How to price retaining walls.

There are a lot of methods out there one can use to create a price for building a retaining wall however most of them just don’t work. The biggest error done is basing a wall price on it’s total square feet. In this discussion from the Gopher Lawn Care Business Forum, we will see why that is a poor pricing method and what is a better way to go about it.

One lawn care business owner wrote “I recently got asked to put in a segmental retainer wall for a client. Quarry Stone to be exact. When I price a wall, I go by the cost to purchase materials, deliver of all the materials, and then I figure in labor. However 90% of the competition just prices by the square foot, in between $20 - $30 dollars per square foot for walls. Just to stay competitive, what is the going rate now on walls? Is it still in that same margin or have people increased that price due to cost of doing business these days.

I always like to compare and I compared the price I came up with for this wall with just doing $25 per square foot, and the prices were drastically different. As a matter of fact, at $25 per sq ft, the job wouldn’t even be worth it. It’s like $5,500 just in materials and the wall is 176 sq ft. Then another 52 linear ft for the caps. Do I need to include a warranty on my work too?”

A second lawn care business owner said “to shed a little insight onto retaining wall pricing, there are several factors that determine the price.

One very important factor is:
Length of wall and height. A wall that is 1′ tall and 400′ long versus a 50′ wall that is 6′ tall.

  • The 1st wall is 400 square face feet x ($35. per square face foot)=$14,000.00
  • The 2nd wall is 300 square face feet. x ($35. per square face foot)=$10,500.00

Which wall will be more profitable?

If you price these jobs by the square face and the price was the same for both, you would get KILLED on the 1st wall. I am sure that you already know that the hardest and most time consuming part of the wall construction is the foundation. For the most part, the foundation preparation should be the same (possibly a little more base material on the taller wall but this is not a big factor). So if it takes 1 hour to dig out and prep 5′ of foundation, and 1 hour of labor is priced at $55.00 per hour, about $550.00 in labor to prep the 2nd wall and $4,400.00 to prep the first wall. So this is why square footage pricing is dangerous. Please do not get me wrong, we do still price out our walls by the square face foot, however we do not have a fixed number.

Also, grade your are working with, finish grade, height of wall and grids needed, material selection, and project location are all very important factors that are not the same from job to job.”

A third added “As far as warranty, one year in my opinion is standard however for some larger commercial projects that I have completed, I have had to extend it to 2 year. In my opinion and through experience if the wall is going to move, it will do so within the first year anyway. Usually the first freeze and thaw is when most issues pop up. There are a lot of mechanics to building a wall that will determine the structure of the wall. If one has built a sound straight (meaning in line) wall and did not cut corners, there should be no worries about any warranty issues. I have had to fix some walls and the honest reason is because we tried to cut corners that I thought were not important!

An example was that I was reading a set of plans and thought that the foundation should be 18” thick and 1 course of wall should be buried. Well that would have been 26” down below grade for top of dirt. Away we dug. Got to the site to check on the guys and do a foundation sign off and re-opened my plans to realize I made an 8” mistake. So I thought that I would try to save a few bucks and put 8” of disturbed soil back in and compact it with a grade-all (huge forklift type machine). The guys ran over that several times with the machine and then we set our foundation and laid the first block. As soon as we got a heavy rain, guess what happened…that dirt that we put back in settled. Guess who had to pay to repair it? Yup…trying to save $1,000 in gravel cost me about $20,000 in labor and replacing some material. GREAT lessen to learn!

My best advice is the more time you spend with the customer before the project, the less time you have to spend after. What I mean is if you spend as much time with the customer before starting the project, you will have a good idea of their needs/demands. It is a lot easier to iron problems out before starting the project then when everything is complete.

Now with this said, I still have challenging or more demanding customers regularly. One thing that you have to remember is the customer is the one paying for this service. You have to put yourself in their shoes…$10,000.00 for a patio, you bet I am going to get it the way I want.
If it is nearly impossible to satisfy a customer, I try putting the ball back in their court. For example…A set of steps. The customer wanted 8″ rises and you gave them 6-1/2″ rises without talking to them first. This would be your responsibility to fix the situation! Now if rise was never discussed (shame on you) you can work around this. Ask the customer what they are displeased with. They will provide you with an answer. You then ask them ‘Mr. or Mrs. Customer, if I make this modification to the steps, will you be pleased with the outcome of this project?’ 9 times out of ten, you will get a satisfied customer this way because they had a chance to get everything out on the table that was bothering them.

If you repair everything they ask, even though you know that it looks better with 6-1/2″ rises etc… they have no recourse. However if you never bother to seek the problem, you can never remedy the situation.

Sometimes you have to lose money on a project to keep a customer happy. This is very frustrating to do. If however you leave that dissatisfied customer you are likely to get a bad name quickly. Someone will provide a friend, family member, neighbor, or colleague advice on NOT choosing a company rather than positive advice about a company. If a customer feels like they got ‘ripped off’ of $10,000.00 they will tell everyone.

I do not pre-qualify customers. I used to judge but that lost me a few jobs! I now do not decide if I will take a job or not based on house size, car driven, race, religion etc! I have been taken on two jobs in my 10 years of business. Both jobs were customers who fit your stereotypical white collar wealthy business person profile.

This may be counter intuitive but a small house should mean to you a smaller mortgage, meaning more money to spend on landscaping projects. A more mid range car should mean smaller or not even having a car payment which equals more money to spend on their landscape.

There is such a thing as an intuition and your feeling of a customer should be very important but like I said before, the people I least suspected, got me. So the moral of the story, get a good contract in place, get a solid deposit and clearly discuss payment terms before the project. Do not expect the customer to know them because it says so in the contract. Read it to them and explain it to them. Ask them if the understand the payment terms. Ask them if they have questions. Explain to them the payment forms you accept (credit card, check, cash, money order, debit card, gift card etc…)

A customer that typically ask about financing or if you take credit cards generally does not have the money to pay for the project in ‘liquid assets’ or in a checking account. This does not have to be a red flag; however look more into their questioning.

Another key warning sign is when a customer tells you how to do a project. This is a typical DIY homeowner. You have to be very upfront and honest with this type of customer. Nicely explain to them that they hired you for your professional services and that is what you are going to deliver. You have developed processes over the years that have proven to be very effective and that is the way that the job will go. Basically you are telling them that if they know so much about this why they don’t do it themselves.”

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