How to Bid Out Landscape Maintenance
As we approach the end of spring and anticipate the coming summer months, you may be directing more of your attention to your site's curb appeal. Well-maintained lawns, trees, and shrubs help create the crucial first impressions that potential residents form of your site. And certain landscaping problems, such as penetrating or overgrown vegetation, can violate HUD's Uniform Physical Condition Standards.
It's no surprise that many sites spend a big chunk of their operating budgets on professional landscape services. And it's particularly important for assisted sites to spend their landscape maintenance dollars wisely. Budgets are often tight, and HUD frowns on inefficient spending of site funds.
In fact, HUD requires you to ask for cost estimates or bids before you hire contractors, including landscape contractors, to show that you're paying a reasonable price for their services [HUD Handbook 4381.5, par. 6.50]. And if the landscaping service is expected to cost $10,000 or more, you must get written bids from at least three contractors, to show that you've shopped around [HUD Handbook 4381.5, par. 6.50(a)]. If you don't follow the rules, or don't keep records showing that you've shopped around, you could end up being scrutinized by HUD auditors and risk having to pay back any costs HUD finds excessive.
Here are seven steps you should take when bidding out landscaping maintenance. By taking these steps, you'll maximize bargaining leverage, fine-tune financial planning, acquire critical information about the technical competence of bidders, and comply with HUD bidding rules, says Chris Keenan, landscape architect for James Martin Associates in Vernon Hills, Ill.
Step #1: Determine Your Landscaping Needs
Don't start taking bids until you decide on the services you want. If you're in the market for routine maintenance of the entire grounds, Keenan says that the essentials generally include mowing, fertilization, weed control, turf care, pruning of trees and shrubs, leaf removal, and spring and winter cleanings. Or you may have more extensive needs beyond the basics, such as spraying, turf aeration, or reseeding, or more sophisticated landscape architecture. If you're not sure about what you need, don't hesitate to bring in an outside expert. In the long run, it will save you more than it costs, Keenan notes. To find a consultant, contact the cooperative extension service at a branch of your state land-grant university.
Step #2: Prepare ‘Bid Package’
Prepare a “bid package” laying out your expectations for the job and the bidding rules. When the landscape contractor understands what you want and how to present a bid before submission, says Keenan, it can save both of you time, money, and aggravation. By holding all bids to the same format, the bid package ensures that the bidding will be competitive and the differences between bids clear. The bid package should include:
Job specs. Give bidders job specifications prepared by your manager or outside consultant. These are detailed descriptions of the desired result of each completed maintenance operation. Specifications for mowing operations, for example, should set the height or height range to which the grass must be cut (for example, 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches), the equipment to be used, the mowing pattern or direction, and the landscape contractor's responsibility for removing clippings and debris. Include all areas of landscaping you're seeking, such as flower beds, shrubs, fencing rows, weeding, chemical usage, equipment and supplies storage, and seasonal tasks (such as strawing, bulb planting, or fertilizing).
Operations calendar. Your bid package should specify how many times a year individual tasks like pruning must be performed. An operations calendar should also give a weekly schedule for each service.
Bidding rules. Indicate the bidding rules, and ask bidders for the following when submitting their bids:
> Line item bids. Have competing landscape contractors allocate the contract price by mowing, fertilization, and any other service laid out in the specifications. Line item bidding makes it harder for landscape contractors to fudge their prices. And ask bidders to state whether the price includes applicable taxes.
Use the line item bid to prepare summaries of individual bids. Keenan notes that “it's much easier to compare prices from each bidder when all pricing information is quoted in a similar format.”
Line item bids help trim budgets, too. “By knowing the cost of each task per occasion, you can reduce the service's frequency and know exactly how it will affect the bottom line.”
> List of products. Get a list of the chemical products that the landscape contractor proposes to use under the maintenance program, such as weed killer, mulch, or fertilizer, says Keenan. “The summary should list the operation for which the product is to be used, the brand name, and how much of the product is to be applied.” It should also describe relevant chemical characteristics, including any dangers associated with the product, or include a copy of the material safety data sheet provided by the manufacturer. If your site will provide the chemicals, say so in the bid package.
Step #3: Hold Pre-Bid Meeting
Once you've prepared your bid package, invite potential bidders to a conference. “Try to get at least five companies to submit bids,” says Keenan. Distribute the bid package, and take questions. Give a deadline for bid submissions, and explain the bidding rules. Then document what happened at the meeting, and keep a record in the files.
