Most people would agree that even the most upscale homeowner association could benefit from some well-tended, well-cared-for green spaces. According to the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), landscaping adds real, measurable value to your home and your neighborhood. The right landscaping can increase the value of your home by 15 percent, allowing owners to recoup 100 to 200 percent of their investment in plants, maintenance, and labor. Landscaping is one of the first things prospective buyers' notice when they visit a home. Realtors estimate that 95 percent of home shoppers will not even get out of their car if a property lacks what industry pros call "curb appeal."
Know What To Ask
While the importance of neat lawns and attractive grounds may be a no-brainer, homeowners and associations are sometimes at a loss as to how to work with landscaping professionals to achieve the optimal result. When hiring a landscape company, it's important to ask questions about the business. It's important to get facts about the company's knowledge, experience and philosophy before hiring someone to maintain your association's property or your own green area.
The New Jersey Cooperator recently asked several New Jersey-based landscaping experts what they think are the most important questions an HOA should ask a landscape contractor to make sure the company and the community are a good fit.
1. How do you feel we can be most successful at achieving our community's landscape goals while maintaining a cost-effective approach?
According to Doug Wood, project director with The Brickman Group, Ltd., a landscaping firm based in Bound Brook, "When searching for a landscape contractor, most communities send out a bid package to a number of contractors and ask that they respond with their best price. While all communities have budgetary restrictions, this approach is not beneficial to either the community or the contractor.
"If the board is serious about hiring a new contractor, it would be in the community's best interest to agree what their goals are and discuss with each contractor how to best achieve them. Make sure you are both on the same page and understand each other's vision. Understand what value-added services may come from hiring a particular contractor.
"Once the board agrees on their top candidates, price should be discussed. In the end, anyone can throw a low number at a job. The question is, are they going to come through with their promises and be a part of the solution, or are you going to be sitting around the table discussing this again next year?"
2. How long have you been in business and what is the size of your firm?
According to Rick Fry, a principal with RCP Management Company in Princeton, "It's important to see if the company has a good track record. If they've been in business for 12 or 15 years, that tends to be a positive indicator. Also ask how large the firm is. The level of supervision that goes with that staff size is very critical; most firms have a supervisor that will run maybe two or three crews that are actually in the community doing lawn cutting and maintenance of turf. They may service six or seven communities. If you have one supervisor that has to oversee between five and eight crews that are already extending themselves into nine or 10 communities, it pushes limits of that supervisor's capability and you lose attention to detail."
3. Do you have a maintenance schedule of work to be performed?
"The company should have service completion time frames, monthly accomplishment reports, communication whenever on site to perform service requests, and so forth," says Michael Branch, chief operating officer of DuBrow's in Livingston. "And the estimated labor hours per week and annually should be communicated to the board and manager."
4. What other services does your company offer?
"Nowadays, homeowner's associations use a real estate management company who farms out the work to the landscaping firms," says Lucian Kowalski, owner of the Capability Brown garden supply store and landscaping center in Saddle River.
"To make it easier, these management companies want one-stop shopping. Many landscaping firms branch out into different areas and you should know what the firms do aside from traditional landscaping work. For example, my firm also has masons on staff, and we can attack other projects in areas like that. I also have a paving contractor and a tree person; so look for a well-rounded contractor."
5. Does the company offer an organic program or an environmentally sensitive program?
According to the environmentally friendly landscaping website www.naturalchoice.net, "If this is something of interest to your association, ask the landscaping firm for details. For example, ask how this option differs from their chemically-based option."
6. What kind of accreditation do you or your employees have?
"This is especially important if you are doing a landscaping project this year versus just hiring a company for landscaping maintenance," says Kowalski. "Find out if the company's landscape architect been accredited by a national organization such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) or any other organization in good standing. Look for professional references and a list of current clients that they are doing work for."
7. How do you treat your employees?
"We're in the service industry," says Joshua Gamez, owner of U.S. Lawns of Bridgewater and U.S. Lawns of South Bucks and North Bucks, "and we're only as good as the guys in the field. So if I were a customer, I would want to know about the employees. What kind of things does the business do for the employees? Any decent company would give their employees ongoing training, have a very comprehensive safety program, and recognize any particular needs on an individual basis. Little things like that make the employees happy and make for a good company."
8. What is your hiring process like, and where do you get your employees?
According to Gamez, "In the landscaping industry, immigration is a huge problem—most homeowners don't realize how big of a problem it is. Some companies don't care about cheap labor, while others go out of their way to bring in labor the proper way. This is an important fact to learn about a company."
9. What sets your company apart from other landscaping companies?
"If I was a board member," says Gamez, "I'd like to know, what makes your company a zebra in a pack of horses? How do you define yourself? Hopefully any good company will have something that will set them apart from the competition."
10. Is your company fully insured and bonded?
According to Mike Rook, an account executive with The Hartford Insurance group in a recent article for the Insurance Journal, making sure your landscaper is insured against his/her employees' possible mishaps is second only to checking the company's references and past customer satisfaction in limiting your HOA's liability exposure. Given the nature of the landscaping and tree care business, those exposures include everything from workers falling from ladders, tree limbs falling on roofs or cars, equipment-related accidents, and workers' comp claims from on-the-job injuries. "There's a tremendous amount of exposure," says Rook.
Verifying your landscaper's insurance serves another purpose as well; few insurers will cover or bond a fly-by-night seasonal operator "who wanders neighborhoods in a beat-up truck with a chain saw," says Rook. By checking up on your contractor's insurance coverage, you gain another level of protection for your association. If a contractor can't prove his or her insurance coverage, that should raise a red flag for your association that perhaps he or she isn't the best choice for the job.
The Grass is Greener
The lawn care company your association hires will become a partner in maintaining a good-looking property for your community members. It's important to take the time to conduct a thorough search and ask the right questions before hiring anyone to work for your association, but even more so when the product of their labor will be on display for both residents and visitors alike to see.
For more information on hiring a contractor, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, Attention: Landscaping Brochure, 150 Elder Street, Suite 270, Herndon, VA 20170, or visit www.alca.org.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.