Understanding Your Remodeling Estimate and Proposal

If you go to ten different contractors and request an estimate for a project from them, you are going to get ten different prices based on a variety of factors unique to each individual firm. Not only will the cost estimates vary wildly between remodelers, but the format in which they are delivered will as well. Imagine comparing not just apples and oranges, but throwing in grapefruits, bananas, kiwis, and the rest of the fruit salad too!

Ten contractors would be kind of extreme, but even following the common rule of thumb will still leave you with three or four proposals so sort through. They will likely have many of the same component parts, but possibly presented in a different order or with pricing broken out differently. One contractor may go with less-detailed line items and a more descriptive schedule/scope of work to get his ideas for the project across. Another may rely more heavily on visual tools like drawings and renderings with less written material. A third might provide the entire package, plus a bunch of extra information that starts to overwhelm you…

The point is, you need to evaluate those proposals like-to-like with the goal of hiring the best contractor for YOUR project. While we cannot comb through every different format of proposal, we can tell you how to spot common components that should be included so that you can separate them out and compare them across each remodeler you are considering.

Clear and Direct Fixed Price Proposal

The number one thing you should look for in a proposal is an obvious, clearly written total price to perform the scope of work. This price should be FIXED before you sign any contractual documents – meaning that it is set in stone, not to change whatsoever, unless YOU the client change your mind by signing an official Change Order during the project.

There may be price breakouts for individual phases of a project, alternate materials, optional add-ons, or potential deducts. But you need to ensure you are happy with the fixed/set/unchangeable price before any contracts are signed or down payments are made. If anything feels fishy with the pricing, or if you don’t understand exactly what your money is going toward, then do not sign or pay anything until you can investigate the situation further or back out completely.

Detailed Specifications

Specifications for construction are detailed documents prepared in advance of the project in order to help describe the scope of work, methodology to be used, types of materials and final finishes, and approximate order of work to be completed. The more detailed they are, the more confident you can feel in trusting your contractor has a complete understanding of your desired scope of work. A remodeler could have all the knowledge and expertise in the industry, but if he doesn’t describe it in the specifications then there is no guarantee that work will be completed. Specs are one of the crucial documents to making a construction contract.

Specifications are usually split up into divisions, which are different for commercial, industrial, and residential. Even residential, the simplest/smallest of the three has over 25 divisions covering the many different aspects of construction. Site prep and excavation, concrete and masonry, floor/wall/roof framing, roofing materials, decks, siding, doors/windows/trim, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, insulation, walls and ceiling coverings, cabinetry, flooring, painting, specialties, and clean-up are the major divisions for residential remodelers. A remodeler who doesn’t understand the spec divisions, or who doesn’t bother splitting up the job like this for you to understand, probably isn’t worth their salt anyway.

Approximate Project Schedule and Backlog Information

Schedule is typically second on a homeowner’s list of most important project factors, right behind total price. You need to know not only how much it’s going to cost, but when it can be completed as well. A good contractor or remodeler will provide you an accurate schedule before breaking ground based on his experience with many projects of that same type (e.g. bathrooms usually take 2-3 weeks on average). A great contractor/remodeler will go further and let you know how far out the backlog is presently booked. Anybody who does even passable work in this busy economy is booked out for a month minimum, and highly-sought after firms may be scheduling out as far as next year already!

Design Documents/Visualization Tools

Design aids like sketches of the site, top-down plan views, and full 3D CAD renderings all play their part in helping customers and designers visualize how their project will look once finished. Sometimes these are created by an architect or designer ahead of time and distributed to each of your prospective contractors. Obviously they won’t be making their own, but it might be worthwhile to see who actually reviews the plans and if they make any recommendations for better engineering or cost savings in their experience.

If the remodelers are making their own plans and designs for your consideration, then you can start to seriously evaluate them. Quality of the renderings, accuracy of the existing site conditions, and understanding/accurate expression of the scope of work would be the top three things on my list when thinking about these visual aids. (Don’t always expect these plans up front without a larger commitment on your end however. Good design documents take a lot of time and skill to do correctly which many firms are not willing to commit to just for a budgetary proposal with many other bidders.)

Product and Meterial Data Sheets

Many times you will see 1-2 attachments included with an estimate that take a deep dive into a specific product. These “cut sheets” or “spec sheets” provide valuable information like a color photo, measurements, clearances, available sizes, accessory products, installation details, and much more. While you wouldn’t see these for standardized products like framing lumber, these sheets can be very useful for unique or specialty items like an elaborate faucet or oversized pet door – anything that is out of the ordinary. If your remodeler takes the time to research a solution for a unique problem you want solved, he can then share the solution he’s found with the related cut sheet showing you exactly what he’s proposing.

General Terms and Conditions

The general terms and conditions should encompass any remaining miscellaneous notes or information that you are interested in knowing about your contractor. It doesn’t matter what point in the process you inquire about these, just as long as you get all questions answered fully before you sign a contract. You might want proof of insurance and licensing, more information on how change orders work, what the warranty process is if an issue arises, etc. You might see ‘exclusions’ in this section which means the contractor is specifically NOT providing that item for your project.