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California Landscaping License: How to Get Certified as a Landscaper in California

July 22, 2022 9 min. read
Academy / Landscaping License / California

Californians love to spend their time outside, and they need well-designed yards, green grass, maintained lawns, and trimmed hedges to enjoy it to the fullest. That may be why landscaping salaries in California are 12% higher than the national average.

You don’t need a California landscaping license to get in on the action, but you’ll want one to expand your business and take on more serious projects. Licensed landscape contractors make an average of $72,000 annually in The Golden State after fees, insurance, salaries, and other business expenses.

Not bad, right? As the California Landscape Contractors Association puts it: “Licensure = Credibility = Dollars.”

The most important step on your journey to becoming a professional, profitable landscaper is obtaining your Landscaping Contractor’s License. We’ll walk you step-by-step through everything you need to know:

Bookmark this page and check back regularly to ensure you’re on course to getting your landscaping contractor’s license.

Do you need a license to be a landscaper in California?

Yes, you need a license to be a landscaper in California. The California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board (CSLB) oversees licensing in the state. It doesn’t require landscapers to have a license unless the project’s costs exceed $500 (including labor and materials). Still, it’s hard to be a successful landscaper when you only take on smaller low-paying projects like these:

  • Planting flowers, bushes, or small trees
  • Patching holes in the yard
  • Repairing fences
  • Trimming hedges
  • Mowing lawns
  • Maintaining sprinklers
  • Assembling lawn furniture

Project scope beyond this typically starts to become more expensive. Once your projects total more than $500 (or involve multiple trades), you’ll need to get a C-27 Landscaping Contractor’s License

Your C-27 license will enable you to build, install, repair, and maintain landscapes. Landscaping projects may include work “designed to aesthetically, architecturally, horticulturally, or functionally improve the grounds within or surrounding a structure or a tract or plot of land.”

Penalties for contracting without a license

Those operating without a license put themselves, customers, and the public at risk. CSLB’s Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT) actively searches for violators. Anyone found doing landscaping work exceeding $500 without a C-27 license will be subject to fines and potential jail time.

First-time violators will likely need to appear before a judge to account for misdemeanor charges—this can lead to a jail sentence (up to 6 months) and/or a $5,000 fine. You’ll also need to pay administrative fees, which can amount to $15,000. Second-time violators face 90-days (minimum) jail time and a fine worth 20% of the illegal contract’s price (or $5,000).

SWIFT will also issue felony charges to anyone illegally using another contractor’s license or landscapers who try to mislead customers about being a licensed contractor. In this situation, you could face jail time and fines without even performing the landscaping work—you could be penalized just for false advertising.

Since a landscaping license only costs a few hundred dollars annually, it’s better to invest in your career and go through the licensing process rather than looking for loopholes and trying to evade SWIFT.

California landscaping license requirements

You don’t need any qualifications to start mowing lawns or repairing fences, but you’ll need to do a few things before applying for your landscaping license:

  1. Be 18 years or older
  2. Have a Social Security Number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number
  3. Provide proof of 4 years of journeyman-level experience 
  4. Obtain a $15,000 bond or file a $15,000 cashier’s check with the CSLB
  5. Submit your application and pay the licensing fees

Journeyman-level experience “applies to a person who has completed an apprenticeship program or is an experienced worker, not a trainee, and is fully qualified and able to perform a specific trade without supervision.”

Not sure if your experience qualifies? The CSLB explains various scenarios here to help you understand more.

For example, you may be able to verify your own experience in the field (without a supervisor) if you can prove your work with landscaping invoices, 1099s, and copies of contracts.

While the above prerequisites satisfy California’s legal requirements, you’ll also want to acquire a few other skills before you’re ready to get your contractor’s license:

  • Communication and teamwork
  • Planning and budgeting
  • Lawn care and maintenance
  • Fence building and maintenance
  • Sprinkler system installation and maintenance
  • Planting flowers, trees, and bushes
  • Designing landscaping systems
  • Irrigation planning and installation
  • Outdoor structure and furniture installation

READ MORE: Create an accurate landscaping work order with our free template

How do I get a landscaping license in California?

You’ll need a C-27 Landscaping Contractor’s License to begin working professionally as a landscaper in California. Here’s the step-by-step process for getting your license:

  1. Obtain at least 4 years of journeyman-level landscaping experience.  
  2. Complete and submit your application (online easy-fillPDF, or mail order)
  3. Take and pass the landscaping contractor’s examination
  4. Pay your initial licensing fees
  5. Submit your fingerprints
  6. Obtain a bond
  7. Provide proof of insurance

The CSLB lets you receive credit for up to 3 of your 4 years of experience with technical training, college education, or apprenticeship programs. Here’s a list of the top schools in California offering landscaping courses:

The top colleges in the state offer robust landscaping programs. These courses teach you everything from California law to landscaping code to in-field skills. If you have no experience landscaping, technical training or college education will provide the most comprehensive learning environment. 

