When Comparing Bids Goes from Apples-to-Apples to a Fruit Cocktail

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    If you’re considering investing in a landscape or outdoor living space and want to ensure that you spend wisely, pick the right company, and love the end results you’ve got to do your research. We understand how overwhelming it can feel to make those decisions. In the following article, we’re sharing helpful tips and tricks to help you compare companies and their landscape bids to arrive at the result most likely to be your best fit. Nobody has the same priorities and parameters of what they’re looking for, so you have to choose what works best for your unique priorities.

    The Problem and The Landscape Bids Experiment

    Imagine being a homeowner who just finished building their dream home. You’ve just finished getting a design created for your landscape and are collecting bids based on that design. You collect three bids from companies your builder suggested. Their totals (all bidding from the exact same design,) range from $35,525 (C1) to $37,335(C2) to $61,654(C3). Wait… from the same bid? Yep. Welcome to the fruit cocktail.

    This happened in Kansas City to a friend of ours in 2018 and he called us in to help him figure out how to proceed. We had declined bidding due to conflicting business relationships, so we were glad to help a friend pick the next best thing. Admittedly, we were also enthralled with unpacking how all three bids came out so differently.

    The homeowner’s initial reaction was to eliminate the largest bid because it was an outlier and focus on the two lower options. He also had just completed the home build that went over budget and wasn’t enthused about extra investing.

    Pump the Brakes

    After analyzing the landscape bids, we advised the homeowner to consider throwing the third option back into consideration. Why? Change order city, that’s why.

    The homeowners decided to go with Company 2, (C2), with the $37,335 bid. We pointed out the missing bid items, which ended up being a big expense and surprise later.

    Things we observed between the three bids:

    • The two lower landscape bids did NOT include soil or sod. They simply said something similar to: “Soil is extra at $90 per yard”. The caveat- Over $15,000 of soil was needed for grading that the lower bids didn’t show.
      • Change order #1: Soil at $15,000. It wouldn’t have been additional in the C3 bid they included it.
      • Sod was Change order #2 at $5600
    • Both C1 and C2, the lower options included low-grade irrigation components with drip instead of spray zones. (With the option for another change order to convert to sprays!) C3 bid sprays and professional-grade parts.
      • Change order #3: Spray Zone Addition- $4,500
    • Subtotal for C2 after only THREE CHANGE ORDERS: $62,435
    • Additional loose ends: Due to how vague the two smaller landscape bids were from C1 and C2, there were things not included. For example, they proposed only burying 6 of the downspouts instead of all 10. The other 4 were “add-ons”. The company hid behind the vague nature of their bid to continue adding up change orders.
    • C3 also included the brand name of their irrigation clock, aluminum edging, and filter fabric behind stone walls to prevent soil from washing through.

    Summary of the Landscape Bids Experiment:

    In total, the homeowner spent over $66,000 with change orders added to his $37, 335 bid. The experience was also likely more stressful as they watched the total climb and dealt with constant curve-balls from the landscape company.

    While we can’t re-write history, much of C3’s bid included the items that were change orders for the other two. It would seem that C3 operates with more transparency and perhaps, honesty. Helping homeowners expect realistic results is better than what we call “get in the door” pricing. It would appear that C3, at just over $61,000 would’ve been the most affordable option in the long-run.

    Get-in-the-Door Pricing

    While it’s not always common, be wary of landscape bids so low, they seem too good to be true. Some contractors use a bidding strategy where they combine vagueness with the bare-minimum bid totals in order to earn your business at a lower price. Then, they’ll up-charge and change order every detail after you’ve agreed to the business.

    Please note that even the most thorough of companies will need a change order on occasion. Sometimes a homeowner makes a change. Or perhaps they’ve discovered an unknown obstacle underground. Those are legitimate reasons for a change order. Material upgrades are also legitimate when requested by the homeowner.

    How Do You Decide Who to Hire?

    While the experiment information was based purely on the financial result, it’s important to understand that financials are only one way to determine who to work with. Other factors to consider, which some would say are even more important:

    • Company reputation and reviews. Research them. If their clients are happy, you likely will be too. If they have no reviews or poor reviews, take heed. Cheap work done poorly is really expensive to fix.
    • Detail provided in the proposals- Clear terms, clear scope of work proposed, clear understanding of size and materials. (Be wary of contractors using tiny plants to cut costs if that’s not what you wish.)
      • NOTE: Detail often indicates two important things- The amount of effort put into your project on the front end often mirror the amount of effort put into installing your project. Detail also guarantees you the company has thoroughly assessed your project and you’re likely to have less surprises.
    • Do you understand and agree with the terms?
    • Does the company have a portfolio of quality work? Look at the details, curves, cuts, plant quality, etc.
    • Transparency of price: It’s highly unlikely the highest bid is hiding things or going to surprise you as much as the lower bids.
    • If a design is relevant, you need to love the design. Quality installation is great, but doesn’t surpass a mediocre design. It has to start with an excellent design and then be installed with quality and care.
    • How good is communication during the sales process? Where they reliable and on-time? Did they meet schedules?

    Every situation and homeowner has their own set of priorities. What is best for one person, maybe different for another. The key is to understand that you’ll likely never have an apples-to-apples bid, but you can choose more wisely by asking better questions and addressing the list of considerations we’ve shared above.

    Please see the supporting bids below!

    Supporting Documents: (None of which are High Prairie, but they are Kansas City companies.)

    C1 Bid Page:

    C2 Bid Page:

    C3 Bid Page:

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    About The Author

    Robyn is a 2009 Graduate of the Kansas State University Department of Horticulture. She grew up in South East Kansas where she graduated from Humboldt High School. She was a Kansas State University Leadership Scholar and President of the Horticulture Club. She married Bret in 2009 and they have a daughter Ellie, born in 2021. Their family is completed by three adopted dogs.

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