Which landscaping company do we use with crazy different quotes?
May 6, 2015 6:27 PM   Subscribe

We have two quotes from landscapers, and our decision is coming down to how they are proposing to deal with the drainage. How do we make this decision?

Our back yard slopes down towards our house. Certain parts of our yard remain damp almost all of the time. Our current drainage situation is very bad. We want it fixed.

Landscaper One proposes a $6000 solution to our drainage situation. This would involve a gravelled walkway that doubles as a way to catch the water (it's not just gravel on dirt--it's kind of a whole system) and funnel it over to a pipe which will then drain off of the property. Landscaper One had his assistant come out during a rainstorm and take a lot of pictures and measurements.

Landscaper Two proposes to handle the drainage situation by shaping the dirt so it tilts towards the same corner of the yard where Landscaper One intends to aim his drainage (so at least they have that in common). To Landscaper Two, this is such a simple thing that he basically includes it in the part where they're adding topsoil and cleaning up the yard, but the cost of that cleanup does not seem to be inflated to include any real focus on drainage.

Obviously, it'll be nice if we can get away with this with Landscaper Two's proposal, but my instincts are screaming at me that the dirt will just wash away (we're getting it seeded with grass but not having sod installed) and that the drainage problem with remain and that Landscaper Two isn't taking it seriously enough.

But I don't actually know a thing about this, and worry that I'm just biased towards "if you spend more money on it, it's more likely to be fixed properly."

Have any of you had a similar drainage issue? How did it work out? Help?
posted by hought20 to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Does either contract include the words "warranty" or specify what remedy they will provide if their solution doesn't work? Not that you want to just cheapo out and then demand a warranty fix, but offering a warranty could be a signal of whether or not the contractor really believes this will work, or whether they're low-balling to get the job, do the job quick and move on to another job, making money in volume rather than quality.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:34 PM on May 6, 2015

No answer to your specific question, but you'll probably find people asking similar questions if you search for "regrading vs french drain".
posted by suedehead at 6:54 PM on May 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I've had landscaping services give two very different quotes on the same project with a disparity not unsimilar to yours. I went with the folks who gave the lower quote and am very happy with the results a year later. I can't help you with your specific question but I can say that the company giving you a lower quote is not necessarily cutting corners, etc. I've had the same thing happen when getting quotes from different dentists, carpenters, and more. I went with the "cheaper" option and things worked out great: of course, they're all professionals but with different approaches, techniques, and motivations. Perhaps you could go back to the first company and either mention the lower quote and/or ask what they can do for x-amount?
posted by smorgasbord at 6:59 PM on May 6, 2015

Just as one data point I can tell you that in 2008 we had the side of our house relandscaped for the same problem as you and have been very happy with the contractor's solution. Of course I can't tell if your problem is the same as ours (worse, better or just different). But these are some things he said and did:
- he took a piece of paper, curved it and said water is stupid, each drop just wants to go down hill, so it's a matter of providing places for it to run off to that is away from your house
- he said we and our next door neighbor on that side were sharing a swale, and ours was the lower part of it, so we were losing
- he created a much, much larger patio (the old patio became a walk way to the new one)
- he put in a retaining wall around that patio, and worked with the concrete contractor to get the new patio and the walkway slanted in two directions
- he had us separately contract for a modern no clog gutter system to insure all the water from the roof ended up in the downspouts which...
- under the earth held back by the retaining wall he put heavy plastic pipes that carried the rain water to the far rear corner of our property and the far front of our property near our driveway, the terminators of those pipes were pop-ups that discharged the water but kept dirt out.

By the way, I saw him out working with a transit during the job. Also this is flat New Jersey, so we don't have the luxury of running the water any old place.

In all the years since we have never had any problem with the system this guy did. Back then (but this was right during the recession) this was $10,000.

Well, the only bad thing was the concrete contractor poured the patio on top of the gas line to our BBQ which crushed it, but other than that a great job.
posted by forthright at 7:02 PM on May 6, 2015

I'd say it's not so much about "if you spend more money on it, it's more likely to be fixed properly", but about the fact that drainage can actually be quite a difficult thing to fix properly, and the first guy took the time to actually assess your issues.

You might get lucky with landscaper 2, but if your yard is wet most of the time, you clearly have some serious drainage issues and it's just as likely that his quick fix won't work. I've seen people sink thousands into fixing drainage improperly before getting it right. At the very least, I'd ask for a portfolio or a reference or two where landscaper 2 had dealt effectively with similar interests.

Keep in mind that anyone can call themselves a landscaper (as opposed to a landscape architect) - I would suspect that there is a significant difference between their training and expertise.
posted by scrute at 7:43 PM on May 6, 2015

Landscaper 1 is proposing a French drain. When built correctly, they work. Because your estimate from Landscaper 2 is so low, I highly doubt s/he is proposing extensive (and effective) regrading. If your drainage is both so poor that your yard remains wet AND threatens water damage of your house, I would scrounge up the money for a real and permanent solution and go with Landscaper 1, especially if it prevents the cost of water damage to your house later.
posted by missmary6 at 7:52 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Either solution will work, if done correctly. Water will run downhill, which sounds simple but it has remained a central engineering problem for thousands and years and obviously we are still struggling with it. Just having a low area or underground drain system won't work if it doesn't have the capacity for the expected flow, for example. It's also really easy to fix one problem while making other problems worse, which with water can get expensive quickly.

Honestly this isn't a question that can be answered with the information presented here. More quotes might help, or if you can get someone who is an expert but not a bidding contractor to come and take a look at it, they might be able to see the right solution.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:42 PM on May 6, 2015

It's not clear to me that #1 is necessarily proposing a french drain, since the gravel/soil profile is still conveying water horizontally across the yard - a french drain is typically a deep dry well that accepts surface runoff or piped water, and gives some holding capacity to allow water time/space to percolate into the soil. What worries me the most about #1 is "then drain off of the property". In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to take your unwanted storm water and discharge it onto your neighbor's property. I would make very sure that what they are proposing is allowed before proceeding.