Step #4: Require Site Inspection and Evaluation
Have each landscape contractor inspect and analyze your site, as part of the bidding format. Each should report its assessment of your needs and make appropriate job recommendations, preferably in writing. “This helps your manager or outside consultant plan future improvements and evaluate the bidding contractor's technical competence,” says Keenan.
Step #5: Check Bidders' Backgrounds
It's critical to weed out bidders with insufficient experience, resources, and know-how. A poorly qualified landscape contractor can harm your landscape investment in less than two weeks. And it's also important, if you go with a more expensive contractor, to be able to show HUD that you put the needs of the site first when making the decision to go with the higher bid. Here's what to look for when doing a careful background check.
Chemical licenses. Weed killers, pesticides, and other toxic products threaten health and safety when used improperly. In most states, landscape contractors can't apply toxic products without an applicator's license.
Ask the landscape contractor to show you that its personnel are licensed or certified. If you don't, you could be liable to residents, employees, and neighbors for chemical-related injuries. Most landscape contractors will show you their licenses without being asked. If you're suspicious, encounter resistance, or just want to double-check, contact the licensing authority in your state—usually the agriculture department or environmental agency.
Send a copy of the product listing you got from the landscape contractor to the state licensing authority. Ask if any of the listed items require further precautions. All of this will show that you took steps to limit the dangers of chemical use.
Experience. “Anybody with a pick-up truck and a lawn mower can go into the business of landscape maintenance,” warns Keenan. “But it takes more than that to provide good service.” Go with experience, and you probably won't get stuck.
References. Ask the landscape contractor for references, and check them out.
> How many. A contractor should give you a minimum of five names. Contact at least four.
> What types. Get references whose properties are similar to yours in size and needs. This is especially important for big owners. You must determine that the landscape contractor can handle big jobs. If you run a big site, contacting smaller properties won't do much good.
> Whom to contact. Many owners speak only to the property manager when checking references. That's not always enough. It's important to contact a superintendent or other employee who worked directly with the landscape contractor's crews, to see whether they caused any problems.
> Property visits. Go to properties that the landscape contractor services, and look at the grounds.
Step #6: Check Insurance Coverage
Landscape contractors use hazardous chemicals and dangerous machinery. So checking insurance coverage is essential, especially since more than a few landscape contractors have been known not to carry any. Landscape contractors should ideally have:
Workers' compensation and occupational disease coverage;
Comprehensive general liability or manufacturer's and contractor's liability coverage with limits of at least $300,000 per person and $500,000 per occurrence for bodily injury and $100,000 property damage, or a combined single limit of $500,000. This policy should also include complete operations insurance with the same minimum limits; and
Comprehensive automobile liability insurance with minimum limits of $300,000 per person and $500,000 per occurrence for bodily injury and $100,000 for property damage.
As proof that the landscape contractor has adequate insurance, ask for a certificate of insurance and insist that it be on file in your office before any work starts. This document, issued by the landscape contractor's insurer, certifies that the landscape contractor's insurance policy is effective as of a recent date. It also entitles you to a notice from the insurance company if the policy lapses.
Step #7: Choose Lowest Qualified Bidder
Once you've narrowed the field to two or three bidders, try to negotiate the prices down. Prepare a bid comparison sheet. Arrange the line item bids from each contractor next to each other to help you quickly pinpoint the operations where one bidder's prices are higher than the other bidders'. Landscape contractors will often cut prices to match the competition.
But keep in mind that, because of HUD bidding rules, many sites fall into the “low bid” trap and just hire the cheapest landscape contractor they can find. This often leads to trouble. Landscape contractors who bid low often skimp on quality.
If you don't accept the lowest bid. HUD bidding rules don't necessarily require that you accept the lowest bid, but it's important to document the reasons why you didn't choose the lowest bid. Depending on the responses you get, you may decide that the lowest bidder doesn't meet your specifications or isn't qualified for the project. In those cases, you should go with the lowest qualified bidder who best meets your site's needs. But document why you chose the higher bid instead of a lower one in a memo to the file.
Keep documentation of bids. Under HUD rules, you must keep documentation of all bids—including your bid requests, written bids, records of oral estimates, and other records—for three years after the work is completed [HUD Handbook 4381.5, par. 6.50(c)].
Chris Keenan: Landscape Architect, James Martin Assocs., 59 E. U.S. Hwy 45, Vernon Hills, IL 60061; www.martinassociates.com.
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