Saturday, September 3, 2016

Why you will likely try *not* to hire me for your brick repointing project at first — and why you may end up changing your mind

From 2001 to 2007, potential customers would pretty much make a decision on the spot, or fairly close to it, for the most part.
I remember doing my sales calls on Saturdays in the spring of 2007 and coming back home with $40,000-$50,000 of sales every week. I can recall that by April 29 of that year, I was already booked until early November, which is typically when the season ends for me on any given year.
Since then, we’ve had the global financial crisis in 2008, the $10,000 home renovation tax credit cancellation in 2010, and immediately following that, the retail sales tax went from 7% GST to 13% HST.
As a direct result, homeowners now have less disposable income to direct towards home renovations, and they have to be substantially more thoughtful about their choices in this regard than they’ve had to in the past.
Furthermore, WSIB’s Bill 119 was the last straw to cause home renovation prices to collapse — even as the price of homes continues to rise — as it places contractors in the uncomfortable position to largely have operate in the black market in order to remain viable.
And don’t forget that there is what I call “the Homestars effect” which has greatly contributed to further commoditize the market.
The upshot of it all is that potential customers now take a very long time to make their decision. They no longer thank me for simply showing up to give them a quotation, as they now have 9 or 10 other estimates from contractors who are hungry to get the job.
So prices crashing is a good thing, right?
That depends.
Not if common sense fails to prevail.
If you’re not fussy about getting the repointing done to a high standard and making sure that the new mortar matches with the original on the house, then you will feel well-served as this is a buyer’s market.
But if you are seeking highly professional workmanship, you may find the process more frustrating that it needs to be.
Recent and thorough market intelligence tells me that a few estimates will be as low as 4 times cheaper than the highest quote, while the bulk of the proposals will fall pretty evenly between being priced at a 40 to 75% discount to what the top of the range is at.
You will pretty much be met with someone who will nonchalantly walk around your property with you asking you what you want done, as if they weren’t sure themselves about how to proceed.
Some of these contractors will make assessments of the situation or impose conditions that will make you feel as though they are “winging it” and are “making it up” as they go. You will be left feeling like no one has a process. For example, some shall insist that all the mortar needs to be 100 % replaced while others won’t. Some will tell you that a particular item needs attention while others will tell you the exact opposite.
Several of the estimates you will be getting will be from a masonry contractor or a salesperson who hires others to do the work while they aim to make a markup in the range of 35% of the contract amount. This will all-too-often mean that your masonry restoration project will be performed by a crew of two people paid approximately $15 an hour. You know what they say, “If you pay with peanuts, you will get monkeys”. So don’t be all that surprised if you come home from work one day and engage one of these crew members and they act like apes.
Most importantly, no one will stick their neck out and say they can accurately match the existing mortar when you press them on the issue (even though they might initially pay it lip service until you demand some assurance). They will usually say that they can “only do their best” — which means absolutely nothing, let’s be clear on that).
Now, circling back to the title of this post, let me hit you once again with this perhaps startling statement:
You will try not to hire me when I first provide you with an estimate.
You’ve read correctly.
What do I mean?
When you get a quotation from me, I will most likely be the highest. It’s not that I’m gouging the customers; it’s that I’m doing the work to a whole different level.
In the “golden years” that I have referred to above, I would close jobs easily because 1) customers had more disposal income, 2) it was quite hard to even get quotes from contractors; and 3) the spread between my price and that of others was smaller.
What happens now is that potential customers take much longer to make a decision as they have to justify to themselves paying what appears to be an extra premium to have me do their work.
But in fact, many times, I’m not more expensive at all: I’m simply pricing the job so the result is what I consider a professional outcome, whereas much of my competition might charge 1/2 the price for half-time spent to produce what constitutes, in my opinion, an abortion. (There’s no need for me to chew my words, is there?)
So they charge the same per week, or slightly less, but the outcome suffers greatly.
My biggest challenge is to remain believable when I claim that when I’m done with the work, your house will look as though “time has only kissed it” — meaning that the brickwork will be so harmonious so as to appear to have aged gracefully and never have required restoration.
And so that’s why I’m saying that, in the current market reality, you most likely will try not to hire me when you go through the process of getting repointing estimates and are getting a wide range of prices to repoint your house from many contractors who are hungry and more than eager to shove a quote in your hands.
But if you are a stickler for having brick mortar replacement work that truly matches the original, and if you do your due diligence, you then very well may find that I’m indeed your best option.
For the sake of your house — which can’t speak for itself — I urge you to truly do your homework and make sure you’re making the best choice all around.
And if, for some reason, I think I’m not the right contractor for you, I’ll be the first one to let you know.
Happy hunting.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Homestars Effect

