Choosing A Masonry Contractor For Your Small Or Very Small Project
For the short version, scroll to the bottom.
Picking a masonry contractor for a smaller project can often be more of a challenge than choosing one for a big project. Big projects are bid on by big contractors. Most big contractors got to be big contractors by consistently delivering quality workmanship and customer service. And if they've been doing that for several years, they will have lots of references you can check and lots of building that they can point at and say "that's one of ours!" But for smaller contractors, this isn't going to be so easy.
I define a small masonry project as typically something a couple of masons and laborers can complete within a few weeks. Finding for a trustworthy contractor for a few weeks project won't be too difficult. These contractors typically have a couple crews that they keep working 40 hours per week year around (at least here in Arizona). In order to do that, they are probably going to have a decent track record of quality workmanship and customer service that you can verify on your own. Things get a bit more complicated when searching for a contractor to do a very small masonry job.
I define a very small masonry job as jobs that can be completed in under a week, especially jobs that can be completed in a single work day or few hours. We can call these one-day jobs "micro-jobs." Finding a high quality contractor that has figured out how to consistently stay busy focusing on these micro-jobs is going to be a challenge. Finding a contractor that will provide the same quality workmanship and customer service as the big contractors is going to be very tough. The fact is, many of the guys focusing on these very small jobs are guys who can't get hired by the bigger contractors due to insufficient skill level or personality/coworker cooperation issues. If you've spent some time calling and meeting with contractors, you know from experience what I'm talking about. I apologize on behalf of the entire masonry profession for your aggravation!
So, just how does a homeowner with a small project sort through all the masonry contractors to find the one that won't let them down, or worse, rip them off? Here are my pointers:
Google terms like "local masonry contractors," or "masonry contractors in my area," to make a list to begin vetting. I suggest looking for contractors that work and live close by because it's going to be hard for a small contractor to keep his prices down if he has to drive very far to meet with clients and work on the job. The really efficient ones aren't going give you a free in-person meeting if they have to spend 45 minutes to an hour driving. It's too hard for a masonry contractor to make a living off of small projects if he's spending two hours a day driving around to estimates, instead of working on his jobs. There are a lot of contractors in The Valley of the Sun. It's unlikely you won't be able to find several in your part of the Valley.
Once you have a handful of hopefully good prospects, the next step is to visit the Arizona Registrar of Contractors and see if they're licensed, for how long and if they have a clean record. A new license doesn't disqualify a candidate - that owner may have decades of great experience working for others - but it's good information to have. If a contractor has an outstanding complaint, it will show up one their contractor page. An outstanding complaint, or a list of resolved complaints isn't something you want to see. It's evidence that the contractor forced a homeowner(s) to seek third party assistance to resolve an issue with their workmanship. Avoid those guys. Let them rebuild their reputation on someone else's dime. Hopefully they will. The worst thing to see on the ROC contractor search page is nothing; the contractor isn't licensed. My advice, with over 30 years in this industry, never hire an unlicensed contractor. If they're not licensed, cross them off your list. Don't call them. Don't let them entice you with a great, low pride and empty promises of all the great work they will do. Their "great work" should have started with getting licensed! https://roc.az.gov/contractor-search
After you've whittled the list down some more, next check if the contractors you're considering have liability insurance. No responsible contractor will work without insurance just as no responsible driver will drive without insurance. There's no excuse. Don't accept one. No insurance? No thanks.
References. My position on this one might surprise you. I'm not big on phone call references. Do you really know who you are calling? Did the contractor really do work for them? Are these people just clients, or relatives or friends? Who knows. What I want for references is pictures. I want to see at least a handful of pictures that show me that this contractor can lay block level, plumb and straight. Does he have the basic skills to do my small job? He should be able to show me. Preferably I've already seen some pictures on his website or google listings. If not, does he have some pics in his phone?
