How to Choose a Great Contractor

Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. has the highest quality hardscape designs and installations to be found by any hardscape contractor in the St. Louis Metropolitan Region. We have installed hundreds of thousands of square foot of hardscape masterpieces. Our photo galleries are loaded with over 1400 pictures of retaining walls and interlocking paver installations; every one designed and installed by Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is over 1400 pictures worth for proving our quality hardscape design installation and expertise? This blog is dedicated to putting this hardscape experience and expertise to work for you as a source of knowledge for ideas, topics, and news. The topics will be relevant to anyone looking to install or choose a retaining wall or interlocking paver contractor. The main purpose of this blog is to educate the public on retaining wall systems, interlocking paver designs, installations, contractors, new ideas, and new products related to hardscapes.

One thing truly bothers me consistently throughout the years; when a homeowner picks a bad contractor and I can’t do anything about it because if I try to warn them they will not believe me anyway, just thinking that I am trying to get the job at any cost. Of course, I always want to sell the job because I know if Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. does the job the homeowner will be treated right and the result is going to be great for them. I truly believe no other hardscape contractor in the St. Louis Metro Area has better hardscape designs or craftsmanship than we do. I truly believe for good reason that Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. is “Simply the Best”! Having said that, there are some good retaining wall and interlocking paver contractors out there and when I find out that a good retaining wall or interlocking paver contractor got the job, that is not so bad! After all, you cannot win them all– I understand. When a good contractor gets the job it is a good thing for the hardscape industry that I love so much and therefore, it is good for everyone! On the other hand, when a bad contractor gets the job (and there are many) and treats the homeowner poorly and does bad work this hurts the hardscape industry and can be devastating to the homeowners. You would not believe some of the stories I have heard from homeowners and their nightmarish experiences with bad contractors. Depending on the size and complexity of your hardscape project it could cost you at the very least thousands and perhaps tens of the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars; so make your choice in hardscape contractors wisely. Do not just make a decision based on how nice the salesperson is! I tell people all the time I personally know many great salespeople who could sell anything, but I only know of a handful of good retaining wall and interlocking paver contractors who do great work! Over the next several blog entries I will give some very simple but solid ways to weed out the bad contractors.

1. What is in a name?

One of the simplest ways to ensure that you do not get a bad hardscape contractor is to look at the name! It just makes sense when you go to a doctor’s office you do not order a Big Mac! When you go to fast food place you do not get your teeth fixed. When you have a retaining wall holding up your backyard, swimming pool, driveway, or even home– why would you even consider a company whose name tells you that its main business is mowing lawns, putting in a sprinkler systems, landscaping (by the way, landscapers are not retaining wall or interlocking paver contactors – they may install them but this is not the main focus of their business ), general contractors or one of my all time least favorite, “outdoor specialists” (could they be more vague?)! There are a couple exceptions to this first rule but nine times out of ten you can save yourself a lot of time, money, and heartache by finding contractors whose names reflect hardscapes as the main focus of their business. My advice is that if you wish to hire a company to do any structural retaining walls or interlocking pavers make sure you hire a real hardscape contractor who focuses every working day on one thing– hardscapes. It use to be that all our retaining walls were just tie wall tear outs or new construction but these days more and more Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. is hired to replace a retaining wall disaster installed by part time, unqualified contactors who honestly did not know what they were doing and never should have been hired to do the job in the first place! Tip #1 on how to choose a great hardscape contractor will help start turning the odds of picking a great hardscape contractor your way, but you still are not out of the woods yet.

2. Google Search– Company Names and Phone Numbers

When you Google the contractor’s name you can see much about them on the internet. By spending some time online (Google is the best for this) you can weed out some shady contractors whose story maybe does or does not match up to what you find. By doing a Google search of the contractor’s name you can see where they advertise and who they are affiliated with. Many times you can find some very valuable reviews that help you to make a more informed decision. A great trick I have learned over the years is to Google search a contractor’s phone numbers! Here again some contractors will stand up to scrutiny and others will not. The point of looking up numbers is important because many times when a contractor changes company names often for whatever reason they may have kept the same phone number or numbers. This can be valuable information either way. On the one hand with a good contractor all the numbers come back to the same person and the same company. This puts them over another hurdle to be considered for your hardscape project. On the other hand, with a not so good contractor the numbers may come back to multiple companies, multiple occupations , bad reports and reviews that may help you to eliminate them as an option. For the best results don’t just stop at one phone number. When you get to the contractor’s web page or retaining wall and paver advertisement take note of all the phone numbers and Google search them and make sure to include the area code. Remember, knowledge is power! So take some time and research all potential hardscape contractors thoroughly to help protect your investment. A good contractor has nothing to hide and will appreciate your diligence.