I remember back to around 2003. Most contractors were still “offline” in their advertising and marketing efforts.
I felt as though I had the internet pretty much to myself in those days.
I had a website that was more than just a “glorified business card”, and I had a web presence through having written articles for Masonry Magazine and the Mason Contractors Association of America, among other things; thereby channeling to me the more thoughtful and research-inclined potential buyers — and they were more than halfway sold by the time they contacted me.
I had learned in the nineties, in my roofing contracting days, to stay away from buying ads in the yellow pages, unless you had a way to stand out; otherwise you would drown in a sea of “me-too-ism”.
And this is what Homestars personally reminds me of.
It might be different with other trades such as roofing, window replacement, etc., I’m not sure — although I personally gave up using it last winter when I was looking to find a plumber and I eventually had to resort to Google Ads, which I normally don’t rely on either, as I typically prefer the organic search results.
What Homestars has done, at least when it comes to masonry work, and more precisely, repointing, is to turn everyone into a commodity service provider.
Some facts have recently surfaced for me through market intelligence, for example when most — if not all — masonry contractors are pressed to answer whether they can truly match the original mortar, they will say that “they can only do their best”, explaining away how difficult it is and all. This is whether they were discovered on Homestars or not, I must add. Also, they will typically ask the customer what he or she wants in a way that imparts that they have no clear process or framework with which to approach this type of work, giving off a strong sense that they are “winging it”; and most often offering contradictory opinions from one contractor to another, as in “This wall needs to be entirely ground out and fully repointed” in opposition to “That wall is perfectly fine, I would leave it”.
The result is a range of price options and scope-of-work recommendations that vary greatly for the same project; not to mention that the result typically lands somewhere between having a “ghastly” to a “ just OK” appearance that steers clear of being “artistic”, harmonious” and “beautiful”.
The secret question that no one asks me, but that they all seem to be thinking of, is “Why is no one else emulating what you are doing if you are in fact so good at it?”
The answer is that “I can be bothered”. It is not rocket science — I’m no Elon Musk  — but it does require being committed to spending hours (or days!) on every job, as required, so as to eventually “get the mix right”. Sometimes it comes easy, especially with years of experience, and sometimes it comes really hard, still, even for me; however, it’s the niche I’ve carved for myself in the marketplace. And the reason why no one has been in a hurry to “dethrone” me is that maintaining a high bar requires “keeping one’s feet to the fire” all the time. It is more pressure than anybody likes — even me — to always have to live to the promise that the mortar will closely match in color, texture and composition.
The “typical” masonry contractor doesn’t like that pressure, as it is certainly uncomfortable — more so at times than at other times — but it is always an extra pressure to have to be dealing with; and I’ve been intentionally putting myself between a rock and a hard place for years and years, and so I can take it.
What happens when you open Homestars on your phone, tablet or desktop, is that you are greeted with dozens after dozens of masonry contractors who offer tuck-pointing, who (in my opinion) can’t factually match the old mortar that needs to be reproduced, who will offer you different and contradictory opinions, and who at times have hundreds of positive reviews and/or have been appointed “Best of Year _____”.
How is this possible?
Based on what I have learned through my interactions with Homestars, the mechanics of the site which make these dichotomies possible are as follows:
  1. 1- The business model: as soon as a contractor has one single review up on Homestars, a sales rep of the company is guaranteed to call on this contractor and offer he or she “upgrade” their profile (at a cost of $300/month, on a 1 year-minimum contract!). The basic (read “free”) accounts do not allow one to link to their company website or upload photos and a logo — which makes these profiles look bland.
  2. 2- The exposure boost: if that wasn't enough, right smack in the middle of a basic profile will appear several attention-grabbing ads to promote upgraded profiles, just below where it says: “You might also consider…”
  3. 3- Reviews can written by the contractor as a bespoke perk: you’ve read that right! Upgraded profiles have access to a smartphone app which allows them to write their own reviews, then push it to the customer’s phone who will basically post it by simply pressing “OK”. I can promise you that no one naturally gets 94, 276, much less 422 reviews! It just doesn’t happen. I have only 16 reviews on Homestars, at the time of writing this blog post, after several years on the service, to boot. They are all organic and real, mind you, but they don’t come by very often. I have customers who have physically hugged me because they were so elated, but they won’t write a review, no way. No one has the time these days as their attention is monopolized by Facebook, Twitter, email, notifications, Flipboard, Snapchat, etc., ad infinitum.
So there you have it.
I personally have and still am refusing to pay Homestars $300 a month for a business model that I disagree with, even though their sales personnel keeps contacting me every time a client leaves me a review, or a prospect shows interest, despite having clearly and repeatedly requested not to be contacted -- deaf ears is all I'm getting.
So what is the "Homestars effect", you ask? It is the added noise of having so many contractors, all presumably satisfying their clients to the point that they all have become a commodity by having no differentiating traits of their own.
Having a review system that keeps everyone on their best behavior is a definite plus — as any seasoned Ebay buyer will tell you — but I would argue that putting everyone on the same footing, when there are in fact great variances in competence and outcome, is not in the best interests of the consumer; not to mention that it is unfair to those contractors who are truly raising the bar, but refuse to be "held hostage" to the fact that Homestars ranks high in the Google results — something the company is clearly eager to monetize.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Let it be known I no longer work through the Toronto Heritage Grants Program

