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 longer 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 $18 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 may very well be the type of prospective client who 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 a segment of potential clients take longer to make a decision as they have to justify to themselves paying what appears to be a 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 a fair percentage of them charge the same per week, or slightly less, but the outcome suffers greatly.
My biggest challenge is to remain believable when I make my claim to you that, upon conclusion of the project, your house will look as though “time has only kissed it” — meaning that the brickwork will be harmonious to a degree such that it will appear as though it aged gracefully and never required restoration.
That is why I’m saying that, in the current market reality we find ourselves in at the time of writing in 2016, you most likely will try not to hire me when going through the process of getting pointing estimates and are getting a wide range of prices to repoint your house from several (or 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 is in fact art in its own right), and if you do your due diligence, you then very well may find yourself in that cohort who ultimately realize that I’m indeed their best option.
For the sake of your house — which clearly 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 for my own residence when I was looking to find a plumber and 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 offering  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 a premium profile (at a cost of $300/month, on a 1 year-minimum contract!). The basic (read “free”) accounts are not allowed 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 premium profiles, just below where it says: “You might also consider…”
  3. 3- Reviews can written by the contractor as a perk: you’ve read that right!  Premium profiles have access to a smartphone app which allows them to write their own review, push it to the customer’s phone who then can post it by simply pressing “OK”. I can promise you that no one naturally gets 200, much less 575 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 wouldn't write a review -- no way! No one has the time these days : since the advent of social media, consumer attention is a scarce commodity .
So there you have it.
I personally have always declined and still am refusing to pay Homestars $300 a month for a business model that I disagree with. Their sales personnel keeps contacting me every time a client leaves my company a review or whenever a prospect shows interest despite my having clearly and repeatedly requested not to be contacted -- deaf ears is what 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 more 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 dissatisfaction, 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 who 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.