Free estimates, I think they’re dumb!

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The arguments for free estimates has been around forever:

Free 2
I will close you on one call.

Buyers expect them- my competition gives them- its good for business- its ridiculous to charge for them- no one will pay for an estimate- its the cost of doing business- my Mother told me to give free estimates, these and any argument you would like to dream up are reasons to give free estimates but, are these really good reasons?

This week I got 4 calls………

Starting on Monday I got 4 contacts for quotes from my website , I think that’s pretty good and on a positive note I called them all back.

1. Whole house remodel for a rehab loan project 40 miles away. I told the homeowner I would give a clear and concise quote for $200, he said  he already had gotten 2 free quotes and figured he would get a few more. “Oh, thank you for that” I was thinking!

2. Second call was a small kitchen which I ball parked over the phone and they will think about it. I consider this one closed.

3. A kitchen that I visited for free, this ended up turning into a $30,000 to $40,000 plus kitchen gut and remodel. They had a kitchen layout from Home Depot which I took and I will give them a target budget and scope of work and if they are interested I will have them sign a design agreement for $500 and I’m going to sell this job.

4. Another rehab for probably $60,000 worth of work. Told this contact I charge $200 for a quote, she agreed it was a reasonable fee but the night before we are to meet her husband calls and cancels our appointment saying “We are all set thank you”. I’m guessing this guy thinks “FREE” is better than accurate.

That’s this past week and I’m glad I qualify and charge for  visits. Let the other companies fight over the scraps.

But………

In the last 2 weeks I have been paid $200 per visit for 3 people. I won’t get rich on $200 estimates but at least I am not driving around  desperately hoping my professional bids aren’t being compared to the 4 line bid that says something like “Remodel Kitchen to include cabinets, flooring,  countertop and sink $15,000.

FREE_FREE_FREEEEEEE!
FREE_FREE_FREEEEEEE!

 Who pays for free?

The people that hire us pay for all the free bids we give out, they just don’t think about that, don’t want to think about that. Maybe we should give this free estimate business some thought. We are still one of the few professions I know that spend time and money to understand and sell a complex service and then turn around and offer our services for free. Maybe one problem is anyone with a pulse and cell phone can go into business with little to no accountability, hell, after all the years I have been in business and the thousands of hours I spent honing my craft I still run into people who think they could do exactly what I do after watching an episode of “Flip this House” or simply just Googling something like installing crown molding.

Ain’t goin ta happen!

Free bids are embedded in our culture and although they don’t make sense for a business as far as profits go they are expected and for now were probably stuck giving out the silly things, but some of us just won’t accept this foolishness and we charge for our time. Maybe a shift to understanding buyers might help our industry move from this pointless exercise.

A little story

I got a call a year ago from a woman who had called Home Depot to come out and measure for new kitchen cabinets. she angrily told me Home Depot had the nerve to tell her there would be a $99 fee to have a designer come out and measure, she was no fool as she knew estimates are always free, she was upset because she thought Home Depot was trying to rip her off. I simply told her I was booked out for the next 6 months, she sounded dissappointed but probably figured I was busy giving free estimates. After I got this conversation I was more determined than ever to get paid for my time.

Do I still give free estimates?

Yes, for smaller jobs, jobs that are close by, people that have a voice or demeanor I like. For line item bids I charge and unless this puts me out of business I have no intention of competing with the free bid companies.

Who gives free bids?

Mostly all contractors do in some form or another but unless your going for a one shot close like roofing, siding, windows and other one trade services I feel you should be getting paid for putting a project together. I used to think no one will pay for a quote and that turned out to be a false assumption, if your eager to be free buyers will pick up on it and you have somewhat reduced yourself to a price qualified service, and when you go down that road your going to have a hard time leaving it. Life is better for me because I strongly qualify and never sound eager, there is a world of difference between interested and eager, be strong and proudly believe your knowledge and time are special and worth a fee.

Next week I will offer alternatives to free bids other contractors find useful.

Paul Lesieur

12 COMMENTS

  1. Yep, an estimate should be free, because anybody with a pulse can give one. No experience required, no education required, just a willingness to fill a void that the homeowner feels they need to have to consider they have done due-diligence!

