Some Things to Consider Before Your Project Begins

Decorative concrete is a great way to get a custom look far less expensively than with other building materials such as pavers, wood, stone, or tile. Having a good decorative concrete job installed can be a pleasant experience, and one of the most gratifying home improvements you can make. However, when a job goes awry and the results are less than expected, many customers wish they had opted for something else. Often they simply had unrealistic expectations. They may have been over-sold on stamped concrete’s merits or underinformed on its limitations. The checklist below can help clarify what every potential customer should know before having decorative concrete installed at his or her home or business. If you follow the steps below, you are far more likely to have a pleasant building experience with fewer surprises.

  1. Educate yourself. Don’t just accept that whatever a contractor tells you is fact. Do research on the internet or in books and magazines. Visit chat rooms that deal with decorative concrete or home improvement to hear about other people’s experiences. Learn all you can before proceeding with the work.
    One of the main things to consider is that decorative concrete is a craft product. It is not manufactured in a controlled environment where there are foolproof quality control procedures. As such, it is completely dependent upon the quality of the materials used, the skill and experience of the installer, and the on-site weather conditions. There will always be some flaws in the finished product! Expect them.
    Decorative concrete is still just concrete after all, and will do everything that regular concrete will do. Just because it looks different on the surface does not mean that it won’t crack, age, or develop a few small popouts. It might. However, if properly placed, finished, and maintained, decorative concrete can provide decades of service.
  2. Choose a contractor wisely. In many areas of the country, there are literally hundreds of stamped concrete contractors vying for the same jobs. How do you choose the correct one? Go back to the first point I made…educate yourself! Find out how long the contractor has been doing this type of work. Check to make sure he has insurance. Get references and visit his actual jobsites. DO NOT rely solely upon photographs of his work. Speak to his former customers to get their opinions of his competence, professionalism, and reliability.
    Check with organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or Angie’s List to see what other people say about the contractor, but take these sources with a grain of salt. Businesses pay the BBB for membership, and the results may be a bit skewed in the business’ favor as a result.
    Angie’s List allows members, even those who have not actually hired the contractor, to rate the contractor’s prices and demeanor. Often, a homeowner gives a bad review based upon the belief that the contractor was too expensive or was simply too busy to give them an estimate in what they considered to be a timely manner. What the homeowner may fail to realize is that the contractor is so busy (and more expensive) because he does the best work in town and is in high demand. Consequently they give the contractor a bad review. If they choose to wait for this company instead of impatiently opting for someone who can get there sooner, they may get a much better job.
    Decorative concrete contractors are typically small businessmen with very small crews. These contractors not only do all of the estimating, but also help install the work, do troubleshooting, keep their own books, and still attempt to have some semblance of a home life. Working 14 hours a day 6 days a week is not uncommon. They are probably a lot busier than most of their customers, and shouldn’t be expected to be at the customer’s beck and call.
  3. After you’ve researched a contractor, have him give you a rough quote based upon information you provide. This can be done by phone or e-mail. If he knows the location, square footage, accessibility for a concrete truck, need for steps or stairs, and a few other relevant things, he can probably give you a fairly accurate guess as to your project’s cost. If his estimate fits into your budget, have him out for a site visit and a formal quote. If his “ballpark” estimate exceeds your budget, simply move on to another contractor (after you’ve researched him). By giving you a rough idea of his pricing beforehand, the contractor has not wasted time and fuel on a fruitless visit that will be frustrating for both of you. Note: If you simply go with the cheapest priced contractor, you will likely get what you pay for! Quality work costs money.
  4. When you’ve chosen a suitable contractor, explain to him exactly what you want. If you can show him photos of something similar, it will be easier for him to help you. Decide on a pattern and colors for your project, then have your contractor make you a small mock-up sample to look at. This will show you the actual color and texture you chose, because photos and color charts can be deceiving. Be sure to understand that colored concrete is not like a painted wall. You cannot get a true representation of color from a color chip on a chart. Due to differences in cement and other materials, color charts can give only a general idea of the color, and variations are to be expected. When an antiquing color is factored in, it can completely change the overall appearance of the surface. That’s why mock-ups and color samples are so important…to give customers a more realistic expectation of the final color. Be aware though, that even mock-ups can vary somewhat from the actual pour.
  5. Have the contractor explain exactly what he will do and write it up in a contract. This protects both of you. Have him specify what concrete mix and what decorative concrete materials he will use in case you need the information for future reference. This includes the brand and type of concrete, coloring, antiquing, and sealer. As to the concrete: in Indiana’s climate, a minimum of 3500 psi air-entrained concrete is acceptable, but a 4,000 to 4,500 psi mix is preferable.
    Ask the contractor if he plans to use reinforcement or not (he should!). Reinforcing may include fiber mixed into the concrete, welded wire mesh, steel rebar, or a combination of these. If it’s not in the contract, don’t expect something extra to be done for the same contracted price. Extras cost extra. Adhere firmly to the contract, including a predetermined payment schedule. If the contractor needs money up front for materials, pay it but keep a record of it.
