Landscape Budgets: What You Need to Know!

Landscape Construction Design - TIS ServicesSo you just closed on a house or maybe you are building one from the ground up.  Perhaps you are installing a swimming pool in your backyard or maybe you’re just tired of looking at the same old landscape.  Whatever the reason, you are ready for a change and whether you’ve done this before or not, you probably have a lot of questions.  High on that list of questions is: How much does a landscape cost?  What should my budget be?  Why is one contractor priced so high and one so low for what appears to be the same work?  If I want to reduce costs, where can I safely do it without affecting quality?  TIS is here to help so whether you are moving forward with us, or another company, these are the things you will want to know:

What should my budget be?  One of the great things about landscape projects is that they are a lot like building a house or buying a car; you can get something on just about any budget.

  • Getting it Out.  Talking budget can be a real source of anxiety for some.  A lot of homeowners don’t want to throw a number out there for fear of spending too much or the worry that a contractor will take advantage.  Unfortunately designing and installing landscape doesn’t come with a box-price because landscape construction can cover so much; turf, beds, edging, hardscape work, lighting, drainage, irrigation, planters, pots, fountains, sculptures, gazebos, outdoor kitchens… you get the point.  Like building a house, you can get something on most budgets and any reputable contractor will need to know what you are looking to spend.  Limiting the landscape to turf and beds still does very little to help a contractor when it comes to pricing because the type or turf (St. Augustine or Zoysia), the selection of plants in the beds (1 gallon, 3 gallon, 5 gallon), the edging (stone, steel, prefab, custom) all change the cost significantly.  The budget can be tough to talk about but it is incredibly important to the overall success of the project and to ensure that you and the contractor are on the same page.  Don’t worry, set your budget and then look for additional value before signing a contract as the proposal starts to take shape.
  • The Ten Percent Rule.  Many of the more reputable companies and contractors will start with a preliminary budget of ten percent of the value of the home for complete landscape renovations.  This is only a starting point and many clients will spend more, while others will spend less.  The American Society of Landscape Architects suggests five to ten percent and we not only agree with this as a starting point, our data suggests that’s where most clients end up without even knowing about the rule.  Spend what you are comfortable with and spend what you can afford but be sure not to adversely affect the quality of the work when looking for ways to save.  Poor quality means lack of sustainability and lack of sustainability means the landscape will not last long.


Houston Landscape Construction

Conversations about budget ensure the homeowner and the contractor are on the same page.

I have set a budget and am discussing the proposal with my contractor.  Where can I find savings and value that doesn’t affect the quality and sustainability of my project?  There are a number of ways a homeowner can reduce the cost of their project without affecting the quality or sustainability.

  • Ways That Save and Ways That Don’t.  So a contractor gives you a price and it is a little more than you are looking to spend.  There are many easy ways to get that number down to something more manageable but you will want to do that by going with less rather than sacrificing quality.  For example, consider downsizing the plants on the design.  Plants come in a variety of sizes and designers tends to use larger plants because they look better immediately upon completion of the project.  Consider keeping the same number of plants but make them a smaller size, this is a way of really cutting into the plant cost.  You could also save a lot of money by throwing a few things back.  Do you really need that water feature?  The plant pots?  The lighting?  Those are all strong contributors to the overall aesthetic of the landscape but they can always be added later.  Whatever you do, do not skimp on the core components of the landscape.  I am often asked, what’s the difference between a good landscape company and a great landscape company?  My answer is always the same: A good landscape company has your landscape looking great the day the trucks head out but that’s the best it will ever look.  A great landscape company designs and builds the landscape to be sustainable and it looks better and better over time as it matures.
  • What are the Core Components of a landscape?  Most people look at the pretty flowers and the towering trees when assessing the quality and value of a landscape but the real value, the sustainability of a landscape, is found in the design, soil prep, irrigation, drainage and maintenance.  Those components are what will determine the sustainability, and thus the true value, of your project.
    • Design.  A quality design ensures the right plants are planted on the right property and in the right locations.  Things like sun/shade factor, slope and adjacent plants are crucial to the success of the project.  A design is about a lot more than aesthetics alone.
    • Soil Prep.  Many companies will do nothing at all to prep the soil and there may not be a bigger mistake.  The soil carries microbes, nutrients and water which are all paramount to the success of a landscape.  Bad soil means bad landscape and as the soil goes, so does the landscape.
    • Irrigation.  You may already have an irrigation system but that may not be enough.  In our market, most irrigation systems are installed improperly and many are not even up to code.  Ensuring the irrigation is working properly is vital to the success of any landscape project.
    • Drainage.  The number one killer of plants is over-watering and poor drainage almost guarantees over-watering will occur. Downspouts pouring into a bed, the lack of gutters on the side of a house, low spots in the turf… these are all issues that pose a significant threat to your landscape.
    • Maintenance.  Once the landscape is installed, it needs to be properly maintained and I have never understood a client that will drop $80k on a landscape only to turn around and neglect it.  Maintenance is certainly not the place to cut corners when it comes to a landscape’s success.
  • Phasing the Project.  The last way you can lessen the burden on your bank account is to phase the project.  Rather than eliminating things as a means to save, you can also consider tackling the job in phases.  Spread the job over months or even years if you want; the most important thing is not settling for an inferior product that will not last.  You are not saving money if you have to do the job twice.


