Is a Free Estimate Really Free?
No matter where you are on the DIY skill-level scale, it’s inevitable that there will be some home projects and repairs that you’ll just want to hire out. When that day comes, you might be tempted to take advantage of contractors who offer prospective clients a “free estimate.” Sounds enticing, right? What better way to shop around for the right contractor than to collect a few of these free estimates and call it a day?
While a free estimate might sound like a great idea, it pays to have a firm understanding of what a free estimate is — and what it isn’t — before hiring someone to do the job.
When Do Contractors Offer Free Estimates?
When it comes down to whether or not a “free estimate” is really free or not, the answer largely depends on the size and scope of the project or repair. For example, a contractor might offer a free estimate for simpler, straightforward jobs like painting a room, or even installing new flooring.
Estimates for painting jobs or flooring projects are relatively straightforward for contractors: They simply take measurements and add up the material costs and labor, and from there, they can produce a pretty reliable cost estimate.
That said, for larger, more complex projects — think kitchen remodels or any additions to your living space — a contractor will often charge a fee. When it comes to these larger projects, contractors will be presented with any number of variables that might affect the nature and scope of the work. For instance, a builder might need to work with a designer, draw up a few plans, and factor in subcontractor costs before being able to generate an approximate calculation of your final bill.
Why Might a Contractor Offer a Free Estimate?
In your quest to find contractors to hire for your big kitchen remodel project, you may have come across a few who offer free estimates. And although these companies may indeed send a representative to your home and provide you with some form of estimate, it’s important to understand that sometimes there is more than meets the eye in these situations.
What’s Typically Included in a Free Estimate?
When a contractor offers a free estimate for a large project, they don’t always include all the necessary information to make an accurate calculation of the cost of a job. If you’ve been offered a free estimate, make sure you ask the contractor what items they’ve included (and what they haven’t) before you make any decisions. If possible, ask for a written estimate with a line-by-line breakdown of services and charges. That’ll be more helpful to you as you shop around to find the right contractor for the job.
If your kitchen remodel or new deck project requires any form of design plans to be created, prepare to pay for them. Designing remodels takes time, and it’s highly specialized work. It’s typically not in the contractor's best interest to offer this service for free.
An Estimate Is Not a Final Bill
When weighing your options in hiring a contractor, remember that a free estimate (and estimates in general, for that matter) are simply a rough calculation of how much a particular project will cost. One thing that an estimate is not is a final bill. Contractors aren’t necessarily beholden to the estimated price. In fact, it’s fairly common for a final cost to be up to 20% above the estimate. That’s another reason why, if you’ve been offered a free estimate, you should examine it line-by-line to account for any and all items that might be included later.
Keep in mind that a quote is different from an estimate. A quote may indeed be binding, so check with the contractor whether the number they’re showing you is a general idea of the costs, or if it’s the total fixed price.
Just because a contractor doesn’t offer free estimates, don’t immediately count them out. In many cases, a company will apply the charge for an estimate to the final bill if you end up moving forward. It can be helpful to remember that “free estimates” are often marketing tools to help attract customers to a business. Drafting plans and determining the exact costs of large-scale projects requires time and effort, so if a company is offering that service for free, there could be a catch.
Finding a Contractor
When it’s time to plan for those big projects, hiring a contractor can seem overwhelming. Knowing more about free estimates and what they entail will help make the process both easier and less stressful.
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