| 5 min read

    Why free home renovation estimates are problematic and a fantasy

    A home renovation project can be a highly dynamic event full of excitement, anxiety, anticipation and, yes, stress. Of course, no homeowner wants to pay any more than absolutely necessary, causing some to fall prey to a potent mix of optimism, highly-attractive-but-unrealistically-low bids, and in some cases, unfounded trust in contractor promises. Not surprisingly, this results in misunderstandings, unexpected cost increases, delays, and a deeply unsatisfying experience.  

    A significant number of renovation project problems originate with free estimates. Some homeowners, eager to get their dream-home renovation project started, succumb to the quickie, free estimate provided by a contractor anxious to land the project. Too often, a contractor looking to keep his crew working and cash coming in will take a quick look at a project and ballpark a figure within a few days or even a few hours. The homeowner might hear something like this: “Oh, yeah, I’ve done a number of projects just like this – they run around XX-thousand dollars. If that sounds good, I can get started on this next week.” This scenario almost never ends well.


    Let’s be clear. An accurate, trust-worthy estimate requires detailed planning that simply cannot be done in a few hours or days. A reliable, reputable contractor will ask for a reasonable fee to develop a detailed, actionable estimate based on the full scope of work, including labor, materials, municipal fees, and all other costs directly associated with the project, which generally takes several weeks. This level of planning and attention to detail is simply not possible with a fast, free estimate.

    Homeowners expecting a renovation project that meets or exceeds their expectations should be willing to pay for a comprehensive estimate and a detailed, actionable plan based on experience and a proven process that is reliable, predictable, and ultimately enjoyable. Anything less will increase risk, stress, and the potential for failure.

    Why homeowners should not accept the validity of a free quote

    Home renovation should not be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. And getting multiple free quotes does not lessen your risk. Any contractor willing to provide a free quote is probably using the same unreliable, incomplete, guesswork estimating methods as the others. Even supplying architectural plans to a builder for quoting does not necessarily guarantee an accurate estimate – the builder could simply be guessing at what it would take to execute the plan without bothering to check it for potential problems.


    Hiring a design/build firm and paying them to produce a realistic, accurate estimate provides you with the best of both worlds. They can develop plans based on your goals and input and then cost it out accurately and reliably to provide you with a fixed cost of renovation that minimizes risk and eliminates nasty surprises. In short, you can get an estimate that you can take to the bank.

    The lure of reality TV: Home makeovers that are anything but real 

    Let’s face it. Reality TV shows that create the perception that renovations are quick and easy are fun to watch. Unfortunately, they are anything but real. 

    home-renovation-estimatesReality TV home makeover projects are backed by large media companies and paid for by advertisers. Free labor and materials are often provided in exchange for exposure to large audiences. These shows do not truthfully represent how real renovation projects are carried out nor do they provide accurate, real-world pricing. All of this creates an unrealistic impression about renovation projects and their costs and sets up homeowners for disappointment and even possible legal/financial trouble.

    The truth behind some of the misrepresentations found in reality TV home renovation shows include:

      • Projects always take longer than depicted
      • Costs are routinely under-estimated
      • DIYers rarely do the work themselves
      • Expensive furniture and décor shown are not included in the project
      • All materials are not purchased from one source
      • “Winging it” does not work for renovation projects
      • Renovation is often disruptive – homeowners don’t return from a vacation to a renovated home
      • Many of the renovations shown aren’t real 

    Accurate home renovation pricing theory

    Many homeowners are attracted to the simple, cost-per-square-foot estimating process because it’s easy to understand and calculate: “the average residential renovation project in (geographical region) typically costs X dollars per square foot, so an average Y-square-foot kitchen in a single-family residence costs approximately Z dollars for a complete remodeling.” 

    This kind of dangerous generalization is rife with potential risk because it does not take into account any underlying issues such as regulatory or historical compliance needs, unique utility requirements, special access accommodations, or any other mitigating circumstances that can substantially affect costs. 


    More reliable and realistic is the “stick-and-brick” method which, as you might discern from the name, requires counting every piece of lumber, masonry, and other materials that the project requires. Once all the materials, labor, and other project costs are added up, an accurate and dependable estimate can be provided. 

    Allowances: The hidden risk

    One area where renovation companies cut costs is the way they set allowances in their quotes. Often, poor quotes include allowances which are way too low to provide the quality the homeowner wants. They’re expecting a level of quality unavailable with the allowance provided in their low-ball free estimate, causing frustration and adding expense if they want to get the quality fixtures, cabinets, and other products they were initially hoping for. 


    Once again, this unnecessary problem can be avoided with a detailed, comprehensive estimate that includes specified materials and itemized costs. A free estimate based on unspecified materials and unrealistic allowances simply cannot be trusted. Without proper planning, the homeowner ends up assuming a large chunk of the risk because so many project elements are left up in the air, affecting both cost and quality, as well as the project timetable.   

    Homeowner’s homework: A little effort and understanding provides a lot of insurance

    Any homeowner planning a renovation project would do well to perform a little due diligence to gain an understanding of the different elements of remodeling. By knowing what goes into home renovation and what needs to happen when, a homeowner gains valuable insight into how to judge an estimate. They’ll know when a contractor is providing realistic information and accurate pricing and when they’re just blowing smoke. Think of this as a form of homeowner’s insurance to protect your remodeling investment.

    In a recent blog post we outlined the five phases of a typical renovation project, which are:

    1. Preliminary planning
    2. Design development
    3. Permitting
    4. Construction
    5. Post-production walk-through

    If your proposal doesn’t include the elements to address these phases, you should start asking questions and not wait until the project is underway. There are lots of renovation horror stories in which optimistic clients ended up with projects that went way over budget and time, such as one featured in the Washington Post in which the unhappy homeowners received an unexpected cost overrun bill totaling a whopping $100,000. This kind of negligent and poorly-qualified contractor gives the industry a bad name and a homeowner nightmares. This doesn’t have to happen to you.


    Your cost of remodeling is driven by design and the scope of work. Without knowing the full design and scope of the project there is no way a contractor can provide a realistic cost estimate. Any builder who provides a quote without first defining the scope and design is NOT providing an accurate estimate for the project.

    As the old saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.” With a little knowledge, a willingness to ask questions and challenge assumptions, and the benefit of working with an experienced reputable design/build team that understands your goals, you’ll be assured that your renovation project will fulfill your remodeling dreams. 

    To learn more about the home renovation process, please read our eBook, “The Homeowner’s Guide to Creating the Dream Home You’ll Love.” And if you are ready to speak about your next renovation, please schedule a home renovation discovery session

    homeowners renovation guide to creating the dream home you'll love

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