Every Spring I get a good share of phone calls from potential clients who are interested in having me provide them an estimate so they can apply for a subsidy with it from the City of Toronto’s Heritage Grants Program.
And every time it results in a rather lengthy conversation in which I explain why I’m no longer interested. Some thank me for my time and move forward in their quest to get a grant, while others decide to not bother applying so they can have me do their work in view of my stance.
I’ve had a successful run with the Program until 2009, at which point there was an extended garbage strike — if you’ll recall — that involved the same union for both parties; and when the dust settled, the personnel configuration was very different and the beautiful dynamic we had had, had been decimated. I gave it a try a couple times but subsequently decided to “run the other way”.
In any case, there in no need for me to publicly get into the specifics. Suffice to say that I have contacted several individuals involved at City Hall about my dissasisfaction, and no effort has been made by any of the parties to mend my position.
They aren’t many contractors who are as skilled in artistically restoring vintage masonry as I am; and so I feel it’s a shame that some civil servants would alienate those who can best serve the interests of the residents; but as someone so directly involved, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
My message to any potential clients whom I shall have directed to this post in the future is to do your research carefully about the type of result that you want. If you’ve ended up successfully vetting a contractor who also works through the Grants Program, then you’re in luck. If you can’t find what you like there, then I suggest passing on that process and you might be happier to have done so in the end. Ask neighbors who’ve gone through the program in recent years what their experience was like, and that will give you a sense of whether or not it’s for you.
Finally, I will leave you with a visual example that might give you some insight as to my position in this matter.
This first set of pictures relates to the left side of a Cabbagetown duplex that has been "restored" about three years ago through the Toronto Heritage Grants Program. Notice the dark red tint color that has been applied to all the bricks at the front of the house, as well as the condition of some of the bricks that you’d hope would have been remedied for a project to qualify as heritage work that was subsidized by the taxpayers’ purse. I've included three closeups which show the worse as well as the best of this particular job. 

Earlier this year, I had no trouble convincing the neighbor on the right side of the same duplex, to forgo the Grants Program and hire me directly to restore the facade of his house.
Here are some before pictures:

And this is the final result that we’ve produced:

Here you can see both side by side:
Which one do you want?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A little pro bono work…

A Chicago architect contacted me last year asking my advice as to what mortar mix was best to use in reassembling a pre-1850 rural Illinois building his firm was involved with.
I was happy to help and fired him an email.
He has subsequently sent me some pictures of the work in progress.
It’s coming along nicely it seems.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why are there red lines over the original yellow mortar of my Victorian house?