    Expect yard damage. Concrete work is not a no-mess proposition. If you are concerned about your yard, tell the contractor up front that he needs to protect the yard as much as possible. Often this is accomplished by laying down plywood runners on which to drive equipment without rutting the yard. Plywood is expensive, so expect to pay more for this service.
    Okay, you’ve researched and selected a contractor & chosen the pattern and color. Now, assuming all necessary permits have been pulled and the utilities have been professionally located, the work can begin.
  6. The contractor should excavate the area. It is not normal practice to pour over the top of grass. The grass or other vegetation will decay, and the patio will settle as a result. Your contractor should excavate down far enough to place at least 2 to 4 inches of pea gravel, or compacted sand or stone in addition to 4 inches of concrete. If he uses sand or stone for fill, it should be thoroughly compacted with a plate compactor before placing concrete. Fill stone not only provides a stable, flat base for the slab, but also allows water to migrate beneath it so as not to puddle, freeze, and heave.
  7. The contractor should form the area to the size spelled out in the contract. The forms should either be perfectly straight or curve in smooth arcs without unsightly bulges, depending on the customer’s wishes. The forms should slope away from the house or other structure at the rate of about 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch per foot. This allows water runoff and prevents future water damage. Deeper textures may hold a small amount of water after a rain, but there should be no large puddles.
  8. Compressible expansion joint material should be placed against all rigid structures such as brick, old concrete, iron castings, or anywhere the concrete will butt up against another rigid structure. This separates the slab from the structure and allows for movement without damage to the new concrete or whatever it abuts. Concrete moves with expansion and contraction, and it can heave several inches in the winter when the ground freezes. If no expansion joint is used, either the structure or the concrete will sustain damage.
  9. Protect the structure from splatters! When decorative concrete is poured and finished, it can create a mess. The colors used and even the concrete itself can adhere to and stain adjacent structures. Some method of protection should be employed to keep this from happening. Some contractors use plastic sheeting, masking paper, or even a soapy film to prevent splatters and staining.
  10. The contractor should choose to pour on a day with favorable weather conditions. Believe it or not, bright sun, low humidity, and a brisk breeze can affect finishing just as bad as an unexpected thunderstorm. Sun and wind can dry the surface out prematurely and lead to crusting cracks and poor texture. Excessive heat will make the concrete set up faster…often too fast. Let your contractor make the call on when to pour. Don’t press him to pour on a day when he feels that conditions aren’t favorable for a good outcome.
  11. Contraction joints (often mistakenly called expansion joints) should be cut into the slab as soon as possible. On stamped concrete, this is typically done with a concrete saw on the day following the pour. These contraction joints are intended to make the concrete crack in a pre-determined straight line instead of randomly across the slab. They are sometimes called crack control joints for that reason. There are specific areas where joints should be placed, such as at all re-entrant corners. A re-entrant corner is a corner that points into the concrete, and concrete almost always cracks there. Sections created by contraction joints should be roughly square in shape, and divide the concrete into roughly equal sections. The largest section should measure no more than about 8′ x 8′. In addition to proper placement, the joints need to be cut at least 1/4 as deep as the slab is thick. For example, a 4 inch thick slab should have joints at least 1 inch deep. For more on cracks in concrete, click here. Note: Concrete saws create a lot of dust, so make sure your windows (as well as those of downwind neighbors) are closed.
  12. The excess antiquing release should be removed and the concrete should be sealed with a quality liquid cure and seal product. If the contractor seals within a day or two after the pour, make sure the contractor is applying a cure and seal product. If the can only says “sealer”, it’s not a cure and seal. Sealers are meant to be applied only after the concrete has fully cured, usually about 28 days after it is poured.
    Try to be available on the day that the contractor washes the excess antiquing release off the slab. Once the concrete is sealed, the options for getting the color you expected are very limited. It’s best to see how it looks before it’s sealed. The concrete and the antiquing release will darken considerably when they are sealed. Some contractors say that the concrete will look the same when it’s wet with water as it will when it’s sealed. This is not the case. It will look somewhat similar, but the antiquing release will be much darker when it’s sealed than when it is simply wet with water. If your concrete looks too dark when it’s wet, it will certainly be too dark when it’s sealed.
    If the finished work meets your approval, pay the contractor in full and as specified in the contract. If you feel strongly that there’s something wrong or work left unfinished, withhold final payment until you speak calmly with the contractor to get clarification and resolution.
    To educate yourself further, please read our other articles and visit the FAQ section of this website. You can also visit the outdoor decorative concrete showroom located at The Concrete Store in Fishers, Indiana. Doing these things will allow you to rest easier knowing what to expect before having your decorative concrete project installed. Finding a contractor to bid on your project is simple. Just click on the Contractor Locator link to research several local companies. For more on choosing a contractor, read the article entitled How to Choose a Contractor.