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Estimating Checklist: Do This Every Time!

Every estimate you do has some features about it that are special, that you must analyze for this particular job. But every estimate should be exactly like every other estimate in some important ways. These are basic estimating principles that should be so much a habit with you that it's like putting on your socks before your shoes. You do it automatically, and you're likely to be in trouble if you don't.

Perhaps the first and most important rule is to estimate one job at a time. This means you look at a job, come back to the office, and complete that estimate before you go on to another job. You do this so that you know you have only one job in your mind while you are estimating.

Too many estimators will go out on several jobs during the week, then sit down on Saturday to do all the estimates. Of course you can take good notes on quantities and measurements, or refer to a set of plans, but that's not really good enough. The human mind is just about guaranteed to confuse the details between jobs, especially the judgement factors. You won't know for sure whose tricky roof tie-in or strange plumbing hookup or really steep driveway is whose. Don't risk it, and don't make excuses, just sit down and do that estimate and then move on.

Closely related to this rule is one that says prepare your estimate within 24 hours of the job site inspection. At least run through the quantity takeoffs and make some judgement analysis calculations. The longer you wait after looking at the job, the more likely you are to forget something that should show up in your estimate.

When you sit down to do an estimate, use a calculator that prints on paper. Calculators are great, but you have to be able to check your work. If you misplace a decimal point, or put in a zero where it doesn't belong, it can make a difference of hundreds or thousands of dollars in your estimate. Be sure you have a printed tape of all your calculations, and check the figures against your worksheet to be sure you used the right numbers.

Be sure to put a cost in the estimate for absolutely everything that is part of the job. It is much better to put in a not-quite-accurate cost than to leave something out. If there is an item that makes up 5% of the total job, and your price for the item is 20% too low, the cost to your company will only be 1% of the job. But if there is an item that is 3% of the job, and you don't include it at all, most of your net profit is just wiped out.

Don't use exact measurements when you estimate remodeling; round off your measurements. It's not just that mistakes are more likely when you're working with fractions or lots of decimal places, but the waste factor in most remodeling work makes your precise calculations wrong anyway. If a wall measures 7 feet 6 inches high, call it 8 feet. You never build a 13 foot by 15 foot addition; it is 14 x 16.

And when you are measuring walls, don't subtract for windows and doors. Figure as if the walls were solid, unless you know someone who will buy those odd-shaped pieces of drywall from you.

Write down a square foot figure for small amounts of work. If you have to patch a living room floor, don't wait a week and try to remember how big the patch was. Make a note while you're looking at the job: "patch floor 3' x 4'." Use the same procedure for items such as plaster patching, pointing up mortar, or replacing pieces of exterior siding.

While you're thinking about measurements and square foot figures, remember to write down key measurements and dimensions. One of the best ways to do this is to take 1/4" graph paper with you when you look at the job, and prepare a layout of the whole area with measurements. Some of the key measurements you should record include:
  • slope of grade away from house
  • size and location of existing windows, including height above floor
  • size and location of doors
  • ceiling height
  • size and location of radiators and/or ducts
  • location of existing electrical work, including main service box
  • existing roof pitch
  • location of existing plumbing, including water lines and main sewer line
  • location of heating and cooling systems, including possible points for tie-in
  • location of possible obstacles such as gas/electric meters, hose bibbs, well & septic, etc.

A common estimating failing is lack of attention to detail when you are discussing specifications with a customer or looking at a job site. Be sure you know what you need to about such things as:
  • type, size and number of windows and exterior and interior doors
  • style and size of roof
  • floor system, including finish tile, carpeting or flooring
  • wall system, including interior finish, insulation, sheathing, exterior siding, brick or frame construction
  • ceiling material
  • type of heat
  • electrical requirements, including quantity and type of outlets, circuits, etc.
  • plumbing requirements, including details such as hose bibbs and bath accessories
  • storage or closet requirements
  • whether painting is included, and what type
  • interior trim, including base, window, door and ceiling molding
  • exterior trim, including soffit, fascia, rake, etc.

When you have completed an estimate, always have someone check your estimate. If there simply isn't anyone else to do it, then set the estimate aside for a day and go over it again yourself. One important benefit of using unit cost estimating is that it can be checked by someone who is not necessarily familiar with the construction being done. And one important drawback to the traditional stick method is that frequently the original estimator can't check the estimate himself, because he's forgotten how he built the job in the first place.

Even when you're finished, you're not finished. You always need to check the actual costs against the estimate. There is no estimating system in this world that will always work unless you check your actual job costs against the estimate and use them to improve your next estimate.