3. An Oldie but Goodie– Check out the BBB Rating of all Contractors
A very simple yet often forgotten or neglected step is to check out all your potential hardscape contractors with the BBB! This is not fool proof since many times unsatisfied or even ripped off customers do not report bad contractors to the BBB! I always encourage people to report bad contractors it is not about getting the bad hardscape contractor back as much as it is about warning future potential customers to steer clear of that company. In combination with reverse tracing contractor phone numbers and names on Google as mentioned in point #2 this can be handy to let you know all the aka (also known as) you should be searching for at the BBB. For example, if you find three different companies coming back to one number make sure to check out all the companies records with the BBB. One thing to realize here is that the BBB only reports on contractors going back 3 years. So, if a shady contractor who had to go out of business 4 years ago and had a horrible BBB report then changed their company name and so have not been doing work in their old name at the end of 3 years their report will say no complaints. Checking out contractors with the BBB is just one more step toward protecting your home and family by choosing a good hardscape contractor for your home improvement project.

#4 Protect Yourself with Knowledge

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it could save you from a bad hardscape contractor. Educate yourself on the best hardscape product options. Study the products yourself and ask good tough questions about design installation. Ask contractors questions about the products that you already know the answers to, this way you can get a gauge on their knowledge, experience, and confidence. Question them on why they believe what they believe about different products, and the best way to install them. The timeless axiom, “Knowledge is power” is just as true today as ever. Products like Rockwood Retaining Walls, Versa-Lok Retaining Walls, Romanstone, Belgard, Silvercreek and Pavestone pavers all have recommended installation procedures for their products. Read the manufacturers recommendations for product use, care for and installation. Most local manufacturers such as Lemay Concrete Block for Rockwood Retaining Walls and Kirchner Block and Brick for Versa Loc, Alpenstein, and Hercules retaining wall systems along with the Romanstone Pavers, have qualified friendly staff to answer your hardscape questions. They will be more than happy to answer your questions. So when you meet the contractor you will already be more knowledgeable about hardscapes than some of the salespeople you will come across. For more in depth technical information web sites like the NCMA (National Concrete Masonry Association?) for concrete and ICPI (Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute) for interlocking pavers will give you more information about hardscapes than you will ever use but that information may help you weed out some contractors who do not understand the fundamental engineering principles that make the modular block and the interlocking paver the best products for your outdoor project. It never hurts to educate yourself about local government regulations on retaining walls and pavers. Things like how tall a retaining wall can be built before you need a permit, regulations on step treads and railing on steps. If you take the time to educate yourself you will be able to get a better since of the knowledge a contractor does or does not have. Knowledge gives you yet one advantage to picking a great hardscape contractor.

#5 Always “Really” Check the Reference List!

Another very often discussed but not often enough checked out item is the reference list! Agape Retaining Walls has so many great references that I always want customers to take a couple pages of our references and check everyone of them out. However, what I find is that customers talk about checking references, but all too often that is where it stops! Do yourself a favor and REALLY check out references and look in person at as many jobs as you have time for. If you don’t see the jobs for yourself you are trusting the other persons opinion if the job looks good or does not look good. You may have higher standards and expect a higher quality of work than whoever you are talking to does. Get on the ground and look at the work in person get up close and examine the quality of the hardscape contractor you are considering for the job. Many hardscape and even landscape contractors will say that they have been in business for 10,15,20+ years and when you go to get a reference they hand you a list of 2,3,4,or 5 past customers and that is it. If a contactor claims to have been in business 20 years they should be able to produce so many references you could never get to them all. Once again this is just another safeguard on your quest to pick a great retaining wall and interlocking paver contractor. Once again a good contractor will appreciate your hard work and diligence and a bad contractor will fall by the wayside.

#6 Reviews– Has the Company Impressed Anyone?

Reviews can be priceless, so seek them out online. If you have a contractor once again claiming to be in business for a long time doing great work certainly someone in all those years has been impressed enough to write at least one review somewhere! When you find a hardscape contractor who has a lot of great hardscape customer reviews look for patterns in what the customers are saying. This will give you more knowledge about the character and culture of the hardscape company and how that will fit or not with your criteria for a contractor. Reviews can also give you insight into a contractors main business focus. If you are looking for a hardscape contractor and the reviews you find are telling you this company mows lawns and plants flowers better than anyone they have found but there no reviews about them doing great retaining wall and paver work than you now know where to go to get your lawn mowed, but you should rule this company out for your hardscape project. 

#7 Always Check on Active Jobs– Who will be Working at Your House?

