The ‘Really Good Price’ Story

Consumers face a steep challenge selecting landscape contractors nowadays. An abundance of landscapers declare themselves ‘design, build, and maintenance experts’. Most every other industry separates these into 3 individual companies, however, landscapers claim to tackle them all. Maybe, but proceed with much caution.

A Common Landscape Project Story

A small landscape company may consist of the owner, and his two guys – Main Guy and Not Main Guy. They spend 2-3 days a week cutting lawns, 2-3 days a week pruning, mulching, doing small planting jobs, and the occasional patio/ walkway job.

Business owner (let’s call him Pat) got a call from a lawn customer, asking if he can build a big patio for them. Pat heard that some companies charge $12/sq ft for patios, those cheap pavers he saw cost $3/sq ft, he figures he should sell the 500 sq ft patio for $6000. Pat adds up his cost for material to be around $2000, his two guys cost him $360/ day, he thinks he can do the work in 3 days. Wow, good for Pat, but watch out, homeowner.

Pat and his guys start the job on a Friday thinking if they work fast, they might get it done in two days. Pat promises beer to his guys if they finish Saturday. They began at a feverish pace.

Quickly, the area they are digging out marked in orange paint feels rocky. Pick axe and shovel prove to be semi worthy tools, Pat and his guys take turns with the pick axe, proving themselves even less worthy. There is discussion of a machine rental to speed production. Pat thinks there is still plenty of profit even with a day’s rental. Pat take off in search of a machine with an order for the guys to try and dig out the patio edges with the hand tools, and figures he’ll be back in an hour.

3 hours later, Pat returns with a battered, spray painted light blue dinosaur of a machine, BK lunch for the guys, and a story how he is lucky to even have gotten a machine because the first two rental places were out of them. Pat believes the machine will be his ‘parting of the seas’ for this project.

Pat sees his guys only dug out 2 edges of the patio. Main Guy says shovel broke trying to dig out the rocks and the old wooden pick axe handle is splitting apart. They’ve been digging with the metal tine rake, which is now bent. Pat needs new tools now to get this job done. He unloads blue Dino, Not Main Guy says he knows how to operate said machine, and demonstrates how he can move backwards, forwards, and scrape the bucket on the driveway. Pat warns to be careful, and promises to return in 30 minutes with new shovel, pick axe, and rake.

Pat speeds back 90 minutes later with $285 spent on new tools, excited to see the progress. He sees there are only 2 or 3 buckets of rock/ dirt in the driveway. Turns out Not Main Guy dug too deep and ripped up what appears to big a water line or a drainage pipe. It is leaking because the couple of scoops blue Dino dug out is now filled with some dark water. It is flooding out through the ruts that Not Main Guy made across the lawn.

3 Saturdays later, Pat and Main Guy claimed to have finished the job. Not Main Guy left for new job opportunity… now that he is self qualified as an experienced machine operator. Homeowner is unhappy and won’t pay Pat final payment until:

  • Torn up lawn is repaired
  • Driveway blacktop is repaired and power washed
  • Low spot on patio is fixed
  • Light pole Pat backed into with the fancy, orange machine loading up the 3/4 pallet of leftover pavers he had to buy because he was short of 50 sq ft material from Main Guy dropping the pallet while unloading it off the truck, is straightened out

Blue Dino ruptured a fuel line and spewed diesel, which required a flat-bed pickup from the not-so-nearby rental company. At least they brought Pat the fancy, orange machine to rent for the same price at $350/ day.

Now the client is obviously not pleased, Pat has paid out almost $6000 to do this job, and he won’t return the client’s phone calls because he now has another patio job to start that he thinks he can make good money on to make up for the last one.

Morale of the Story

Referrals, reputations, and responsiveness trump ‘really good price’ for customers seeking quality projects done. A healthy company requires a strong foundation. Registrations, licensing, insurances, on the book employees, rave and real reviews, an actual office or showroom are factors that count and cost when selecting a contractor.

Does the salesman show pictures of previous jobs of similar projects, and offer to bring them to see a certain project, and meet that homeowner? Will the estimate provide guidelines for excavation depths, gravel base requirements, and man hours? What about a warranty or a service contract?

This unhappy client would have had a uniquely different experience, and patio, had he not passed on what seemed to be the expensive estimate from the larger company, with the designer/ salesman they really liked and had decades of great experience.

Plastic trax would have protected their lawn areas. Well maintained equipment and tools, as well as trained and supervised employees, would have sped up production. A raised curbstone edge around the patio would secure the borders and minimize debris accumulation on the patio. The annual service contract would keep the pavers sealed, jointed, and looking like new.

Really good price? Really?

Remember the Takeaway

Skilled labor isn’t cheap, and cheap labor isn’t skilled. Hire accordingly.


Judd Mandell is Landscape Operations Manager and Designer with Fitz’s Fish Ponds in Green Brook NJ. He has been buried in the landscape industry since 1987. Hobbies include raising chickens, growing veggies, and reading. Contact Judd at