Sometimes I meet prospective clients who own a Victorian house and who ask me why there is some sort of combination of red and white (and sometimes black) lines on top of the yellowish lime mortar with which the brick walls were constructed.
Many people assume that it must have been done after the fact.
It wasn’t. What they are looking at are the remnants of true tuckpointing.
I say “true tuckpointing” as opposed to simply saying “tuckpointing” because there is a confusion about the correct nomenclature.
These days, when people say, “tuckpointing”, they usually mean “repointing”.
In Victorian times, they were very different things.
This is tuckpointing:
And this is repointing:
Here are the proper definition for each of the related terms, taken from an article I wrote for Masonry Magazine over 10 years ago:
“Jointing” referred to the process of finishing the joint as the brickwork was erected. Jointing is what all bricklayers do today.
“Pointing” denoted the placement and careful tooling of a mortar joint between bricks or stones. In contrast to jointing, pointing was the process of raking back the mortar joint a few days after the completion of the brickwork and was usually done by a different crew that was skilled in delivering a high-quality, consistent decorative finish to the joint. Also, jointing was performed at the rear and sides of a building, with only the front façade being pointed.
“Repointing” referred to replacing a mortar joint when it had failed, on average about once a century. This was typically the type of restoration work completed on older mortar.
“Tuckpointing” is an interesting one, which will need further explanation.
The word “tuckpointing” once referred to a specialized application of pointing that consisted of first sanding the bricks to a smooth, even surface, then masking the original mortar joint with a thin one that matched the brick in color, usually red. One would have created — up to this point — the illusion of looking at a solid wall of clay, as opposed to a wall consisting of individual bricks. Then, after having rubbed the red mortar with a piece of jute and dying the work to a uniform color, fine lines were cut with a knife into the “masking” mortar while it was still soft, in a rigidly symmetrical fashion to produce a perfect geometrical outline of each brick. At that point, a fine, usually white, lime putty mortar joint was tucked over the lines and meticulously manicured, you might want to say, so as to create the illusion that the wall had been laid with perfectly rectangular bricks in a mortar bed as thin as 1/16th of an inch!
Tuckpointing originated in England in the 17th century as a cheaper alternative to gauged brickwork — which was the ultimate method of laying bricks, consisting of rubbing the stones to exact dimensions and perfect edges, then dipping them lightly into lime putty, providing a true 1/16" joint. Tuckpointing subsequently became the pointing style of choice during the Georgian and Victorian periods, minimally for the front façade of brick buildings.
So now you know what these red lines were and why there are there.
In most cases the tuckpointing has mostly come off over the years, and most of the white (typical) or black (less common) ribbon is gone and what you have left to a varying degree is some red mortar over the yellow mortar.
Knowing what to do with that is important in my opinion.
Some people repair the failed mortar with a yellow mortar, which makes a strong, unsightly contrast. Others use red mortar to perform the repair, which doesn’t look quite right either.
Removing all the mortar so as to repoint the entire wall is not recommended either as the original character will be lost.
So what is one to do?
What I do is I perform the repointing work, matching the mortar to the original yellow mortar on the house, and then I run a thin red line in the center of it so as to blend the work and eliminate the offensive contrast.
This is an example:

Another possibility, although all-too-often prohibitively expensive, is to remove all the mortar and redo the true tuckpointing.
In Toronto, at this time, I don’t know of anyone who can do it to a high level. It is a lost art. It took me 13 1/2 years of research and practice to arrive at a point where the result is good. Not exceptional, just good. And I’m still learning. Workers were surprisingly skilled back in the day…
Here is an example done by another contractor in Toronto who claims the ability to perform tuckpointing:
As you can see, if not done properly, tuckpointing can appear messy and ghastly.
Here is a job I’ve just completed last week:

Here is a short video that shows it in action:

With practice, it would come closer to perfection, but the issue is that virtually no one is prepared to pay for it, and so my approach of putting a red line over the yellow mortar has been seen as a great solution by essentially all the homeowners for whom we’ve done it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The lowest price