Go see the crew or crews who could be coming to your home. Make sure you are comfortable with the people coming out who actually do the hardscape work AT YOUR HOME! Homeowners many times make their decisions about what contractor to go with because they like the salesperson. While I certainly understand this– I have done it myself, it is not the best way to pick your hardscape contractor. If you think about it, depending on the nature of the company, this could be the last time you even see the salesperson and when the crew shows up to do the work you soon discover they are not anything like the company salesperson whom you liked so much. One of my favorite suggestions to homeowners over the years is to find out where the hardscape company has a job or two going on where you can just drop by at your convenience and see who is coming to your home to work for 2-3 wks! As far as the workers know you are just a nosy neighbor. This can be a real eye opener to most homeowners. How professional are the employees, in their language (picture yourself trying to explain the meaning of all the new words your children may learn if these guys are at your home.) their dress, do their cars and trucks leak oil all over the street (the neighbors love that), how about music, do they clean up at the end of each day, do they block up the streets, or do they work in a way that considers the homeowner and their neighbors. Knowing who is coming to your house, making sure you are comfortable with them, and the environment they bring can make all the difference in the world on how your hardscape project goes. Once again, knowledge is power– know who is coming to your home. All contractors are not equal, so do not settle hire a hardscape contactor who has employees that are professional, courteous and highly skilled.

#8 Pictures– A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words 

When people take pride in something they have created they want to show it off to as many people as they can! They take pictures of it. In the age of digital cameras who does not take many pictures of the things that are important to them? I have thousands of pictures of my wife and children; I have thousands of pictures of Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. hardscape projects; and for that matter, I also have hundreds of pictures (before I went digital) of projects I worked on as a ride boss, foreman and laborer in one of the biggest commercial retaining wall companies in the St. Louis metro area .If a hardscape contractor has been in business for years and they do not have hundreds or even thousands of pictures of their work their most likely is a good reason for that. Most likely either they have no pride in their work or their work is not worthy of scrutiny! Why would you want to even think about hiring a contractor who has nothing to show you of what they have done or a very small amount to show for a stated long time in business. When I decided to put the first 500 pictures on the Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. web site back in 2004 I had to look through over 18,000 pictures! Okay, in full disclosure about 9,000 were family and about 9,000 where Agape hardscape projects! I was motivated by many things but one was all the contractors who would claim to have been in business for 10 or 20 years and they would not have any pictures of the work they had done. I had no doubt if I could show people our work that they would be very impressed by our hardscape designs and craftsmanship! I believe ARW does the best hardscape work in the business and I love showing people why I believe that. Our website today has over 1,400 pictures and we are getting ready to add 200 to 300 more anytime! So the question becomes if one contractor has thousands of pictures to show you of his or her work and another contractor has none or even a few dozen in some old photo album who is more proud of their work, who takes it personal, who will do the highest quality work as if they were doing it at their own home. If a picture is worth a thousand words what is a thousand pictures worth. This point in conjunction with the other points listed on this retaining wall blog will help you pick a good or great hardscape contractor for your unique outdoor hardscape needs.

#9 Affiliations– Is the Contractor Educated?

Are there any organizations that this hardscape company has a membership in that shows a professionalism and knowledge in the craft that you are looking to hire them for. For example, in the field of retaining wall contracting design and installation, Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. has membership and certified training in the NCMA (National Concrete Masonry Association)– is a national trade association representing the concrete masonry industry, and is very widely established as an industry leader in all aspects of concrete application and education–including segmental retaining walls. Also, Agape Retaining Walls has membership and certified training in the ICPI (Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute) a recognized industry leader in all aspects of interlocking paver installation and contractor education. So, if a contractor that you are considering to design and install your hardscape does not have any proof of education or professionalism, then why would you consider them for such an important investment?

#10 Is the Hardscape Contractor Insured?

I know it is hard to believe, but most people when they hire Agape Retaining Walls, Inc. to do their hardscape project do not even ask if we are insured. Even fewer actually have us show them written proof that we have insurance in case something happens on their project to pay for any damages to his or her property. Just think of all the things that could go wrong! If a hardscape contractor does not have insurance you cannot let them do the project– you could lose everything and have no way to get reimbursed for the losses of you and your family. It is my advice that even before a contractor of any kind shows up to give you a bid, have them show you current proof of insurance.

In conclusion, none of these suggestions on how to pick a great hardscape contractor in themselves is enough to ensure that you are getting a great hardscape contractor and not a bad contractor but taken as a whole these suggestions will weed out the bad contractors and leave you with more than likely only a couple great hardscape contractors to choose from for your unique hardscape project. These 10 points on how to pick a great hardscape contractor will save you time, money and headache and put the odds very much on your side that the contractor you pick will do a great job for you and your family. Protecting your property and ROI (Return on Investment) for many decades and perhaps even generations to come.

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