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Landscaping is big business in the United States — a $97.8 billion market — and it’s an industry with plenty of growth potential across the country. But California represents a unique opportunity to landscaping entrepreneurs, because it’s the single largest state market. According to the latest numbers from BLS.gov, 106,000 people are already employed in California’s landscaping business, and the amount of work continues to grow. It’s a great time to start a landscaping business in California.

There’s a catch, though: To bid on any landscaping jobs worth more than $500 (includes labor and materials), you’ll need to get California’s C-27 license. Getting the license is an involved process and requires some work. But if you’re serious about growing your landscaping business in the Golden State, this licensing is necessary. It will open the right doors and give you access to the kinds of jobs that will make your landscaping business a success.

C-27 license

Image: Getty Images

Let’s look at how to get a landscaping license in California.

What is a landscape contractor?

We’ll start with the definition. According to the state of California, a landscape contractor is that which constructs, installs, maintains or repairs the development of landscaping (which is anything that will aesthetically or horticulturally improve the grounds being landscaped). You can find the full language here.

In short: If you plan to work with, maintain, or improve the grounds of properties, you’re considered a landscape contractor by the State of California — which means you need a contractor’s license to work legally.

What are the California requirements to get a C-27 landscape contractor’s license?

Basic requirements

First, there are a few personal requirements that you’ll need to make sure you comply with before you can apply for a landscaping contractor license:

  • You need to be at least 18 years old
  • You’ll need a drivers license (or other valid USID, such as a state ID, resident alien card, or US passport)
  • A social security number or ITIN number
  • Not currently on probation or parole

Experience requirements

This is where the rules get a bit more in-depth, because California requires you to have at least 4 years of full-time journey level landscaping experience over the past decade.

How do you prove you’ve had this experience? There are two main components:

A professional reference

First, you’ll need someone to verify that you’ve had the appropriate landscaping experience. Here are some examples of credible references:

  • General contractor
  • C-27 license holder
  • Foreman or supervisor
  • Fellow journeyman or employee
  • Business associate

Additional documentation

Be prepared to provide additional written evidence regarding your landscaping experience. It isn’t always necessary, but sometimes the licensing board asks for it. (Ed Note: Common additional evidence is pay stubs (if applicant worked for another entity) or tax documents/prior permits/prior contracts (for those who were self-employed)).

Application best practices

Filling out your application is one of the most important parts of the licensing process — and it’s one of the easiest steps to get wrong. Remember: What you put on the application is all that the licensing board will see of you, so it’s crucial to ensure that all of your qualifications make it onto the page.

To that end, one of the most important things to get right is the description of your knowledge and skill set. This description will be written by your professional reference, so make sure to give them good instructions!

Their description of your skills should be specific. For example: “John has experience in seeding lawns, transplanting trees, soil testing, establishing native plant populations, and advanced fertilization techniques” is a much better description than “John takes good care of lawns.”

And for the best chance at getting a description that will pass the licensing board, here’s a tip: Compile your own list of your landscaping skills first. Then give that list to your reference so they don’t have to rely on their own memory when they’re writing your recommendation. (Be sure to ask them to use the skills by name. It matters!)

Application requirements

Here’s what else you need to know about the application process:

  • Be aware that you’ll need to be live-scan fingerprinted.
  • Be honest about your legal history when the application asks about prior misdemeanors and felonies—if you have a record, it will show up anyway when you’re fingerprinted.
  • Follow all the instructions the first time. This avoids having to repeat the process.

How long does it take to get a landscape contractor’s license in California?

Once you’ve finished (and double-checked) your application, you’ll submit it to the Contractor’s State License Board (a department within the agency of the California Department of Consumer Affairs). Then, you’ll wait.

It takes approximately 6 to 8 weeks for your application to be processed, and then — if it’s approved — you’ll likely wait another 3 to 4 weeks for your test date. (Ed. Note: COVID-19 has impacted processing and testing time. Due to prior closures and suspension of all exams, there is a backlog of test applicants. Testing has resumed; COVID-19 safety measures have reduced how many people can take the exam at one time due to distancing requirements.)

Exam requirements

The second major requirement of a C-27 landscaping license is passing the C-27 license exam. While passing the exam is a subject all on its own, here’s a high-level overview of what to expect.

  • The exam has two parts — the first part contains 115 questions on contractor law, and second contains 115 questions about landscaping.
  • Each part is multiple choice and has a 3.5 hour time limit.
  • You’ll take the test at an on-site computer.
  • The test is conducted in English, but you are allowed to bring a translator if you make arrangements in advance.

(If you want more information on how to prepare for the C-27 licensing exam, you can get good information here from the Contractors State License Board.)

Where can you get your landscape contractor’s license in California?

You’ll take the C-27 landscaping license exam at one of the CSLB testing centers. There are eight throughout the state, located in Berkeley, Fresno, Norwalk, Oxnard, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, and San Jose. (E-mail the CSLB to schedule or reschedule an appointment.)

For more information on C-27, a helpful resource is the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA). The CLCA is well-versed in C-27 license information, and offers a list of industry resources on its website.
CLCA member benefits are useful to both established and newly licensed contractors. Resources available include California legally compliant contract forms, an HR advisor on-call service, a construction attorney on-call service, webinars, education and more. (These are all included in the discounted membership for newly licensed contractors.)

What happens after you’ve completed the exam?

Since the exam is on a computer, you’ll get immediate results after you’ve completed the questions. If you’ve passed, you’ll get a license activation and contractor bond number, and your license will arrive in the mail. (If you didn’t pass the exam, though, all is not lost. You’ll be able to retake it as often as the CSLB can reschedule you within an 18-month period — pay a $60 fee each time.)

How much does it cost to get a landscape contractor’s license?

Here’s the basic list of expenses:

  • Application fee – $330
  • License activation fee – $200
  • Fingerprinting fees – (varies)
  • Contractor bond fee – around $150

Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay renewal fees every two years to keep your C-27 license active — right now, the renewal fee is $450. Remember that all fees are subject to change, so be sure to reference the Contractors State License Board’s official list of fees here.

Licensing is an important step in your landscaping career. Getting your C-27 license takes some time and effort, but it’s worth it. Starting and growing a landscaping business in California is a great way to make a living — and the opportunities will only increase as your business grows and becomes more established. Good luck!

This content was written by Bryan O’Connell, CEO of Huckleberry Insurance, an insurtech company that sells small business insurance that’s 100% easy and 100% online.

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