home estimates

Understanding Home Improvement Estimates

Even the simplest home improvement project requires advance planning. Homeowners need to choose a design and connect with a professional to make that design a reality, while staying on budget. Estimates help the planning process by creating a basic outline of work to be completed. Estimates include the cost of the project, how long it will take, what warranties are included and what materials will be used.

Having a clear understanding of your estimate will go a long way to make your home improvement project run smoothly.

The Basics

Contractors are quick to point out that homeowners should understand what an estimate is and how they can vary. Estimates can range from simple ballpark guesses to detailed lists, involving schedules, specific materials and expected labor costs. For some projects, estimates are capable of being more accurate. However, in all projects there is the possibility of unforeseen costs and challenges. To get around this, communication between the homeowner and the contractor is key.

Expert Sam Lazarus suggests,

“Call it an estimate, bid or proposal, communicating with the client and setting expectations of service is the key. Over-communicate with all parties involved, under-promise and over-deliver.”


Before a contractor, remodeler or architect comes to do an estimate, do as much preparation as possible. If you are unsure of what you want, consider hiring a designer to help you plan out your remodel or home update. Designers can help you figure out the specifics before a contractor does an estimate. This will make your estimate more detailed and therefore, more accurate .

Interior designer Patricia Davis Brown recommends,

“The first person a homeowner needs to hire before beginning their project is the design professional that will develop the plans and write the specifications. This is your best friend to have before you begin the estimating process. Without the complete plans of the project, things will be left out.”

If you have a general idea of what you want, consider using online calculators to get a baseline estimate. Old House Web provides an excellent table of very basic estimates for the most common home remodeling projects. ImproveNet’s estimator is much more specific, down to the category of showerhead you want in your bathroom remodel. Remodeling Magazine’s estimator compares the cost of remodels by geographic area, adding in data about how those remodels can make returns on a home’s resale value.


Most professionals advise getting estimates from at least 3 different contractors. Once you have the estimates, compare them line by line to see how and why their pricing is different. Good preparation and a detailed project plan will help you when comparing estimates. When choosing a contractor, don’t always choose the lowest estimate. Instead, choose the professional that offers the best balance of price, experience and professionalism.

Expert Kris Bickell advises,

“The process of obtaining estimates can tell you a lot about the contractor. Do they actually answer the phone when you call? If not, do they return your call promptly? Do they show up on time for the estimate? Do they follow up in a reasonable amount of time? Does the estimate give you details about the entire project or just a price? Is it written on professional letterhead or a piece of scrap paper?”

For DIYers, apply the same comparison shopping tactics to your own estimates. Create a complete materials list and take it to several home improvement supply stores. Ask if they offer discounts for large orders or repeat customers. Getting an estimate from a store is no different than getting an estimate from a home improvement professional. At the very least, you can choose the supply store that offers you the best customer service and advice.

Energy Savings & Appraisals

Related to remodeling estimates are energy savings estimates and home appraisals. If you are interested in upgrading your home to be more energy efficient, you’ll want to consider the energy cost savings you might expect from such a project. But estimating these numbers isn’t always easy.

Expert Jason Todd points out,

“Energy modeling gets complicated very quickly. The variables that affect results include things like weather and occupant behavior. Even with significant energy savings measures, a homeowner might not see the savings the following year if it’s an extreme season for heating or cooling or if the crank up the thermostat even with efficiency improvements. In reality of course without the improvements they would have spent even more for that year!”

With appraisals, resist the urge to always choose the realtor with the highest appraisal value. Just as the lowest estimates are not always the best choice, high appraisals can have similar problems. Realtors that appraise a house too high may not have the best intentions.

Realtor Dawn Ohnstad explains,

“Lots of people selling their homes think that we, when giving price opinions, are “bidding” on their house, and that the higher the recommended listing price, the higher the amount they will get for the house. This is called “buying the listing” folks. Some agents will tell a seller anything they need to in order to secure the listing. In fact, doing this harms the seller, as statistics show that overpricing a listing actually causes the home to sell for less than it would have had it been priced correctly at the outset.”

Get It in Writing

Once you’ve decided on a contractor and agreed to an estimate, get everything in writing and have all involved parties sign it. Use detailed estimate sheets, preferably ones from the American Institute of Architects, or AIA. These documents are regulated and respected in the industry for their level of detail and accuracy. Any formal estimate should include project length, cost, materials involved, labor rates and warranties for services and products rendered. A signed, detailed estimate is your best guarantee for a successful home improvement project.