We all want the lowest price when we buy something, but here’s the clincher…as long as it’s for the same value on offer.
It’s obvious in the case of products. I recently went to a large furniture retail chain outlet to buy a bar stool. The one I liked was $99, with the option to buy a second one at half price; but I only wanted one. I asked the salesperson whether there was any wiggle room, and there wasn’t. I drove across the street to a Walmart and bought the same exact stool for $49.99.
But services are a different matter.
If a handyman (or woman) offers to fix your brick and spread cement over it with a spoon, it’s pretty obvious that would be a bad move.
But what about a mason who has many positive reviews on Homestars who offers a low price?
Is that a good deal?
How about a concrete (no pun intended) example?
I’ve had the same price structure since 2006, with only incremental increases until 2009, at which point I froze the price. So I’ve been charging exactly the same since 2009. Back in 2007, 08 and 09, I was booked up to a year in advance, so I couldn’t have been perceived as being priced outside the market then, could I?
Fast forward to a typical scenario today:
Me: “The price is $14,500.”
Customer X: “Ouch!”
Me: “Your friend who has recommended you to me has paid even more for a comparable amount of work back in 2009. And she’s had even more work done in 2012 at the same rate.”
Customer X: “Actually, I know, and she’s very happy with it. Fair enough, we’ll get back to you.”
Two weeks later.
Customer X: “We have no doubt at this point that you are the best in the city, the only problem is the price: one contractor came in at $7,000 and the other two came in at $4,500.”
Me: “It’s going to look like shit”.
Customer: “I’’m not so sure, they all have good reviews on Homestars.
Me: “Go see the work in the flesh.”
Customer X: “We plan on it.”
Another two weeks went by.
Customer X: “We went by to look at your work once again, as well as the other people’s work, and we didn’t like the two lower quotes at all, the $7,000 was not bad actually, but we loved yours, can we workout something?
I did have to make a concession in view of the current market realities, but I did get the contract at the highest price, and by a long margin to boot.
So what is happening?
For one thing, it’s obvious to me we are going through a recession, even though Harper doesn’t seem to have the balls to say so.
Consequently, it’s a buyer’s market right now. When the economy is rolling, prospective customers are typically complaining that contractors aren’t even showing up to provide an estimate, and they are generally thankful when someone shows up at all. Not now. No one is currently voicing that complaint, and it is evident that prospects are getting plenty of quotes (that they sure are glad to bring up in a negotiation).
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve selected to remain true to a high standard of accurately matching the existing materials so that the work, when finished, will have a time-kissed look.
It is easy to cut corners when doing brickwork restoration, and so I am in a niche market by sticking to a longer, considerable more involved process.
But there is a visible difference in the result, although not every potential customer can appreciate it.
And so it is only a buyer’s market as long as one doesn’t notice or care about the difference.
Customer X was probably surprised that I never called her back to follow up and try to close the job.
The reason I didn’t follow up is that if she and her husband couldn’t tell the difference between my work and the work of the $7000 guy, then the latter would have deserved the job, as far as I’m concerned; and I didn’t want to be pushing to take the project away from him, if in fact he would have been better-suited to do it given the circumstances and the prospect’s obvious priorities — he has a right to make money too.
On the other hand, if someone is a stickler for as close to a perfect mortar and brick replacement match as can possibly be done, then my company becomes a very viable option indeed.
I therefore find it important that we maintain our position as the premium choice when it comes to brickwork restoration / repointing, so as to satisfy that currently small cohort who sees the value in it for themselves.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The places where a masonry contractor can cut corners when repointing

