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Spending Smart: Prune Your Landscaping Costs

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By Gregory Karp

RISMEDIA, April 28, 2011—(MCT)—As weather warms in most parts of the country, many homeowners will incur the expense and hassle of hiring professionals to help beautify their yard through grass mowing, landscape design or tree trimming and removal. These specialty services can be quite costly; that’s why it’s important to hire the right landscaper at the right price.

“The condition of your lawn has a big effect on the look and value of your home, whether you have a complicated landscaping plan with water features and/or an expanse of grass and flowers,” says Angie Hicks, founder of service-ratings website Angie’s List. “If you’re hiring someone to help maintain your lawn, match their qualifications, training and local reputation to your property needs.”

Here are the steps you can take to help get the best value from your landscaping pros.

Schedule Events: Not every homeowner is an expert on lawn, yard and tree care, so it helps to get several pros out to your property to advise you on what needs to be done and what the options are. It’s a free education about your property.

“The most important advice is to talk with several firms,” said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers’ Checkbook, which offers ratings of local service companies to subscribers in seven U.S. markets. “Use them as your consultants.”

To get names of companies for your initial visit, you can use the usual method of asking for referrals from neighbors and local friends and family. You can also go online to service-review websites. Good paid sites include Angie’s List and Consumers’ Checkbook at checkbook.org. You might get reviews and comments on some companies from such free sites as Yelp.com, Kudzu.com or even the firm’s own Facebook fan page.

You can cross-check names of any finalists with the Better Business Bureau, bbb.org; pay attention to the number of complaints lodged against the companies.

If all you need is simple mowing, raking or weeding, you might not need a professional at all. A hard-working, entrepreneurial teenager up the street might yield the best deal, Krughoff suggests.

Get Price Bids: Once you know what you want, request apples-to-apples estimates from at least three companies.

“You’ll find big price differences on these things,” Krughoff says.

Checkbook used one major metropolitan area as an example and found that the same tree-removal job could cost from $1,935 to $6,300, depending on the company. Prices on a smaller tree job ranged from $375 to $1,100. For lawn care, Consumers’ Checkbook found one case in which the same promise for the lawn brought prices ranging from $229 to $805.

But pricey firms do a better job, right?

Not really, Krughoff says. His publication found virtually no correlation between price and quality in lawn care and tree services, meaning you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. But that’s not true in all cases. Pricier garden nurseries were found to generally offer a higher quality, Consumers’ Checkbook found.

Get it in Writing: Especially for bigger jobs, be very clear—in writing—about what a firm is expected to do. In the tree-removal example, will they haul away debris? Will they cut up wood into firewood length and leave it? Will they remove a stump? If so, how? By cutting it to grade level or grinding it?

“A lot of times, people just don’t get specific,” Krughoff comments.

For lawn care, do you expect a green lawn quickly or can you be patient for a care program that will strengthen root systems and be healthier in the long run?

If you’re hiring a company to install plants, note the replacement policy. Angie’s List suggests not hiring a company if it won’t promise to replace and replant any plants that die despite proper care.

Get Credentials: Make sure the company has liability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance. Some yard work, especially in high trees, is dangerous to people and property. And for some jobs, you might look for certifications and membership in professional organizations—such as the Association of Professional Landscape Designers—Angie’s List suggests. For tree service, consider companies with a professional arborist on staff.

Be Wary of Add-ons: If a landscaper or lawn service recommends various fertilizers, sprayings and treatments, you want to hear a compelling case on why it’s necessary and evidence that it will make a difference, notes Krughoff.

Paying: Ideally, you will pay nothing until the job is done, which gives you the most leverage to ensure it’s done right. But some companies will require a deposit. Avoid paying the entire amount upfront, and use a credit card if you can. That allows you to dispute the charge with the credit card company if the service was incomplete or not done right.

National Companies: If you’re talking about weed-and-feed services, you have a number of options for national companies, such as Lawn Doctor, Scotts and TruGreen. In a 1008 report Consumer Reports notes that service varied, even within a company. Sometimes technicians were incorrect about their assessments of lawns, as judged by the experts Consumer Reports used. For example, some said the lawns had crabgrass, thatch buildup or insect problems, when in actuality they did not. However, the report did not evaluate the quality of services performed by these companies.

Consumers’ Checkbook finds local lawn care firms tend to have higher customer-satisfaction ratings than chains, and prices can be comparable, says Krughoff.

For more information visit http://www.chicagotribune.com.

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