TIS Services - Landscape quality is not our goal, it's our standard.

Comparing quotes can be really frustrating if you don’t know what to look for.

What are all these costs and why is one contractor priced so much differently than the next?  So you got three bids, cannot make heads or tails of any of them, and the price is radically different from one to the next.  Why?  All companies and contractors are not created equal and there are some really easy ways to determine the good ones from the bad while ensuring you are getting your money’s worth.

  • Licensed, Legal and Insured.  First and foremost, always ensure that you are dealing with a contractor that is licensed and insured.  The Houston market is swarming with guys that are not licensed and certainly don’t carry insurance.  You do not want to fall prey to such a contractor because it can be the stuff of nightmares.  Last year, an unlicensed contractor we know, installed a drainage system at a residence on the west side of town.  He did some minor grade work and installed the drains just as he said he would but he did not pull a permit and the result went something like this: The “minor grade work” caused water to sheet toward the neighbor’s house, where it never had prior to this modification, and it entered the home through a door on the rear patio.  The contractor did not pull a permit and had no experience with the community’s swale or grade standards.  Needless to say, legal problems ensued.  There are lots of ways to save money but trusting your project to the guy that mows the neighbor’s yard is not necessarily one of them.  Licensing, permitting, being legal and insured are all required in our industry and for good reason.  It costs more but is absolutely worth it.
  • Core Components.  Many contractors simply neglect the things that most homeowners don’t look for.  As I mentioned earlier, the design, irrigation, drainage, soil prep and maintenance all factor highly in determining the success of your project.  These are not the most glamorous aspects of the project but they are, by far, the most important.  You would never know, by looking at a completed landscape, whether these core components were taken care of properly or not.  Don’t be mesmerized by the aesthetics alone because the aesthetics will not last if the core components are not taken care of properly.  These things can make a huge difference in the price of the job but remain, for the most part, invisible to the naked eye until you lose your landscape to heat, root rot or anaerobic soil conditions as a result of neglecting these core areas of priority.
  • Plant and Material Quality.  Those plants you get from the big box store are nowhere near the quality of the plants reputable contractors work with from exclusive wholesale nurseries.  Pest problems, fungal issues and plants that are already past their prime are routine issues at the big box stores.  Again, no money is saved if the plants have to be replaced.
  • Warranty.  Many contractors offer no warranties or warranties that are sure to evade problems (one to four weeks).  Reputable contractors back their work up with solid warranties that ensure value and success for their clients.

Most contractors are good people and are not trying to take advantage but there are very few contractors that understand sustainability and what provides real value to the homeowner.  Warranties, customer service and the peace of mind that comes from dealing with a reputable contractor are all worth considering when you make a decision as to who you will trust with your investment.  Actively discussing your budget is a crucial step toward ensuring you are a good fit with the contractor standing in front of you.

John A. Taylor is President and CEO of TIS Services in Houston, Texas. He was awarded the 2013 EPA Partner of the Year Award for his water conservation efforts, sits on the state irrigation board (TXIA) and lectures on water conservation through innovative and conscientious irrigation practice. TIS focuses on sustainable landscape and irrigation solutions in the Houston market. John is a veteran of the Unites States Marine Corps and lives with his wife and children in the north Houston area.

John has blogged 13 posts here.

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