What #2 is proposing sounds like a swale, basically a glorified trench to convey water. A totally respectable solution for controlling surface water, but what appears to be missing in their scheme is some sort of collection area (or, ahem, french drain) at its terminus to allow water to percolate into the soil.

I would call each contractor and ask them to explain their design to you. That will hopefully demonstrate how detailed their thinking is behind the design, and how carefully and completely they thought it through.

Did either of them do a perc test of your soil? (dig a hole, fill it with water, time how long it takes to drain) If one did and the other did not, hire the one that did, since they are clearly thinking about this more holistically and scientifically.
posted by misterbrandt at 8:55 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd ask you to get a THIRD quote... from a lesser known company. Do NOT show them the existing quotes you got.
posted by kschang at 9:14 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, there's not really enough information to go on; if you have a seep that water persistently comes out of rather than a drainage issue isn't clear. It's true that surface runoff issues can sometimes be dealt with in a simple way, but so much of that depends on the grades, the soils, the climate where you live... I'm sure they're both aiming for the same corner of the yard because that's the low point. Get another opinion, if you can, and you'll just have to use your judgement on who you trust more, ultimately.

scrute: "Keep in mind that anyone can call themselves a landscaper (as opposed to a landscape architect) - I would suspect that there is a significant difference between their training and expertise."

While this is true sometimes, it's also arbitrary. I have a great deal of experience with both and I have to say most landcapers have wildly varying degrees of experience, ability, or sense. The same is true of LAs; though they've received some education and have to have a particular skillset, very often they have little real-world experience and not much sense. Many that come out of "good" schools (I'm looking at you, UGA) have ridiculous ideas and not much ability beyond CAD skills. I'm just saying you shouldn't assume that anyone really knows anything based on their title, which is true for a lot of things.
posted by Red Loop at 2:50 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Proper drainage is expensive. It involves moving a lot of earth, and hauling gravel, and digging. I'm intimately familiar with rock drains in two California houses that have to handle the occasional 3" torrent and am grateful in both places they were done the right way, not cheaply. If it were me I'd take that $6000 proposal more seriously, particularly since they actually came out in the rain and prepared a plan. I share your instinct that a little bit of sculpted topsoil isn't going to fix anything.

You mentioned your back yard slopes to the house; are you sure you don't have problems with the foundation getting inundated? That's potentially a lot worse than a soggy lawn.
posted by Nelson at 8:05 AM on May 7, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you for providing the language I needed: The gravelly walkway is a swale, not a french drain. It will drain off of the property and into the gutter along the street, where there are storm drains (and where most houses on my street drain to, though the house behind us drains into our yard, argh). There is no seepage, it just takes a very long time for our yard to dry after rain. It's possible I exaggerated a bit when I said "all the time," but it's true that the lowest area of our yard, around the deck, is basically a mud flat that occasionally dries out. We're in NC and get plenty of rain. From what we've been told, this is not a problem for our foundation. The dip is at the edge of the deck rather than right along the house.

Oddly, we do have an existing french drain (now I know what it's called!), it's just not in the right spot and is perpetually clogged from topsoil runoff (we clean it, it clogs up the next rain).

Both of these landscaping companies are reputable and good. Outside of the drainage thing, their quotes are very similar for similar work (cleaning out the ivy, cleaning out some beds, flattening an area for a playset, seeding some grass twice due to the season, etc).

Someone pointed out to me that we might as well go with the cheaper quote, since there's no additional cost for the drainage solution (therefore no real financial risk), and see if they happen to fix the drainage. If not, then we'll go with the other guys next summer when we plan to get more landscaping done anyway and have them put in their drain system.

I'm still on the fence, but this was mighty helpful. I feel like the right answer is to go ahead and get another quote or two, and I should stop being lazy and reluctant about it. I just want to get this DONE so our yard stops sucking.
posted by hought20 at 8:38 AM on May 7, 2015

I recently asked a similar question.

We went with a cheaper quote, with a less high-tech solution, and we are EXTREMELY happy with the results.

The expensive quote involved sinking a sump pump, running electrical to power it, and laying very expensive pipe. The cost of the pipe alone equalled the entire cost of the other job.

What we had done was some small catchment basins put in (a total of 6 in all the low/damp spots), corrugated plastic pipe buried and exiting through the curb, to the drain into the city storm drain (which is legal where we live). He also added dirt to the low spots and seeded grass, which is happily growing well less than a month later.

The clincher was that the cheaper option included a warranty - we did not pay him until after the next hard rain, when we were thrilled to find out that his solution work PERFECTLY.

Good luck... and there is hope for your sucky backyard!
posted by raspberrE at 10:06 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you have this covered, but I'm chiming in anyway because I struggled for a long time with a very similar situation in Georgia. We ended up solving it with a combination of your two approaches, plus some strategic landscaping. We put in drain pipes below a gravel walkway for the worst part of it, filled in some dirt in other parts of it, and tied it all together with some strategic landscaping. This included adding hardy shrubs and ground covers that can live in that type of environment, such as dwarf mondo, and also some larger stones and small retaining walls to help keep dirt in place and guide the water where we wanted it to go. All taken together, it worked really well, and ended up just looking like a nicely (though not extravagantly) landscaped backyard where once we had only a perpetually soggy mud pit. It took years of failed half-measures before we finally realized we had to go "all the way" with it, but in the end it came out great.

Good luck!
posted by spilon at 2:10 PM on May 7, 2015

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