Re: a question about hiring landscapers
From: R Philip Dowds (
Date: Thu, 19 Jul 2012 02:36:54 -0700 (PDT)
I'm a practicing architect in Massachusetts.  The relevant laws re licensing, 
bonding and insurance vary greatly from state to state, and I have no way to 
know how my New England experience applies in Washington.  But here are the 
general concepts:

Public licensing of construction professionals is meant to provide some extra 
degree of protection (certification of a minimum level of competency and 
qualification) for both customers and the general public.  For certain kinds of 
jobs and job conditions, licensing is required — but for many others, 
especially small residential projects, it is not.  Licensing is the official 
public version of Angie's List, and is worth about as much, for the same 
reasons. A contractor need not forfeit his/her state license merely because 
s/he has a long history of mediocre projects and grouchy customers.
The contractor's insurance covers incidental damage (her ladder falls on your 
visitor's car) and worker's compensation (her employee falls off her ladder, 
maybe onto your visitor's car).  Recovery of damages basically seeks any 
available source of money.  If your contractor is uninsured and insolvent, then 
maybe somebody will file a claim against you, the property Owner:  You are the 
one who decided to bring this klutzy contractor onto your property, and you may 
bear the liability.  In many cases, the contractor's insurance policy is what 
stands between you and the claim — but there are no guarantees.
Insurance be tricky.  I would be surprised to learn that if both you and your 
landscaping contractor have chosen to go bare (meaning, no relevant insurance 
for either of you), then the State of Washington will step in and make everyone 
whole just because the contractor is "licensed".  You should check this out 
more carefully.
If your contractor goes belly up or wigs out, bonding means that some other 
insurance company may step in to finish the job at little or no extra cost to 
you.  Payment and performance bonds, however, are job-specific.  It does you no 
good to hire a "bonded" contractor unless a special policy covering you, your 
job, and your property, is written explicitly for your benefit, with you named 
as the insured.  "Bondable" is not at all the same thing as "bonded".
Bonding usually adds about 1% to the price of the work, maybe more for small 
projects.  And bonding companies are not your friend, really.  If something 
goes wrong, they will pay as little as possible, as late as possible.  
Insurance be tricky.

Bottom line:  If you want your projects done in a professional and responsible 
way, look for (a) incorporation (or registered partnership); (b) an insurance 
certificate; (c) a corporate history longer than a couple of years; (d) a 
"field super" — the person who will be on your site, every day, directing the 
work — that you like and trust; and finally (e) recent good references for that 
specific field super.  Licensing will likely come along with this package, but 
as I said, this will vary according to job and locale.  Do not get involved 
with bonding unless the job is very big relative to your total assets and net 
worth — which is rarely the case for residential landscape work.  But have your 
own insurance agent review the contractor's certificate of insurance.

All of this, however, comes at a price.  Unincorporated handypersons employing 
their nephews will often quote the job cheaper than a professional-level 
contractor — and with that lower price, you will also get a higher level of 
risk.  Homeowners always struggle with challenge of choosing the level of 
professionalism they want in their construction projects.  You want your job 
done well, fast, and cheap?  Pick two.

R Philip Dowds AIA
Cornerstone Cohousing
Cambridge, MA

PS: I've been to Seattle several times; it's one of my favorite cities.  Good 

On Jul 18, 2012, at 9:01 PM, S. Kashdan wrote:

> Hi all,
> The Jackson Place Cohousing community in Seattle, Washington has a question 
> about whether your cohousing community considers it necessary or
> important to hire licensed, bonded and insured landscape
> contractors/professional gardeners for the work that community members can't
> or won't do.
> What requirements do your communities have for determining which
> landscapers/gardeners to hire?  Do you always require them to be licensed,
> bonded and insured, or do your requirements vary with the nature of the
> work?"
> The JPC landscape team and our coordinating committee have been discussing
> this issue because of the difficulty of finding licensed, bonded and insured
> landscape contractors/professional gardeners to help with the maintenance of
> our property. We have 27 units, a bit smaller than most of the licensed, 
> bonded and insured landscape contractors seem to want to bother with.
>> From the landscape team's  understanding, the most important thing seems to
> be the licensing (not bonded or insured) since licensing would result in
> Washington State Labor and Industries coverage for on the job injuries.
> One of the landscape team members emailed the question to the Washington
> state Community Association Institute director and received the response
> that they recommend licensed, bonded and insured, but didn't give any
> details of the reasoning.   Some members think that this answer may stem
> from the fact that most of the communities involved in CAI are very large.
> I do know that some of the communities/condos/homeowners associations are
> smaller than JPC, some even as small as five units. But, CAI may not be 
> considering all of the concerns of the smaller communities, and they may 
> very well
> have different landscape challenges and visions than are group.
> So, whatever you can tell us will be greatly appreciated.
> Cohousingly,
> Sylvie
> Sylvie Kashdan
> Community Outreach Liaison
> Jackson Place Cohousing
> 800 Hiawatha Place South
> Seattle, WA 98144
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