Why are retaining walls so expensive?

Offering reliable landscaping services to homeowners in British Columbia since 2013

Sam Maerz

Sam Maerz

Owner/Foreman

From time to time, we hear a version of “That’s too expensive”, or “I can’t afford that”.

While that may or may not be true, it bothers me because this way of thinking could be from a lack of education on our part. In this article I will explain why hiring a contractor based on price is almost always going to return bad value for the homeowner.

The goal of this article is to make you aware of the reality when comparing prices (multiple bids), and what factors of a project you may be unaware of.

allan-block-retaining-wall

The first major hurdle in assessing a project’s cost is the scope of work, and getting multiple bids.

What is a scope of work?

The scope of work is a written section in the proposal or contract, that outlines exactly what is being done.

In reality, this is a vague roadmap for a project. The scope of work usually contains the “big stuff” of a project, like approximate dimensions, product to be used, color, etc.  Even the best scopes of work only account for 25-75% of the project.

 

What the scope of work doesn’t include are:

  • Google reviews sharing previous customers experiences.
  • Training for the field installers
  • Skills and craftsmanship of the workers
  • Tools and equipment supplied to them
  • How the landscapers on site carry themselves and communicate around your family and property
  • Resources (knowledge & financial) available to the company should things become more challenging than originally anticipated
  • How long  this company will be in business for. If they have not invested heavily into their company, it’s much easier for them to close up, and start something else.

 

 

After seeing this list, it’s impossible to compare multiple bids, or scope of work, apples to apples, because no job is being done the same.

 

The second component to comparing multiple bids that is typically overlooked is how do you guarantee, or even know, if the scope of work is being followed, and completed?

For a retaining wall it’s pretty easy to see the finished wall, and know the wall is the appropriate length and height, but how about the gravel behind the wall? Is there any drainage? Is it enough?

For retaining walls excavating enough soil behind the wall for drainage is one of the most expensive components to the build. Cheating this excavation is why the vast majority of concrete retaining walls fail early on in their life.

A typical retaining wall will require a drainage zone of 12-24” behind it. This means the soil is excavated, hauled, and disposed of, and gravel is imported behind the wall. Disposing of the soil can costs the same, or more, than buying brand new topsoil. Because of the soil excavating and disposal costs, this is almost always cheated to save the contractor money.

This issue is relevant to almost every landscaping project. Have you ever noticed a paver patio or driveway sinking, or settling? This is not a paver issue; this is due to a lack of excavating the soil to the proper depth, and compaction of the gravel. Pavers are much stronger than concrete, so when they fail its almost always an installation issue.

 

failed-allan-block-retaining-wall

So, if it’s not possible to compare multiple bids, or scope of work, apples to apples, how do you decide what the best value is?

That is a very personal decision, but as a professional we can say this. The price of a landscaping project is only part of the equation. Try ranking these in order from 1-5.

  • Google reviews (previous costumers experience)
  • Education (offered to make an informed decision)
  • Trust (Gut instinct/feel)
  • People behind the company (Owners, Foreman, Crew Leader, Landscapers)
  • Price

 

Sometimes we have projects done around our home, and they are temporary. Years ago , we had our homes cedar siding painted knowing full well in a few years we were going to replace the siding. We hired the cheapest painter we knew, and he did a quick low-quality job. It was perfect! We saved 60% by hiring him, and when it started to peel 2 years later, we replaced all the siding.

This could be the scenario you are in. You want to temporarily fix your yard up, and buy yourself some time before you do a complete backyard makeover. Why waste money on a better job when its temporary!

In that case, hire the cheapest landscaper you TRUST, and expect to redo the project in the future.

 

allan-block-retaining-wall

My final thought I want to bring up is that it’s always cheaper to build landscapes correctly the first time.

When we come to redo a failing Allan Block wall we have to demo the existing wall, stack the blocks, clean them, and then completely start over. Its money wasted, when compared to building it correctly the first time.

The added stress, and hassle of having a project done twice is always regretted.

Save yourself a lot of headaches and ask yourself, do I want this project to last, function well, and look great, or do I want to hire only based on price.

If you’re having trouble understanding why some proposals are considerably different, ASK! Every contractor should be able to articulate why they charge what they charge.

Once you understand the project, pricing, and contractor, you can make an informed buying decision!

 

Sam Maerz is the author of this article, and co-owner of Back 40 Landscaping. He serves as the Technical Sales Consultant, and project Foreman.