    Now, the first visit being complimentary is another story. If you aren’t confident enough that you can serve this client better than anyone else, you had better walk out the door, and thank them for their time.

    If you can add value, do what you need to do and go for it.

    I still don’t believe that you should give them a firm proposal until they have had to part with something, either their time, or a bit of their hard-earned cash for a service of value. It’s up to you to find one.

    If all they want is a price, once they get your number, they no longer need you!

    • Yeow, just had that happen, I did not charge for a bid and after talking to my cabinet guy, my electrician and painter I gave an itemized scope of work and it was “Wham bam thank you sir”.
      Broke my own rule and even after a great meeting, reasonable price and attention to detail they were immediately shopping my price.
      Dexter says “follow the code”!

  2. I agree with you about the Free Estimate being dumb. In fact I’ve written an article or two (waiting for it to make it through the editor’s inbox) bidding the Free Estimate good riddance. As for charging for the service of providing the client with information, what I typically ask the client is if they have a complete set of permit ready drawings, specifications and scope of work. If they reply “What’s that?” then there’s the opportunity to sell a service.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion on the Free Estimate being a waste of time. Now to convince consumers a Free Design is even dumber, and we just might be getting somewhere.

  3. Wow! Len said drop in to see what’s up – I didn’t expect to see The Paul posting good stuff. I’m with you on this one my friend!

    Keep at it. We’ll move the ball eventually.

  4. My favorite free estimate story:
    Got a call in the fall from a lady who wanted an estimate on repairing some stairs in her late 1800’s townhouse that she had up for sale. As I was booked with work all the way into the spring, and selling HO’s are by necessity in a hurry, I told her there was no point in me looking into it because of my schedule. Her response was that she didn’t need the work done, she only needed an estimate. I replied that was fine and for a fee I would be happy to prepare one. She was quite taken aback and haughtily replied “Aren’t estimates free?” As politely as I could I replied that I value my time. The kicker is that she was a lawyer.

  5. What pisses me the most is home-owners that need a quote for insurance purposes only. I know they have no intention what so ever to hire me, they just need a written proposal from professional contractor. Insurance companies usually want an itemized and detailed quote and that takes time. After they finally get the check ( thanks to me) they never call me back. They either hire someone else or do some repairs themselves. It’s really frustrating because the number of calls is growing and I don’t have time to drive back and forth for free. Unfortunately most if not all of my competition provides a free estimate so nothing is going to change anytime soon. Good hunting everyone!

    • We won’t get rid of free estimates overnight but at the very least we need to educate the customer so most of them know it takes experience and skill to provide an accurate bid.

      Design should never be free. I work with a designer who gets $150 an hour to pick out paint colors for exterior paint jobs. Heh!

  6. Free estimate is shooting on a food for contractors and really is dumb idea. I think the low qualified, unlicensed contractors came to this and at some moment it became standard in Chicago area. Now it is impossible to charge somebody for estimate. Some time is crazy. I had a women called 3-4 contractors for estimates for replacing an electrical outlet. This lost of time and sources cannot be covered by prices.

  7. The call , hello this is Rhett
    Customer , yes I getting bids for wtf ever,,
    Me , and you got my name from ??
    This is when I make my decision .
    Cost. I found your web site
    Me, what numbers did you get for wtf ever & by who ??
    You learn as you go pep.
    Qualify your customers before you waste your time.
    It could have gone like this
    Customer , Hi Mr. Smith I got your # form Mr. B.
    and we are going to need you to do WTF EVER !!
    Yes his proposal is free !!
    “Start up must start somewhere”. Even if it free for short time .

  8. There are a few ways to look at it, and it entirely depends on the situation. Repair and maintenance work, even including roofing, painting, and siding, don’t often wind up with too many curve-balls, and so can be estimated fairly quickly and accurately, i.e.: free.

    Remodeling and renovation work on the other hand, can have many unknowns, and hidden problems. A free estimate should be fine, but the key is to point out to the homeowner that this kind of work should be drawn-up first, and the design step needs to be paid for.
    1. Here is my estimate.
    2. This needs some simple plans first, here’s why, here’s the price.
    3. A plan = an accurate quote, and you can take that plan elsewhere if you like.

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