The Bond Between Builder and Buyer

Before some pond-builder gets blasted away by a jealous husband, let’s clarify what we mean by love affair…


It is disturbing to hear complaints from folks who are dissatisfied with their brand new ponds and the contractors who built them. Often pond systems are installed by builders and fail to meet the customer’s expectations. Most often we find the problem stems from a miscommunication between the builder and the buyer. We have both builder and buyers as customers which gives us a unique prospective on the relationship between them and what can go right and wrong. By paying attention to what the other is saying, knowing what to expect from the other and keeping your end of the bargain you can have a love affair with your customer or contractor.


Ignoring Wants


Sometimes the builder does not listen to what the customer is wanting. Take the case of the woman who wanted a true koi pond and got a shallow water garden. A true koi pond is built solely for the safety of the koi (or goldfish). The pond should have been a minimum of three feet deep with no plant shelves and the floor of the pond should have been free of rocks. The woman knew enough about what constituted a true koi pond to question the builder as he constructed the pond but the builder, set in his ways, did not listen to her. The pond was finished only 2 feet at the deepest part, was surrounded by plant ledges and lined with rocks. She had paid him half down when he started the job but since he didn’t provide the koi pond she wanted she refused to pay him the rest.


This problem could have been avoided if the pond builder would have listened to his customer while he was building the pond. If, by doing it the way she wanted, he was to incur more cost he could have simply told her it would cost her more — but he didn’t do that. As it turned out, she gave him a choice — either correct the problem or seek legal means of collecting.


Ignoring Warnings


It’s not always the builder who doesn’t listen. Often the builder will go over the details with the customer before the deal is finalized offering options that would help the future pond owner more easily maintain his pond. Take the case of the man who never wanted his pond to turn green. The builder told him to expect the pond to turn green (a natural algae bloom) unless he installed an ultraviolet water sterilizer. The UV added a few more hundred dollars to the project so the man declined the addition. A month later the weather turned pretty and the algae bloom hit his pond with full force. He complained to us that he couldn’t understand why he paid such good money for a green pond and, for that reason, he was disappointed with the builder. We tried to let him know, as delicately as possible, that perhaps he should consider that the builder warned him it would happen and not judge him so harshly. Luckily, that type of problem is easily solved with the installation of a UV.


5000-Gallon Taste on a 100-Gallon Budget


It’s not realistic to think someone can build a 5000-gallon pond with all the bells and whistles for less than several thousands of dollars, especially if paying labor is involved. Be very suspicious if a contractor bids much lower than the rest. The old saying of “you get what you pay for” holds true here! Even if the builder says he can do it for that low of a price, consider the case of the homeowner who contracted with the lowest bidder. The builder showed up with only a shovel and a buddy to help build it. Two weeks later the hole was dug. The builder cut corners by placing in a liner that was manufactured for the roofing industry. He installed a used pump that he took off another customer’s pond (after replacing it because the pump was not sized correctly). The roofing liner had to be replaced because it was poisoning the fish and the pump died within a year without hope of being able to track down the warrantee.


You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For


Unfortunately a high price does not insure a quality pond. One very unfortunate woman was taken for a cool $10,000 when her contractor installed a 200-gallon pond kit from a department store.


Then there’s the case of the restaurant who got a money pit instead of a pond:


A local restaurant contracted with a company to build a series of three ponds for over $50,000. The contractor used side-skimmers and concreted the bottom without lining it first. When The Doc saw it he said it was the worse job he’d ever seen by a contractor. Dead goldfish were dug out of the side-skimmer and it had leaked down so far that the side-skimmers would no longer work. The ponds were not level and the rockwork appeared as if it had been thrown together. The original contractor was not able to be reached. They had skipped town owing a large debt for the job to the materials supplier. The restaurant had to pay about the same amount again to have it rebuilt by another company. All the rocks were removed, water features removed, the concrete bottom busted out and a liner laid. The waterfalls and rocks were also rebuilt. We are curious if the restaurant failed to check and substantiate references.


Overnight Pond Experts


Perhaps the most frustrating of all the problems that can go wrong between a builder and a buyer is when a “handyman” becomes an overnight expert on ponds. He thinks because he’s taken a seminar on the subject he is qualified to build ponds — period. As the popularity of water in the garden grows any and all breeds of outdoor handymen (and women) — from lawn companies to pool companies — jump on the pond-building bandwagon without learning the basics. The promise of easy earnings is too sweet to pass up. Landscapers, by far, have the best opportunities to build ponds and it makes a nice addition to their core product. We salute those who take the time and effort to learn how to build the pond properly. Unfortunately most overnight pond “experts” take a much easier route.


