Looking for a rock-solid masonry contractor to repair a chimney, create an outdoor fireplace, add interior stonework, build a stone wall, install a brick patio or handle another project?

If you know what you want — and how your project should look and work — get it down on paper (or into a digital file) to share with potential contractors. If you don’t know what you want, page through home magazines or look online for inspiration — and with the latter, consider making a Pinterest board of ideas. If you love something you’ve seen in person, snap photos. Keep in mind that patios, walkways, paths, arches and other features with square corners are comparatively easy to build. Curves and angles complicate installation and increase the costs.

For anything more than simple repairs, your goal is to create a written plan that includes precise instructions for the project. Is the job straightforward, like repairing or replacing a chimney, redoing a concrete walkway or rebuilding a small stone wall? You can spec out the job with a contractor, who should be able to draw up a simple rendering. Note that local building codes often come into play if you’re planning a masonry walkway. They may affect size, location and permissible building materials.

For outdoor projects, proper drainage is the key to making masonry and stone stuff last. Test soil drainage by digging a hole about four inches in diameter and 12 inches deep. Fill the hole with water. If the water is still there after 24 hours, the drainage on your site may be inadequate. Tell the designer or contractor, who might need to install additional drainage or a water barrier as part of the project.

If you’re working with a landscape designer, interior designer or remodeling contractor, he or she can help pinpoint companies with the right experience. However, if you’re working solo, or the project is complex or unusual, you’ll have to search on your own for companies. To help focus your search, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of local masonry services free of charge until March 15 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/masons.

For any job, you should get a minimum of three bids, or better, five. Prices vary greatly for masonry work in the Washington area. For one patio installation, local masonry contractors quoted Checkbook’s undercover shoppers prices ranging from $3,600 to $9,500 for the exact same work.

As you think about materials, know that exact color, texture, shape, density, weight and other characteristics are often tough to grasp from photos. Get samples to bring home so you can see how they look alongside existing design features. Masonry contractors and their suppliers usually have sample boards, along with sets of mortar tint, to help you select complementary materials.

Consider weather and climate. Though rightly regarded as extremely durable, some masonry, like adobe and recycled brick, doesn’t age well in cold winters. Landscape designers and masonry contractors can point out materials best suited to this area. Once you have a plan (or for small jobs or repairs, a description of the work), use it to obtain price quotes. Get a fixed-price contract for all the materials and labor the company will supply.

Ask prospective contractors to send or show you pictures of similar jobs. Also ask for references, but keep in mind that you’re probably not going to get them for customers who are unhappy with the contractor’s work. At the very least, consider references as evidence the company has been active in the market and busy on projects like yours. Also, check that the contractor has a business license; is bonded (note the amount — it should at least equal the value of your project); and carries both liability and workers’ compensation insurance.

Ask about warranties. Masonry contractors commonly offer three- to five-year warranties guaranteeing repairs to their work but often warranty concrete driveways and patios for only one year. In addition, many contractors provide variable warranties depending on the fix; for example, one year for repairing cracks of a certain size and three years for surface scaling. Obviously, you’ll want to push for warranties that have longer terms and fewer limitations.

To get good work done on time, ask for a payment schedule that allows you to withhold as much payment as possible until the work is complete — for relatively small projects, upfront payments of as much as 20 percent are common.

For larger jobs, writing checks as the project proceeds — so-called progress payments for work done on schedule to spec — is also a typical arrangement. If possible, pay by credit card, which will allow you to challenge the charge if a problem arises.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of masons until March 15 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/masons.

Read more Real Estate: