By Don Eberly and Laura Drotleff
Landscapers looking to position themselves as outdoor living space experts have a wide window to capitalize upon an enormous opportunity. Between the slumping housing market forcing homeowners to hold onto their properties and the tough economy keeping consumers grounded, current interest in outdoor living is tremendous.
“Outdoor living specialists are in high demand,” said Joe Raboine, president of Harmony Outdoor Living, Inc., a manufacturer of modular hardscape components in 10 collections called Elements. “Clients are looking for a one-stop shop to handle their outdoor projects, and contractors who provide full service will be able to charge a premium.”
“The secret to successful hardscaping business is a dedication to quality and creativity, and not compromising on profit margins,” said David Gatti, owner and president of P.O.P.S. Landscaping, a premier landscape and hardscape firm in Georgia. “It’s important to learn how to bid properly and invest the time and money into systems and practices that make a business efficient. Also, pricing must be accurate and dependable in order to make a profit.”
Investing in the outdoors
There is no limit to the possibilities consumers have to design beautiful outdoor spaces. Homeowners have conquered every interior room and are now looking outside to extend their living areas and improve their qualities of life.
“Many clients have told us their homes have become magnets for friends, family and neighbors – a place to relax, entertain and reconnect,” said Raboine. “These same clients claim their outdoor spaces have helped them sell their homes.” Consumers can return their initial investment dollar for dollar. J.D. Power ranks outdoor spaces as one of the best home improvement investments, adding up to 20 percent to a property’s value. Recent studies show that outdoor living spaces are the number one requested feature by homeowners in new construction and remodeling.
“The economy is actually helping increase the demand for outdoor living,” said Raboine. “Homeowners feel an investment in their home is a more secure option than the stock market; plus, they get to enjoy their investment every day.”
Harmony Outdoor Living offers contractors an easy way to enter the hardscaping business, which requires very little training, using its Elements collections. Some of the most popular Elements are fireplaces, pizza ovens and formal water features, but the average size project typically includes two to four pieces. “Modular systems like this are designed to make the job of building hardscaped areas easier by way of their individual pieces,” said Raboine.
Gatti recommends that new hardscape designers and contractors find a mentor, and that they seek education through industry associations like PLANET. “Hardscapes have to be managed very closely in order to produce profitable results,” he said. “So many things can go wrong, and experience is essential to predetermine things that could cause potential problems.”
Hardscaping best practices
When designing, selling and installing outdoor rooms, the most important thing contractors can do for their customers is ask questions and listen. “Ask what their intentions are for the space, how they hope to use the space, and what features they want,” said Gatti. Often, these questions will get clients thinking and lead to a larger project.
“Homeowners are looking for someone who can offer them advice and options; be proactive in showing varied concepts and be creative with options,” said Raboine. When surveyed after project completion, many homeowners say they would have spent more if their contractors had shown them more options.
Gatti suggests that new hardscape contractors exercise great caution before bidding on projects unfamiliar to them. It is a good idea in such cases to hire a skilled and recommended subcontractor to provide a price in writing. “Contractors sometimes can make the mistake of thinking that a subcontracted job isn’t a cost, so they only mark it up 10 percent,” said Gatti. “The percentage of mark-up is not always the same as the percentage of profit the subcontractor makes.”
Ensuring that a project is done in a professional and timely manner is also crucial. “We steer our clients toward using products that we know are readily available in our timeline, have a good track record for sustainability, value, and long term quality,” said Gatti.
Last year, P.O.P.S. Landscaping began installing a Web cam on each job, so clients can log on while away, as well as for project management purposes at the P.O.P.S. office. “This allows clients to see the progress of their job and enables us a channel for immediate feedback or answers from clients on any issues that may arise,” said Gatti. “This unique approach speeds up the process and gives homeowners the freedom to go about their usual business, without feeling tied down to their properties during the project. They can also give their friends and family online passwords so they can share the excitement of the project with their loved ones. Our clients love this.” Staying on top of technologies that meet clients’ needs is essential.
Hardscape trends are going au natural with such popular materials as flagstone, tumbled stone, and reclaimed street cobbles. Earth tones are the most fashionable colors. Manufactured concrete pavers and wall materials are following the same trends, with many companies constructing accurate reproductions of natural materials.
P.O.P.S. Landscaping specializes in natural stone products, such as flagstone, field stone, and crushed slate or aggregate, affixed in the dry-set method, which Gatti says is the closest to nature, lasts the longest, and requires the least amount of upkeep. “Think of all of the stone structures in Europe that were built thousands of years ago that have still maintained their integrity and are as beautiful today as they were back then,” said Gatti. “Our clients want the least amount of maintenance and most beauty they can get.”
Harmony Outdoor Living, Inc. predominantly uses concrete pavers and wall materials to construct its Elements system pieces. Most of the materials are tumbled or cast in stone to resemble natural stone or clay pavers. “The advancements in technology for producing accurate reproductions of natural stone are revolutionizing the industry by providing consistent and cost-effective alternatives to natural stone,” said Raboine. “They are bringing the aesthetics of certain materials to a price level attainable for the masses. By using these products to construct our modular hardscapes, we are making outdoor living features more accessible.”
Other trends include permeable pavers, which are coming into their own with new technologies and styles. Interest in green building has become mainstream, with many homeowners conserving water. In addition to their driveways, homeowners are asking contractors to incorporate permeable and rainwater harvesting systems into their outdoor living spaces.
Hardscapes are a continuing and growing trend in the industry, one that will not be slowing anytime soon as evidenced by ongoing demand. Staying on top of this important facet of satisfying customers and clients is a means to profit and new business.
Don Eberly is co-owner of Eberly & Collard Public Relations, a national PR and advertising firm specializing in the home, garden, design and agribusiness industries. Laura Drotleff is a writer with Eberly & Collard Public Relations. Eberly & Collard Public Relations can be reached at 404-574-2900.