Marketing Victims


These overnight pond “experts” fall into a category of landscapers and others who are, in our opinion, victims to great marketing efforts. For years the business of pond-building has been dominated by a side-skimmer system that we feel is inadequate in most cases and down-right dangerous to the health of the fish. The manufacturers of these products have run a fabulous marketing campaign. In fact, we’d be smart to take lessons on marketing from them but our conscience prevents that. One can’t open a pond-related magazine without seeing an advertisement. They send out beautifully designed four-color brochures to, it seems, everyone who’s name ever appeared on a pond database. They target the landscaper and appeal most to those who want to cash in on the pond construction craze. They hold seminars designed to teach the landscaper how to install their side-skimmer system that, for a fee, anyone can attend! They build team spirit by inviting their attendees to participate with building a pond together. Upon completion of the 1-day seminar the landscaper is transformed into an “expert pond builder” and can brag that he can build a pond in a day.


This effective marketing program pays off big for the manufacturer. In the US, more side-skimmer systems are installed by landscapers than any other system. We could take advantage of all the dollars spent for marketing and sell this product but we know better. Although we don’t sell the side-skimmer system it still pays off big for us — but for the wrong reasons. A large part of our income is from tearing out these systems and replacing them with more professional and safer ones.


Take this most recent case:


A fellow contracted to have a koi pond built in his backyard. It was an absolutely stunning pond when it was finished. An upper pond ran into a lower pond via a beautiful stream. The builder told him he had 10,000 gallons so he purchased 10 large koi which were quite expensive. The fellow called us about a week after he placed his koi in the pond and asked The Doc to come out because he was having health problems with the fish. The Doc knew right away what was wrong when he saw the pond. The builder had installed a text-book side-skimmer system. There was no circulation of water from the bottom and the biofilter was inadequate for the amount of fish in the pond. The floor of the pond was lined with rock and the deepest part was 18”. Two of the koi were bruised and The Doc brought back one for immediate medical attention. It seems they had injured themselves against the rocks. Worst of all, the pond was only 2500 gallons, not the 10,000 gallons as he was originally told. The fellow was so distraught that he contracted to have a Pond Doc Certified Pond Builder come out to replace the bottom pond and install the correct filtering components. He will soon have a professionally re-designed 5000-gallon koi safe pond.


What the Builder Knows — Not What the Buyer Wants


When a builder is only fluent on one type of system he goes with what he knows no matter what his customer wants.


Take the case of the 600-gallon koi pond:


One of our favorite customers moved to a new house but did not want to leave behind his koi. They were pets and he wanted to provide a good, safe home for them. He chose a company with a good reputation to build a koi pond at his new house. He knew he wanted a bead filter and external pump system but the builder wanted to put in a side-skimmer. It was obviously the only system he knew. Reluctantly the builder agreed to have us put in the filtration system and he would do the rest. We weren’t comfortable with the situation but wanted our customer to have an adequate filtration system for his pets.


His pets were not average koi. There were four of them, each over 24” in length. We held his pets for him while the new pond was being built. When The Doc took the koi to their new home he almost had a heart attack. The pond was lined with large rocks (providing areas where fish waste can settle and never be able to be cleaned out) and the pond was no larger than 600 gallons. The rocks took up what little precious room there was left for these massive koi and made it so shallow it was inviting predators in for the attack. We knew that no amount of filtration would make this a safe pond for his pets. Unfortunately, our customer was forced to choose which of his beautiful pets would have to go.


We find that contractors, especially those who have had measurable success installing the out-dated side-skimmer systems, are reluctant to learn new methods. Perhaps in their minds they don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. What they don’t know is that often their customers end up at our place asking us why they keep losing fish either to the side skimmer or “for no reason”. The reason often is because the bio-filter of the system is very inadequate and the water quality is so poor that fish cannot live. Even if the water is clear it can be deadly.


Signs of a Professional Pond Builder


There’s much more to a professionally built pond than what it looks like when it’s finished. It should be functional as well as beautiful. Low-maintenance and healthy systems are available for comparable cost. The buyer should know what to look for in a prospective builder. He should know what questions to ask and how to separate the professional pond builder from the rest of the pack. Remember — if he is representing himself as a pond builder, he is stating that pond-building is his business and he should know it well!


  • Signs of a Real Professional
  • Knows the difference between a side-skimmer and a fish-safe skimmer.
  • Suggests placing an ultraviolet water sterilizer on the pond and can tell you why.
  • Tells you the importance of installing an external pump vs a submersible pump.
  • Can install a low-maintenance system such as a bead filter and external pump.

