-on-one and when you move to a multi-complex unit where you may have anywhere from 25 to over, you know, hundreds of different homeowners is you’ve got that many different expectations and you’ve got that many different sets of eyeballs and so forth that are looking at things.  And I’m going to take it back to every situation where I have been successful with a homeowner association is to open up the doors of communication and keep those doors open throughout the course of the contract period, whether it be a year, two years, or three and make sure that we have that constant communication so that we can continuously reset expectations and re-evaluate where things are at.  I mean, I may have a conversation with somebody today but I’m not going to remember it in three months.  Where if I can get back with them in three months or two months and so forth and sit down and we can share notes and talk about things that we talked about before.  Ask the contractors that are bidding, are you open to, are you willing to meeting with boards on a regular basis so that we can have these conversations.  All they notice is something doesn’t look right or something doesn’t – isn’t performing, but the homeowners probably don’t know why that’s happening.  Hopefully the qualified landscaper that is out there doing that work can identify the problem of what’s going on and, again, communicate it.  So I hope I answered that question.


Joe Wise:         Yeah.  You certainly did and I think, you know, regular meetings with the landscaper probably are not weekly events; they’re probably several times through a season because you’re not wanting to set up a dynamic where the board or the homeowners are necessarily managing the landscaper, ’cause that’s the value of the independent contractors, that’s the value of the expertise, but to keep a dialogue going that says, “Hey, we’re concerned about the shrug over here or this problem we’re seeing over there,” and come up with ways to address that.


Mike:              That is correct.  And I have found that typically on new properties I may meet with that homeowner association maybe two or three times the first year and as time goes on and we get to understand each other and they build confidence in me they don’t necessarily need me to come meet anymore.


Joe Wise:         Right.  And so basically just to kind of summarize the high points is as an associations considering when to go to bid.  When should they go to bid?


Mike:              Well, I would say that they ought to get it out as soon as they can.  I would think that if you’re most homeowner associations’ are on a physical year of January 1st through December 31st.  So if you can get those bid packages out in September of the prior year so that that gives the opportunity for the contractors to get out there and walk it and meet with you and discuss, and then give you a proposal that you can take before the board and have an answer or make a decision by January 1st.  A little bit of it will depend on the size of the property.  If it’s a fairly small unit with maybe 25 to 50 homeowners that’s fairly small, but if you’ve got a large complex that’s hundreds of units then the more heads up that you can give the contractors who’s going to end up getting awarded the work then the better job he’s going to have being ready to hit the floor running versus acquiring equipment and staff and things of that nature.


Joe Wise:         Don’t call ’em when it’s time to mow the grass.


Mike:              That would be a little stressful.


Joe Wise:         Yeah, exactly.  All right.  Well very good.  Well, so as associations and the volunteers who lead them through their homeowners association boards consider bidding landscaping, the first thing is define that request for proposal.


Mike:              Yes.


Joe Wise:         Make it as specific as possible…


Mike:              Yes.


Joe Wise:         …so that you know you’re paying for what you need and getting what you pay for.


Mike:              Yes.


Joe Wise:         And second to that is the process of developing that RFP, look for resources to help you develop that, and that can come in the form of your local extension agent, it may come in the form of a qualified landscaper, that it may be worth engaging them in the process and you may need to compensate them for this if they’re not going to be the guaranteed the contract, but to develop the RFP to make sure you’re putting quantifiable services in your RFP.  Put that out to qualified contractors early enough in the season so they can prepare a good bid and you can evaluate it and ask subsequent questions, and then once you award that contract your work isn’t done.  Make sure you keep lines of communication open so that you and your landscape contractor continually kind of true up expectations to services to make sure that you’re getting the most out of that relationship going forward.  Is there anything else you’d add to that?


Mike:              I think that pretty much nails it right on the head.


Joe Wise:         Well, Mike, I appreciate your taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today, and I hope our listeners will find this helpful.  Again, we are with Mike Duncan of Inglewood Lawn and Landscape.


Female:            This episode of Community Wise was hosted by Joe Wise and is a production of Wise Property Solutions.  For more helpful information, visit us on the web at wisepropertysolutions.com where you can view our blog and sign up for our eNewsletter.



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