The sign said ‘Free Estimates’. I noticed it as I drove through a neighborhood the other day. It was an advertisement in a yard where a local remodeler was apparently doing some work. I immediately squirmed in the seat of my truck.
That you could ask a builder to visit your home, take a look at a renovation project, then give you an estimate for the work sounds like a reasonable idea, doesn’t it? And it is. But a free estimate? How detailed will it be? Does it include your design selections? Does it offer any sort of project schedule? How much effort has truly gone into that estimate?
It baffles my wife, Cheryl, that after more than 35 years building custom homes and renovations, I’m still hesitant to rattle off a price without doing a fair amount of homework. If you’re following our JFBuilders Facebook page you know that we’re in the middle of a pretty major renovation on a home which, when finished, our family will move into. When Cheryl asks a question “what do you think it’ll cost to tile the master bathroom?”, or “what’s the price of granite vs. quartz for the kitchen?” my answer is almost always “I don’t know”. And I don’t! While I might have a general idea, I know that material costs are constantly changing. This is as true for concrete as it is for lumber. And labor costs in our market are pretty fluid, too. I don’t necessarily know from one season to the next the going rate for drywall or custom trim work. I have to do my homework. For example, to estimate a kitchen renovation I’ll meet with the client, spend time talking about their vision, take pictures and measurements, often create a preliminary design, and then send requests for pricing off to fabricators, cabinet makers, my plumber, electrician, and any other subs or vendors whose specialties the job might require. All of this takes time.
If you’ve received a free estimate from someone, chances are he hasn’t put this much time into it. How could he? Time is something a good builder doesn’t usually have a lot of. He’s either running more than one job at any given time, or if he’s doing most of the work himself he needs to be on his jobsite. Coming up with an accurate estimate would take valuable time away from work he’s being paid for.
Many builders will use the free estimate as a way to provide themselves with information rather than help the customer. They’ll try and ‘qualify’ customers or figure out which jobs they want to pursue. Or worse, they might even turn around something highly overstated to discourage a job they don’t want! I think it’s probably because of the sluggish job market that there’s a lot of new guys out there who’ve slapped a remodeler sign on their truck and gone into business. Offering free estimates is a way to ‘troll’ the market, especially if they know they can increase the price later in the disguise of a ‘change order’.
I’m happy to give a free estimate but I will always tell the customer that it’s very likely going to change, and perhaps significantly, as we move into the details of the job. I’ll also suggest that it may be to their benefit to pay a small fee for a more detailed design and estimate. Moving forward this would be applied to the project cost but in the meantime they’ll have accurate information that will truly inform their renovation decisions.
Good builders work because of their reputation for quality and honesty. If you’re getting a free estimate, ask a lot of questions. Ask for more details—how did he arrive at the labor or material costs? Is there a contingency built in? Talk with some of his other customers to find out how much their project costs changed from estimate to actual cost. A free estimate might sound great but if you’re serious about your renovation, it’s not really all that helpful to you. So be careful of what you don’t pay for!