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Do I Give Free Estimates?

What is a free estimate? A description of what I do for free.

I give free estimates, but I charge for advice.

Let me make this distinction clear: If you call me and you want me to come and look at your yard and give you an estimate for a planting, or for replacing a walkway, or putting in a new stone wall, I will do that for free. But I will not give you professional advice on how to do your specific project without charging you for a consultation.

This surprises a lot of people, which, in turn, surprises me. For some reason, people equate landscaping with home improvement, like roofing or painting.  Roofers and painters provide free estimates, so people expect me to, as well. But creating a landscape that complements your home is quite different from putting shingles on a roof or changing your exterior paint color.

If you need to replace your roof, a roofer comes over and measures it, and then gives you an estimate based upon its square footage. Same with driveway sealing — it’s all about the size, because the size commands the amount of work.

Landscaping is about size, too, but it’s not as simple as ‘the bigger the yard, the higher the cost.’  If it were that simple, I would gladly provide free consultations.  But it’s not.

When I go to someone’s home to assess their yard, I cannot just drive by and look at it. I have to spend time walking around the space. Because in addition to the size of the yard, there are a lot of other factors to consider.

First, there’s the yard’s actual terrain: Is it level? Is it uneven? Is there a problem with drainage?

What about the natural light? Is the yard mostly shade? Do they want more sun?  Or, do they have too much sun and need some shade? Are the homeowners happy with most of their landscape and just want to fix a small part of it, or do they dislike the whole space?

When I am looking at a yard, I have to make note of all these things, as well as looking at the existing plant material. Do the plants look healthy? Are they placed correctly? How is the soil? Does the yard look finished? Is it cluttered with random plantings that do not work well together? Does it look half-done?

But most of all, what do the homeowners want? Are they trying to put in a play area for their children that blends into the rest of their landscape? Or are they new empty nesters who want to take that area out and put in an entertainment area?

I need to walk around and get a real look at your yard. Then I need to find out what you want. For example, here is one question that can alter an entire landscape plan: How much maintenance are you willing to do?  If you love gardening, but you want a new look for your existing landscape, I would recommend very different plant material for your yard than I would for someone who wants to do little or no maintenance.

Here are some other questions that can alter a design for your yard. How long do you see yourself living in your home?  How old are your children?  If you have young children and you intend to stay in your home until the children graduate from college, I will create a different plan for your home than I would for someone with the same amount of space who has teenagers and intends to move in three or four years.

I can create a yard for your budget that will suit your taste. It’s just like mixing cocktails. Did you know that one of the most expensive cocktails in the world is the Kentucky Derby Mint Julep served at Churchill Downs?  It costs a cool thousand dollars — because it’s served in a limited edition (only 73 were made) silver cup from Tiffany & Company, and is filled with Woodford Reserve bourbon, turbinado sugar, mint grown in Louisville, Ky., and ice from a 10,000-year-old Alaskan glacier. 

I’m sure that it’s delicious. But I can make you a Parker Mint Julep, served in the glass tumbler of your choice (ours are from Target), for far less money. Here’s my recipe:

• 8 mint leaves, plus mint sprigs for garnish
• ½ ounce Mint Simple Syrup. Mint simple syrup is made by boiling a cup of sugar with a cup of water and a cup of loosely packed mint leaves, then letting it cool.  It can be kept in the fridge for a month.
• 2 ounces bourbon — I like Knob Creek
• Crushed ice

In a chilled glass, muddle the mint leaves and simple syrup. Add the bourbon and ice. Set a swizzle stick or bar spoon in the cup and spin between your hands to mix. Top with additional mint leaves for garnish.

Once you’ve got your Parker Julep in your hands, take a nice healthy mouthful.  Take a look at your yard. Couldn’t it use a fresh look?  A real look?

Call me. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeff NH May 08, 2012 at 01:18 AM
Love both of the stone walls and walkway you did for us. Thanks!
JimC May 09, 2012 at 12:05 AM
So what and how do you charge for a consultation? Do you offset the cost of the consultation if you are given the go ahead to do the work? Does your consultation include an quote for the work to be done? Do you charge for the consultation only upon approval by the customer, or must one pay for your time even if it doesn't satisfy them? Not for anything, but I feel like you are overvaluing your time and your skills. I'm looking for a consultation, and would go ahead with that company if I could afford to do what was recommended, but I'm never going to pay someone with the hope that I like what he recommends!
Bill Parker May 14, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Thanks for your response. I charge $150 for a landscape consultation and generally spend an hour or two, depending on the size and complexity of the property. Please remember that not all site visits require a consultation. If what I'm asked to estimate is straightforward and less than a 30 minute drive, then there's no need for a consultation. But if there are unresolved or complex issues with the existing landscape that will require my time and knowledge to solve, or complete concepts to be created for a property, then, prior to scheduling the meeting, I suggest to the prospective customer that they purchase a consultation. Once the customer decides to move forward with design or installation work, we credit the consult fee back to them. After the consultation, I follow up with a proposal and estimate for the work discussed and document recapping what was discussed so the prospective customer has a reference of the concepts and suggestions I offered. In all my years of landscaping and offering consultations I have never experienced a customer who was unhappy with their consultation.
jeff October 01, 2012 at 11:04 AM
Is this Idea bad? I clean and seal decks , usually for high end customers. Many of these customers have no clue as to what it will cost, and the time to drive to homes through traffic can add up. I ask for some info about their deck, and then ask them to send me a photo so I can send them a ball park figure first. At that point, if they think it sounds like what they can afford, I have no problem visiting in person. What I have come across are people who get 5 estimates and go with the lowest price no matter what, people who want to learn how to do it themselves, or people who think sealing a 1000 sq ft deck that needs to be stripped should be $300. Even when my wife gets her hair done, if she just wants advice she drives to the salon, and would have to pay $75 dollars. Does anyone think a salon owner would spend his time driving to homes to give free consultations? I have found some people seem offended when I merely ask for the deck size, a photo etc. But I am guessing these people do not want the work really completed in the first place.

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