Learn the intricacies of comparing contractor bids.


Comparative shopping is easy when you're dealing with shoes or cars or fruit. But when the item up for bid is a remodeling project, well ... let's just say it's apples and oranges.

It takes a dozen hours or more for remodelers to create a design, draw up a building plan, and extrapolate a fair price for the project—all with no guarantee that they'll actually get the job. That's why most remodelers won't provide written quotes until you have paid an up-front design fee. This usually ranges from $1,000 to $2,500, but it may be lower if you already have a set of architectural blueprints.

In some cases, contractors may be willing to offer verbal estimates, but these may be less accurate than a written quote.

Remodeling costs fluctuate greatly depending on numerous factors, all affected by the remodelers' business style and vision for the project. Every remodeler is going to have a different way of looking at things, so the bottom line is going to be different.

Some of the variables include the following:

Windows: A remodeler who specifies stock vinyl windows might budget less than $75 per window. One who prefers custom wood windows may allocate 10 times as much.

Lumber: A project's lumber tab differs for a variety of reasons. How many of the boards are treated? What are the dimensions? Is the contractor calling for engineered beams rather than traditional boards? Do plans call for framing the wall with 2x4s or 2x6s? Load-bearing capacity, insulation requirements, and aesthetics are just some of the factors that determine the type—and therefore the cost—of the lumber a remodeler uses.

Siding: A remodeler's ideas for your home's exterior significantly affect the ultimate price. Vinyl siding or aluminum siding is cheaper than wood; wood is cheaper than brick or stone.

Roofing: The remodeler's specified roofing material is a big part of the budget. Keep in mind that ornamental features, including gables and dormers, also add to the cost.

Foundations: Additions must be supported by a foundation, which varies in cost depending on its depth and materials. A poured-concrete foundation, for example, costs half as much as stacked blocks.

Mechanicals: Choices about the heating and cooling setup have a big budgetary effect, as does the number of plumbing and electrical fixtures.

Doors: Don't overlook the cost of doors. Unless your remodeler plans to install hollow-core, prehung doors, you'll pay hundreds of dollars for each one. If the remodeler specifies exotic woods and custom hardware, the budget could include thousands for each door.

Details: The best remodelers revel in creating unique spaces, so their estimates often include extras such as cherry millwork, intricate paint schemes, and granite countertops. A more modest bid probably includes limited luxuries.

Labor: Individual remodelers set labor costs at their discretion. The cost will be higher if you're dealing with a reputable remodeler, and higher still if the reputable remodeler is in great demand when you want your project completed.

Overhead: A typical remodeler must pay for office space, staff, equipment, and insurance. These items may seem unrelated to your project, but don't underestimate their value.

So how do you make a decision about costs when you're working with estimates packed with loads of volatile variables? Basically, you talk—a lot—with the prospective remodelers, then pick one you trust.

Reputable remodelers work with clients to design a project that fits a realistic budget.


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