However, you pay for these training programs out of your own wallet. When you find an apprenticeship program, your employer pays you. Some programs require you to pay a small monthly amount, but this comes out of your wages—so you still make an income while gaining your required journeyman-level experience.

Reciprocity agreements with other states

California has reciprocity agreements with Arizona, Nevada, and Louisiana for these contractor classifications (landscaping is included). Active licenses in these states can be used to bypass the examination process, but you may still be required to take the California business law portion of the exam. 

How much does it cost to get a landscaping license in California?

Fees vary depending on if you’re a sole owner and when you submit your application. Here’s a list of fees you can expect with your landscaping license in California:

  • Application Fee: $450
  • Initial License Fee (Sole Owner): $200
  • Initial License Fee (Non-Sole Owner): $350
  • Asbestos Certification Application: $125
  • Hazardous Substance Removal Certification Application: $125
  • Active Timely Renewal (Sole Owner): $450
  • Inactive Timely Renewal (Sole Owner): $300
  • Active Timely Renewal (Non-Sole Owner): $700
  • Inactive Timely Renewal (Non-Sole Owner): $500

Do I need to renew my landscaping license?

Yes, to keep your C-27 license active, you need to renew it every two years. You can renew online if your license has a single qualifier. Multiple qualifier licenses will need to submit the renewal application along with payment to the following address:

Contractors State License Board
P.O. Box 26000
Sacramento, CA 95826-0026 

If you want to keep your license, but aren’t actively contracting as a landscaper, you can renew your license as inactive. Licensing fees are lower and you’ll only need to renew every four years.

What happens if my landscaping license expires?

You’ll want to make sure your application arrives at the CSLB’s Headquarters Office and is processed before the expiration date to make sure you can keep working as a licensed landscaper and avoid paying the delinquent renewal fees. 

Here are the fees for renewing an expired license:

  • Active Delinquent Renewal (Sole Owner): $675
  • Inactive Delinquent Renewal (Sole Owner): $450
  • Active Delinquent Renewal (Non-Sole Owner): $1,050
  • Inactive Delinquent Renewal (Non-Sole Owner): $750

You have 90 days from the expiration date to petition a retroactive renewal so you can keep working. You’ll need to send the CSLB a written petition that shows that you missed your expiration date for circumstances beyond your control. 

You have five years to renew an expired license before you’ll need to reapply.

Requirements for business owners

If you use your license to work for a landscaping firm, you don’t need to worry about business requirements. However, if you want to be the boss, choose the projects, hire the talent, and perform the work, you’ll need to get your insurance, permits, and documentation lined up.

Starting a landscaping business typically involves 6 steps:

  1. Plan which services to offer: Choose which clients you will serve and which services to provide. For example, will you serve residences or commercial clients (or both)? Will you provide landscape design services or just hands-on work?
  2. Find financing: Starting a landscaping business isn’t cheap. While you can technically get started with just your hands, you need insurance, licensing, vehicles, and equipment—and that all costs money. Check with your local bank to see if you qualify for a business loan.
  3. Register your business: Your landscaping license isn’t the same as a business license. If you want to own and operate your own company, you must register your landscaping firm’s name and secure a business license in your city or state.
  4. Price your services: Don’t wait until it’s time to send an estimate to get your pricing together. Figure out how much things cost and what prices you need to set to turn a profit. Review what your local competition offers so that you can competitively price your services.
  5. Market your business: Help your customers find you. This might mean setting up a website, building social media profiles, creating a Google Business account, and running local ads.
  6. Hire a team: You can’t do it all yourself. When you run a business, you need employees to help. Find talent and provide competitive wages.

Need more details? We break down these steps with everything you need to know in our guide to starting a landscaping business. Give it a read to make sure you don’t miss anything important.

Don’t forget about business insurance. The CSLB requires contractors to secure the following:

Does a landscaping license increase your earning potential?

Yes, it does. Without a landscaping license, you’ll be stuck with jobs that pay less than $500. While you can make a living on these wages, you won’t come close to tapping your full earnings potential.

From the get-go, you can expect to make around $31,304 landscaping in California. Once you have more experience, you can earn wages up to $41,553. But that’s just as an employee contractor—your wage potential almost doubles when you become a landscaping business owner.

Curious how much you could be making as a landscaper? Take a peek at our handy-dandy Essential Landscaper Salary Guide. We’ve crowdsourced information to give you salary data based on national averages, years of experience, and geographic location.

Whether you’re planning on staying in California or making your way across the country, we have the salary data you need to make an informed decision. California’s landscapers tend to make 12% more than the national average, whereas Florida landscapers typically earn 12% less than the national average.

Information like this is critical to know before you plan your future or put roots down. Bookmark our salary guide and use it to chart your  career trajectory and start hiring a winning team.

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