If 1-4 check out, the next thing I rely on, the final thing, is my own gut feeling based on all of the above. If as contractor passes the above tests, call him. You can tell a lot about someone in a phone call. If the person rubs you the wrong way in the first 30 seconds, imagine having him working in your home. Forget that guy. If he comes across as pushy or desperate or arrogant, I'm probably going to cut the call short and move on. I wan't someone that is thoughtful, and experienced enough, to come across as genuine. We can't always tell this from just a phone call, but we can often to feel good about asking for a price.
Ask for a price! If a contractor specializes in small, micro-projects, he probably has done something very similar to what you need. He knows what he needs to make per day to stay in business. He knows what materials your job will need from your description and a picture or two. He should be able and willing to give you an estimate over the phone. And if he is smart and experienced, he SHOULD do that. An experienced, successful masonry contractor specializing in small jobs gets paid to do small jobs, not to do onsite estimates and bids. Free onsite estimates are too expensive for him to do. A contractor that regularly gives out in-person written bids for very small jobs, isn't a contractor that will stay in business very long. He needs to be working, laying bricks and blocks. A contractor that knows his stuff, from experience, will usually only need to confirm his price when he shows up with a contract to do the job. Jobs that are larger and more complicated, he avoids. He's probably not going to get them anyway competition against the bigger guys, so he's just wasting everyone's time. Have your information ready when you call, such as what material, how long, how high, accessibility and a picture or two, and ask for a price.
In person visit. This is your final opportunity to trust your gut. If the guy pulls up in a 35 year old truck that looks every day of it, flicks a cigarette butt out the window into your neighbor's yard, and just generally makes you feel uneasy, trust your instinct. Be ready to tell him something like, "I apologize but I JUST signed with another contractor and was about to call you. Thanks, but you can go." I wouldn't spend much more time with a contractor that you've already decided not to hire than it takes to tell him adios.
Agreeing to hire him. The guy is a contractor, so he should provide a contract. The Registrar of Contractors focuses on protecting all parties to contracts. If the contractor standing in front of you doesn't offer, doesn't require, a contract, beware. Ask for one. Get one. And ensure he signs it too.
Paying. It's standard policy for most small contractors to ask for 50% of the total contract price up front. Small contractors typically don't have deep pockets to purchase materials with their own money. Smart small contractors don't purchase materials at all with their own money. It's a recipe for heartache. Even the best intentioned homeowners have found themselves unable to pay at times, leaving the contractor high and dry. If they have the money for the whole job, they definitely have money for half the job. That said, we need to talk about the C-word. CASH. Should you pay cash? To the absolutely the safest, the answer is no. But, that's a decision you have to make based on your impression of the contractor standing in front of you. It's hard to tell who is honest. Sometimes the most honest seeming person is just the best and deceiving us. So it's a trust thing. I have found that when it comes to trust, whether a spouse, friend, neighbor, contractor or complete stranger, the only way to truly know if you can trust someone is to take that risk and trust them "as if." I have people trust me "as if" regularly by opting to may me in cash. Here's my pointers when paying cash. First, get a signed receipt that states the amount and date received. This can be written somewhere on the contract. Second, Have the contractor take a picture and send it to you with the same information in text form. "received check # ___, (or CASH) in the amount $___, on (date), for _____. Contractors full name and company name." If he doesn't want to do this, or you don't feel comfortable asking him to do so, just send a similar text and picture to him and have him reply acknowledging receipt of that text. I see this not so much as a tool to force a contractor to be honest, but more as evidence that the contractor is honest.
Check their license status.
Check if they have liability insurance.
Check for references and pictures of completed jobs.
Call and have a conversation with them. Get a first impression.
Ask for the price early.
Schedule the job. Be prepared to back out if your second impression proves your first impression was wrong.
Require a contract before paying any money. Read the whole thing.
Pay with confidence, if you've done your due diligence. If you haven't, be prepared to reschedule.
That's about it. The final advice would be not to get too "deep in the bushes" with all this. Trust your gut, be decisive, document. It's a small job, not the new World Trade Center, right? And if you're still really unsure, I have a recommendation: Mesa Masonry LLC!