Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Patio Project, Phase Two: Materials

Although the biggest component in a paver patio—the pavers themselves—has already been supplied by Freecycle, there's still quite a lot of material that needs to go into the ground before the pavers can be installed. According to our handy guide, those pavers will need to go on top of four inches of gravel topped with one inch of sand, and to keep pesky weeds out, there should be a layer of landscape fabric under all that. Now, landscape fabric we could just pick up at the Home Depot, and they do sell gravel and sand there as well—but only in 50-pound bags, and we'd need around 34 of them for the sand alone. At $2.50 apiece. So it quickly became apparent that buying by the bag wasn't really going to be either practical or economical.

So last week, I started searching for a place in our area that sells gravel and sand in bulk. And I quickly ran up against my first snag: I had no idea what kind of business to look for. There was no listing in the Yellow Pages under "gravel," and when I looked under "stone" I kept finding places that sold stone countertops. So finally I just put our address into Google, told it to "search nearby," and typed in "gravel." That gave me several names to get started with. Most of the listings included websites, too, but when I tried to visit them, I ran into my second snag. Two of the listed websites didn't work at all; others had little or no information about what products the business actually carried. Fortunately, I did find one, the Belle Mead Co-Op, that not only had a complete product list but included price information as well. So with the help of that site, I was able to come up with a baseline estimate of about $210—including delivery—for all the stuff we wanted to buy. That was the price that the other businesses on my list would have to try to beat.

Getting estimates from these other businesses wasn't as easy as I'd hoped, either. At the first one I tried, I got a machine and left a message, and no one ever called me back. At the second one, a guy told me how much they charged per ton for sand and gravel, but he shied away from giving me an actual estimate, saying he wanted to wait for the guy who was in charge of that department to come back because he didn't want to give me information that might be wrong. Since that business also had an e-mail address, I tried sending a message to request a quote, but once again, no reply. And the third one I called said they didn't sell sand.

Well, at this point, the Belle Mead Co-Op was starting to look pretty good to me. I sent them an e-mail to make sure they could deliver to our area, and they responded—promptly, no less—to say it would be no problem. But before taking the plunge and ordering from them, I took a quick look at the FAQ on their site and discovered snag number three: the site said it was "not recommended" to "combine bulk products in the same dump delivery," such as gravel and sand, because they would mix together when dumped. That meant that we'd have to get two separate shipments, each with the $85 delivery charge. So my original estimate was now bumped up to around $300.

Slightly sticker-shocked by this revelation, I decided to make a more concerted effort to get quotes from more nearby places in the hopes that they could deliver for less. At the first place, I got the machine again, and I didn't bother leaving a second message, since I doubted it would get a response of the first one hadn't. At the second, I managed to reach the guy in charge of the gravel department, who ran some calculations and told me that he thought we would actually need more than a ton of sand for the top layer, even though every calculator I'd tried elsewhere said it should be a bit less. So he gave me an estimate that included 1.5 tons of sand and two delivery charges (of $80 each, despite the fact that this place was only half as far away from us as the Co-Op). Total cost: about $283.

Well, that was less than what I expected to pay at the Co-Op, but honestly, I wasn't that thrilled at the prospect of dealing with these guys. Based on my interactions with them, they just didn't strike me as all that reliable. I also dug up one more local business off the list and, after being cut off the first time I called, managed to get an estimate from them. They were actually the closest of all to us, yet they were charging a $100 delivery fee per truck, which bumped their total cost up to $313. The fact that this was higher than the Co-Op's estimate was what finally made my mind up that the Co-Op's price was reasonable, and it was worth an extra $15 or so to go with the business that seemed most trustworthy. They'd been up-front about their prices, listing everything right on the web; they'd answered all my questions promptly; they just seemed like a better place to do business with.

Turns out my instincts were right on. When I called them up to place the order, the guy on the phone jotted down all my information and then offered a suggestion: why not get "stone dust" instead of sand? Stone dust, apparently, is a mixture of coarse and fine stone tailings, and contractors usually prefer it to sand because it's cheaper and easier to work with. The idea was that we could sort the stuff by the shovelful and add the coarser bits to the gravel base, then use the fine dust for the top layer. To make up for the fact that the stone dust contains both coarse and fine bits, we could increase the volume of stone dust slightly, and decrease the volume of gravel. And if we used stone dust, we wouldn't need two separate deliveries, since it wouldn't matter if it mixed with the gravel; we'd just sort it as we shoveled anyway. I was so thrilled to have just saved $85 that when he offered to sell us the landscape fabric as well, I said yes without even bothering to see if it was cheaper at Home Depot; I was happy to throw a little extra business their way and have one less thing to pick up ourselves.

So, in total, I ended up buying 3 tons of road stone, 1.5 tons of stone dust, 1 hundred-foot roll of landscape fabric, and a pack of staples for holding it down, for $278.68, including delivery—less than I'd have paid at any of the local places even without the landscape fabric thrown in. And when I hung up the phone, I felt more justified than ever in my view that, when dealing with any kind of service—even if the service is just having something delivered—you'll get the best value by dealing with a business you trust. And often, as it turns out, you'll actually pay the lowest price that way, as well.

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