Free Estimates. We Would Never Do That To You!


Published on 12 Dec 2016

What’s a Free Estimate Worth?

It's worth about what you paid for it. At it’s best it’s a qualified guess. At it’s worst it’s a ploy that can and often does lead to a disaster. That’s why when asked about it we reply, “Free Estimate? We would never do that to you!” What we really mean is that an estimate is just that… “estimated” and guaranteed to change. We on the other hand, would much rather present you with a “Fixed Price Agreement” as the basis for your design/build project.

Unfortunately there are some in our profession that use a free estimate to create a hoped for peace of mind to “sell” the job only to find out after the walls are gone that the actual cost is about to resemble a hyper 5-year-old on a department store escalator heading straight for the candy shop.

There is probably no other question more commonly asked of remodelers, and none more misleading. And so we thought we’d take a run at debunking this all too common thinking.

We get it—we’re all consumers at heart

It is of course understandable, in a consumer driven culture like ours, to expect to bargain, to negotiate, to shop, to want to feel like we did our best to get the lowest price possible. Pay full retail? Not on your life! That approach works just fine for shoes, clothes, cars and electronics, but it doesn’t actually work very well when it comes to remodeling. In fact, it doesn’t work at all.

Saying that probably sounds a bit suspect and at the very least counterintuitive. But it’s not and here's why—no one can give a meaningful estimate without specifics. You might as well ask me to tell you what your next super bowl party will cost without providing me a shopping list. Do you want chips and burgers or steaks and potato salad? Beer? PBR or Surly? Catered or pot luck? For five or fifty people? Makes a big difference doesn’t it. It’s difficult because it’s all highly subjective and personal and very custom—just like remodeling.

You are feeling very sleepy and will now accept any number I give you with great peace...ahhhh..

The peace of mind ploy

There are remodelers out there who are more than happy to give you a “free estimate”. But what you are really getting is temporary peace of mind. It is common for some remodelers to use this estimated number as a “contract price” to win the job. They’re hoping that you, with your momentarily soothed conscience, will take the bait, and let them get started with few, if any, specifics on material selections, demolition plan, construction labor, trade contractors, finish schedules, existing conditions and so on.


However, after the job starts you can expect the avalanche of change orders to reflect the real costs of allowances and “items not included” in the “estimate”, but it will be too late as the work has already begun. You are likely to be stuck with a price tag way outside your comfort level or with an incomplete project you can’t actually afford to finish. They might as well be saying, “Trust us. We throw a great party!”

How to pay for it again and again

And so you eventually climb out of your depression and thoughts of murder for hire, and call around hoping to find someone even cheaper who can finish the project and make the nightmare end.

Only problem with that is you are most likely to get a guy who will simply repeat the first scenario. And so you end up paying for it again and you still don’t have what you wanted in the first place. Arrrggg!!! Eventually you may end up talking to us and finding out what it really should have cost to do it right the first time. And so…you guessed it, you pay for it one more time to get it done right—but at least it’s the last time. We know, pretty thin as a consolation.

So why can’t I get a detailed estimate for free?

Good question—two answers. First of all, as we’ve already covered, an estimate isn’t what you want. It won’t help you and in fact will most likely set you up for failure and heartache. It’s worth exactly what you paid for it. Remember, you don’t want to guess, you want to know.

Secondly, what you really need is a thoughtful, detailed plans and specifications and contract pricing that requiring hours of professional experience measuring, drafting, specifying and reviewing with you all the components and selections involved in doing the job right. It’s a great deal of work, even for smaller projects. For those reasons it can’t be free. And if it is both detailed and free, it’s something offered by a company that won’t be around long enough to make good on their warranty. In the end, sorry, but I’ve got to say it, there is no free lunch.

So How do I get some idea of what my project will cost before I begin? 

Another good question with one answer. You spend the time, at least an hour or two, meeting with your prospective remodeler, interviewing them for competency and chemistry, and then request a general project scope with a cost range. This is not a single number, but a range, which takes into account the many variables. That range widens as the project scope and complexity expands. Until specifics are provided, this is all any legitimate design/build firm can do at no cost to you. If they do offer a detailed estimate for free—run. Of course you can always take what they offer, but be advised, they’re operating a business with unsustainable business practices, which will eventually show up in other areas of their work. So, as we said before—RUN.

Interview no more than 3 unless you are bored

I purposely didn’t use the common “get 3 estimates or bids” here because we’ve already covered the fact that those terms are really quite misleading and meaningless when used in the remodeling world. We know that getting three bids ends up in three different proposals, based on different ideas, different talents, different experience and usually vastly different priced proposals. Interview a short list of candidates, no more than three.

Why? If they are all experienced design/build firms you’re just going to get the same story over an over again and if the proposed project scope is that same, the cost range won’t vary significantly. Why is that? Because firms that have been in business a long time, long enough to have their warranty worth something, they are usually thorough and have figured out what things really cost. We all know what it takes to stay in business, pay our people a fair wage, make a modest profit and produce repeatedly successful projects for our clients.

What your really looking for is a demonstration of their capability and competency and their willingness to tell you the truth about what the project will cost and how long it will take. If you can’t do that in three interviews and find someone you trust that feels like a good fit, you’re probably not asking the right questions.

"Read my lips. I want the Cambria. I know it's a bit above our budget, but honestly look at it!"

Remember you are negotiating with yourself

When you buy a car for instance, you’re negotiating the price with a salesperson. When you contract for a home project the right way, with a detailed plan and specifications, you’re actually negotiating with yourself. You are in charge of what you want based on what you want to actually afford and what things will actually cost based on the quality of materials and level of workmanship you desire.

No “Free Estimates” Ever—Promise

So, there you have it, the reason(s) why we would never give you a “free estimate.” We would never want to give you false hope, lessen the value of your home, disappoint you, or make you pay for your remodel multiple times. So, please for the love of Mike, don’t ask for a “free estimate” because we won’t do that to you—promise!