Yesterday, I wrote a post titled, “Dear potential client, please don’t lie to yourself”.
I want to follow that with a minimalist breakdown of the various steps involved in doing a repointing project so it can hopefully be better appreciated where an individual can cut corners when performing this type of work.
The Process
1 — Identify.
The person doing the work has to be able to identify which mortar joints need to be done.
It sounds simple, but you would be surprised how ineptly this can be done.
When I hire a new operator, this is always the first challenge I encounter.
I can’t yet have them apply the mortar itself and if I don’t want them to simply stand around and perform menial tasks such as cleaning up and providing me with the odd tool, then I want to start them with removing the old mortar and prepare the joints.
The problem is they have no idea which joints to take out.
They either leave too many joints that were supposed to be removed or they go overboard and remove joints which didn’t need to be touched; or worse, they do a mixture of both — a scenario of too much over here and not enough over there.
The problem is that they don’t have the mental framework to guide them along. They are confused and therefore they guess.
And I all too often see the same thing in the work of other contractors as well.
Sometimes a contractor insists on removing all the existing joints and do a full pointing job, which I describe as going to the dentist and removing all your teeth instead of simply fixing the cavities. Hey, it has happened to both my parents and many other people, as it was the fad in the 60's where they lived.
When approaching a potential client, there should be a clear determination of exactly what types of joint will get done, for example:
All the joints which are missing, in other words, there’s just a hole left.
All the joints beyond a certain depth.
All the joints which have failed by being clearly separated from the brick, cracked, turning to powder, etc.
Possibly all the joints that don’t match from previous mis-repairs, etc.
Very small holes and cracks are left alone.
Everything else stays as-is.
If I see a long hesitation in an operator when trying to decide whether or not he or she should remove a particular joint, I immediately stop him or her, and find out what they don’t understand.
You can do the same when you interview a contractor.
Ask, “Please look at my wall here and show me exactly which types of joints you propose to remove and which ones you would leave?”
If he or she can’t rattle it off quickly, then you know that individual can’t even accomplish the first step correctly.
If he or she starts to propose doing the whole wall, as in 100 percent, think “fraud”, and stay away. There are very few exceptions to this.
A contractor can cut corners with this step by being vague about what gets done and do much less than is necessary, and the client, not really knowing, will now be able to tell themselves a lie that they got their wall repaired and that they can now not worry about it.
But it’ll be a shit show.
2 — Joint preparation.
This steps consists of carefully removing the mortar that needs to come out without damaging the bricks.
It is easy to cut corners there — literally! — by being over-aggressive with the cutting saw. The result is an artificial joint line which looks very ugly.
When this happens in a substantial way, the house has typically been damaged beyond repair. It gets very difficult, not to mention costly, to subsequently reverse the situation.
3 — Accurately matching the mortar.
This step requires skills, but above all, a willingness to take the time.
My experience with contractors and subcontractors is that they are of the mindset that matching the existing mortar should be done quickly. If it takes for than a few minutes, they’ve wasted time and they need to move on.
It is safe to say that it is not part of their business model.
On the other hand, I have made that feature my business model.
We are called Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd. because we match the existing mortar.
It is for this very reason that, even if a masonry contractor tells you that they match mortar, it is most often lip service, as I would describe it, and I as I've observed it.
There have been instances when I’ve had to work hard to produce a good color match. Like the time I had to make 13 separate sample batches to get the perfect match.
Or the time that I just couldn’t get the color right on a Friday. I returned on the weekend to work it out until I had the right mix ready for Monday.

Or countless others.
Most people aren’t willing to make that kind of investment, and so another corner gets cut.
4 — Matching the joint profile and texture.
Taking the time to reproduce the original joint finish when applying the mortar is also of paramount importance.
What would be the point of having achieved a good mortar mix that matches the original if, when the mason applies it, the texture and the profile of the joint clearly don’t match the original?
This misstep is yet another common way that a mason can cut corners when doing a repointing job, as it is much, much faster to take a rounded steel rod-type of a tool and simply run that along the joint so as to “finish” the joint at blazing speeds.
And so we’re back to the shit show description.
It takes much, much longer to properly “manicure” the joint, as we call it at my company, with an array of tools outside of the conventional "slicker".
5 — Working cleanly and sensitively.
Not damaging the property or the neighbors’ and keeping the site clean during and at the completion of the project takes thoughtfulness and time.
For example, at Invisible Tuckpointing, we make liberal use of tarps to protect, driveways, decks, fences, patio furniture, etc.
We also make liberal use of painter’s tape and plastic to cover window sills, lamps, etc.
More importantly, we take the time to look around and think ahead of time about the environment we’re in so as to protect it, including flowers, garden bed, etc.
We even collect the mortar cutoff from the joint into a dust pan so we minimize the mess we make on the ground, which facilitates our cleanup efforts.
We take the time to co-ordinate with neighbors so we won’t aggravate them, and more.
And we air-blow and rinse everything clean and leave the site immaculate when we depart; and we often do this at the end of each work day, so the owners can enjoy their property in the evening.
But the above requires cleanliness and sensitivity. And it’s easy to cut corners there too.
That’s the gist of it.
If you want more information, take a look at the Industry Standards page on our company website; as well as our Portfolio page which exemplifies some of the criteria I’ve discussed in this post.