  • Has showcase ponds that you can visit.
  • Provides lots of references. (Check them out!)
  • Owns (or rents) equipment.
  • Returns your messages and shows up on time.
  • Is probably booked for a few weeks to a month (unless it’s winter).
  • Knows the difference between a koi pond and a water garden.
  • Does not line the bottom of the pond with rocks.
  • Takes more than a day to build the pond.
  • Builds more than 5 ponds a year.
  • Signs of a Builder Who Knows Only the Side-Skimmer System
  • Suggests placing rocks on the floor of the pond to hide the liner.
  • Says your filter is in the waterfall.
  • Pushes you toward the side-skimmer system.
  • Has never installed an external pump, bead or vortex filter.
  • Tells you it will take him no more than a day or two to build the pond.
  • Does not like to build ponds more than 2 1/2 ft. deep.
  • Signs of a Disaster About to Happen
  • Says you do NOT need a filter.
  • Can install a bog “filter” using sand or lava rock and that’s all you need!
  • Uses a hard plastic preformed pond liner.
  • Suggests a submersible pump.
  • Has never heard of a bead filter.
  • Shows up late and half asleep.
  • Has no references because he’s “new” to town.
  • Drives up towing a trailer filled with lawn mowers and weed eaters only.


Meeting Expectations


A pond-building project requires good negotiation skills from both the builder and the buyer from the bidding process through the end of the project. Know what to expect and what are unrealistic expectations.


Buyer’s Side


  • Don’t expect the pond to be finished in a day. Sometimes it takes a week or two, depending on the amount of hardscaping to be done.
  • Expect problems. Don’t be surprised by them but expect them to be corrected before completion of the project.
  • If you deviate from the original plan expect to pay a little more. Changes can cost the builder labor and materials.
  • When comparing bids, compare apples to apples. One might have a better filtration plan than the other. Ask why one is higher than the other.
  • Don’t be afraid to question anything.
  • Do your homework. Know what components you want in your system and how they work.
  • Listen to any suggestions by the builder. If it saves you time or money it may be well worth it.
  • Ask for warrantee paperwork and packaging before the work begins because these things are easily thrown away and lost during construction.
  • Expect a mess for a while!
  • If he doesn’t return your calls during the bidding process he won’t return them if there is a problem after construction.


Builder’s Side


  • Be prepared to explain the components you want to install and the reasons why.
  • Return phone calls promptly and show up on time.
  • Expect questions.
  • You’re there to give them what they want, not what you want to give them. Listen to them.
  • The job is not finished until they have been checked out on the system. Make sure they know how to clean the filters, etc. before you walk away.
  • Pass along any warrantee paperwork and packaging.
  • Determine the amount of water in the pond at the time it is first filled. This information is necessary to them later on.
  • Expect a return visit after the project is completed. Something always seems to crop up.


Pond Doc Certification


Many of us get into the pond business because we love it. You can always tell which ones we are. We get goofy smiles on our faces when we talk about our favorite koi and get visibly upset when we hear about a favorite fish dying. Unfortunately many get into the business because they see an opportunity to seize a quick buck while the industry is hot. Their passion is not with the pond, it’s with making money.


We’ve heard so many horror stories from individuals who were taken by dishonest builders, who were forced to spend more money to correct problems created by rookie builders and who’ve suffered fish losses from inadequate pond systems that we can’t name (or remember) them all. We always try to get the names of these companies so if we’re asked we can warn folks of possible problems. On the same hand, if we hear good reports we like to pass it along.


We’ve started building a network of professionals who are respected in the industry as qualified pond builders. We do not build ponds ourselves. Instead we choose to concentrate on the inside and on helping others learn to build them. We don’t have the time to conduct many seminars, though we’d like to. We do take the time to work individually with promising landscapers and others to help them learn the skills necessary to become true pond professionals.


A “Pond Doc Certified” pond builder is a member of an elite group of professionals to whom we refer our customers when they want someone who can improve or build their ponds. These professionals have years of experience, know how to install state-of-the-art systems such as the “Doc’s Dream System” and each have a showcase pond at our Alpharetta store location. We know their fine work and enjoy a great business relationship with them, otherwise we wouldn’t feel comfortable having their company names associated with ours.


That’s not to say, however, that any pond builder who isn’t “Pond Doc Certified” isn’t a professional. There’s some out there with whom we’ve yet to build that kind of a relationship.


Pond Building Education


Even the beginner can learn how to install state-of-the-art pond systems. He can even become a true professional — but that doesn’t happen in a day. Although there’s no true “pond school” there is information everywhere. The trick is knowing the difference between good information and good marketing.


We at Pond Doc’s Water Garden Center are at our very best when we help professional landscapers and others become pond professionals. The Doc often visits a job site (especially when a mutual customer is involved) and spends a great amount of time on individual training. Not only do we dive into the world of basic plumbing we feel it’s better for the professional to understand the basic concepts of how a water environment works. Achieving and maintaining clean water quality is the key to a happy and healthy pond environment. A pond builder’s reputation is important even after the pond is built. People do talk, especially when it comes to their ponds, and word gets around. A pond that stays clean and healthy after the builder leaves is the key to repeat business and referrals. 

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