“Free estimate” worth what you pay for it

Most service industries offer some type of “Free Estimate”. Usually it’s such a general number that bears almost no relation to an actual number to get the job done, that it’s almost useless. A real estimate will be specific to your job. In this day and age of home improvement stores and shows everyone knows there are multiple choices to be made on every project. There was a time when there were only 2 options for closet doors now there’s, hollow-core, 6-panel, 4-panel, wood, ready for paint, ready for stain, folding, mirror, pocket and don’t forget the newest barn door. Every job will have those types of decisions and the price variations from those choices..

A good estimate will include the name of the materials to be used. It will have sizes. It will list all of the specifics included in the price. No surprise, oh that wasn’t in the estimate costs, added during the project or at the end.

E.G. Decks can include floorboards, railings, steps w/stringers, platforms, footings, framing, skirting, steps into home, built in seats, etc. Now you get into the different types of materials. Pressure treated wood, cedar, teak, IPE, redwood, mahogany, tigerwood or pine . Then do you want it stained or painted? Then you might want to go the no-maintenance composite route. Then is it between Trex, Wolf, Azek, Cali-Bamboo, Certain-Teed, Dura-Life, Fiberon, LumbeRock or Timbertech. Then what type of railing? Go for the new glass one if you have a great view? Metal to be edgy and trendy. Basic spindles or one of the dozens of styles available. Then do you want a different topper. Wide planks so your guests have a place to put their drink or entire plate of canapes? Or decorative posts? Then let’s discuss the stairs from the deck to the yard. Do you have enough space to do a straight run or do you need to split the steps up with a landing? Do you need a pad for the steps to end on? In our hilly, septic and well area you need to know where those are located since you can’t put the footings or steps near them. You will need to design the deck and stairs around the entire scope of the landscaping. This is hard to do if you don’t make a site visit.

This isn’t even a complete list of the decisions needed just to add a simple deck onto a home. Don’t even get me started on just knocking down a wall and expanding a kitchen. More about that next month. The TV shows make the pricing of a job look way too easy. The TV contractor is using a short hand they have developed with the designer just for the show. Also they have worked together in the past and know what the designer really wants and has done all of the figuring out on paper off screen. This is just one of the unreal parts of reality television.

So be warned if a contractor just throws you a number it’s one of 2 things.

1 –  A total guess that is probably high so they make a good profit and cover all contingencies

2- A total guess that is low just so they can get the job and then they can tack on “extras”

Now I am not saying every contractor is lying to you and most have a general feel for an estimate but there is a big difference in ballpark numbers just like there is a big difference in ballparks. Little league vs Shea. A good ballpark number will be within 20% of the final number.  It’s a good number if you are just deciding IF you can afford the project. But don’t base your final decision on who to hire until you see a real spelled out written proposal. On letterhead with the license numbers and address of business. And they should be able to get you a certificate of Insurance.

The estimate should contain everything included in the price and have a list of what is not covered. Not covered can include re-seeding of yard, grading of site, painting, permit payments and many other things. Another part of a good estimate would be spelling out of assumptions. Like assuming the customer removes all of the furnishings or does a portion of the demo themselves. A larger estimate may even include a payment schedule linked to portions of job being completed as to make is easy for when payment is expected. A good contractor can supply you with multiple recommendations and  list of prior customers you can reach out to, to discuss their experience with the contractor and their crew.

Lesson learnt after getting to this point is a real estimate will take a few days and if you get a verbal estimate it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. So don’t expect a real contractor to just have those numbers ready to spew back to you. They can give you a ballpark number but it will be at a so general-builder-supply-level that if you want anything custom more than what’s available at Home Depot it won’t be valid. But rest assured it won’t be cheaper than that number unless you provide some sweat equity. Or chose lesser quality of materials.

In 2016 our ballpark numbers for decking were $30-35 per square foot of wood and $65-75 for composite. That was for a basic design to build a new deck with no surprises on footings or special order materials. A basic high school ballpark. I just typed a quote for a Trex replacement deck with stairs but re-using existing footings and frame and it was $35,000. Not quite Shea but at least a Rutgers level. That estimate took an on-site visit with measuring, research on material prices and 2.5 hours of desk work to generate. In total 4.5 man-hours to come to that number. But this estimate had everything from a link to the Trex site to select colors from specific level of planks to specifics on stairs including skirting and riser color. No surprises and it makes it easy to compare to another estimate to see apples to apples. That is if the other estimate is as detailed as Pavolony Construction Inc estimate. And that’s a big if.

I hope this sheds some light on why free estimates aren’t easy to give. Also on why we may charge for an insurance quote that you are just getting to keep your insurance provided contractor honest. Then it’s a nominal charge like $150 which would be deducted from your bill if you award us the job.

We provide free estimates when there is a fighting chance for us to get the job. At least 4 hours go into each estimate and sometimes as much as 25-30+ hours for entire blueprint jobs. Think about this, you would not want to do all of that work for free. Please think about that next time you ask for a free estimate. We can always just give you a grade school ballpark for free.

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