Does your fixer-upper feature some specialty work? Things like old-school masonry walls, built by a stonemason who carefully willed each fieldstone into place like an artist? Or plaster that’s been shaped into a curved cornice that creates the most interesting and elegant ceiling you’ve ever seen in any room anywhere? Or what about the inlaid Compass Rose in your hardwood floor, fashioned by a craftsman who used four species of wood?
Older homes in some parts of the country are filled with true artisan craftsmanship that stares back at you and asks, “Are you going to just cover me up? Or will you do what it takes to preserve this living and breathing artwork that’s part of your home?” It’s a tough call. And finding the skilled tradespeople to do the work is only getting harder.
From the confines of an article I can only do two things to help. First, I can encourage you to listen to your heart. If it’s telling you to save the old-school artisan work then I think you owe it to yourself to make every effort to do that. Many people will come in and say “that’s just not how we do it anymore” and encourage you to tear it all out and go modern. Consider the source, though. Is there an ulterior motive? Would going modern be more profitable or easier? Or maybe they simply don’t know how to do the old way. But if you want to save that classic work, don’t give up.
The other thing I can do is offer a few tips on how you might find experts who can and will help you. I’ve worked most of my career in very busy growth areas so the art of finding good subs was a “do or die” kind of thing for me. So based on that experience, here are my best tips:
1. Figure Out Where the Materials Come From
The great thing about real specialty work is that, even in the biggest metro areas, there are usually only a handful of suppliers that sell the right materials. Exotic hardwoods, plaster supplies and stonework supplies are all examples of this kind of specialty item. Find the supplier and you can find the trades. Go in and ask them, “I have this project. Who would you recommend to help me?”
Bonus Tip: It also pays to watch the parking lot a little bit to see who comes and goes. Get the phone numbers off the trucks and make the call.
2. Figure Out Specialty Tools Required and Where They Come From
Along the same vein as the materials is the tools. Most specialty tradesfolks are very serious about their tools. They won’t buy just any tool from the big box store; they go to specialized suppliers for tools. A little online research will lead you to those suppliers and that’s sometimes all the thread you need to unravel your knot.
3. Ask a Contractor
GCs are funny about sharing subcontractor information. We sometimes get that touch of scarcity mentality and feel like the trades we know are our product, which isn’t really true. We also tend to get jealous: “Why didn’t you just hire me to be the GC if you want to know the craftspeople I would call?” So asking a contractor might not pay off, but there’s no risk in inquiring. And a contractor might just know the best people around and text you a phone number, no problem. A smart contractor knows about good karma, and just wants to be helpful.
4. Google, Yelp!, Etc.
Real specialists aren’t usually spending much time or effort on their online presence, so you might not get too far with online searches, but it’s certainly worth a try. Sometimes a Google search will lead you to a forum thread that gives you your next clue. And hey, you never know, maybe the stonemason you need actually advertises online and the right answer pops right up!
5. Ask Other Tradespeople
I’ve always had great luck asking one trade for a referral for another trade. Since these crews often find themselves working in the same homes at the same time, they get to know each other. So a painter might know a plasterer, or a concrete wall mason might know a stone mason, etc. Some of these less specialized subs might be folks you already know, and they are certainly easier to find in any case. So it’s a place to look.
Those Artisans Still Exist, So Don’t Give Up
If you combine these five methods and mix in just a little bit of tenacity, you’ll find the expert you need and your artwork posing as a house will stand that much better chance at shining brightly.