11 January 2010

Reader question: Is this estimate too high?

Help! We got an estimate from a contractor to remodel our kitchen. The quote included gutting it to the studs, however the only appliances that would move would be the dishwasher and the fridge. This includes redoing the ceiling as well, as we have a soffit that needs to be removed to add recessed lights. New floors too. Now, the kitchen is not very big --only 13x11. We haven't decided on finishes, etc., so the quote includes granite and quality cabinets. The quote was $40k. This seemed like a lot to me, but maybe I'm out of touch.

What do you think?
I think you're going about this all wrong, that's what I think. You haven't wasted your time though. After all, you now have an estimate for a $40K kitchen redo. Without knowing anything about your project or your location, I'd say that's in a range that makes me think you're not being taken.

The best thing you can do right now is stop, catch your breath and then change course. It sounds as if you have no idea what's involved in a kitchen renovation. That's OK, most people don't. Well, the best way you can go about spending a lot of money on this renovation is to learn a couple of things about the process and thereby re-cast yourself as an informed customer rather than as a victim. Be the driver of this train, not a passenger.

It is impossible to get comparable bids on a job if all of the players are bidding on different projects. Unless you know how to write a scope of work, every contractor you talk to is going to be bidding on a different job. Far more important than getting comparable bids is to find a contractor you trust.

In the meantime, have a chat with your husband and settle on how much money you are willing to spend on this project. That number is your budget. Everyone has one and you're not showing your cards to have that number in mind and to share it with the professionals you'll need to hire in order to complete this job.

It's a better idea to slow down and talk to a kitchen designer. Ask around and interview a couple of them. When you find someone you can relate to and who demonstrates that he or she will listen to you, work with that designer to come up with a plan.

That plan is what's going to drive this whole project. In the course of designing a plan, your designer is going to be able to get accurate prices for cabinetry, counters, lighting, faucets, sinks, appliances, flooring and everything else that goes into a kitchen renovation. Don't buy anything yet though. But add up the costs of all those things. We call them finishes. Add up the estimated costs of all the finishes and subtract that number from the budget you had in mind from the beginning. The number where you end up is your budget for the contractor.

Meet with several contractors. Ask to see photos of his or her previous work. Ask for the names of previous clients and call those former clients. If he or she has anything under construction right now, tour the job site.

When you find yourself developing a level of trust with a contractor and when he or she proves him/herself to be a good listener, make an appointment to review the scope and budget of your project. Involve the kitchen designer at this point if you're not feeling particularly confident.

At that contractor meeting, show the contractor your drawings and the scope of work for your job. Then look the contractor in the eye and say, "Can you do this for $12,000 dollars?" Use whatever your construction budget number is of course. If the contractor says yes, ask for an itemized estimate. That will take a few days to a week to generate. If the contractor says no, ask why and listen to his response.  If the reasons make sense then maybe you need to adjust your construction budget. If you need to adjust your construction budget then go back to your designer and adjust your finish budget to accommodate the change.

Finish budgets are flexible, labor budgets aren't.

Repeat this budget back and forth process until all of the players, especially you, are comfortable with the final numbers. That comfort level is far, far, far more important than collecting three bids. A comfort level with a competent contractor is worth much more than the resentment you'll cause by dragging more contractors into this process. You want competence and responsibility and those two things never make it into low ball bids. Never.

The process I described will take a couple of weeks to complete. In the course of those couple of weeks you are going to learn what a quality cabinet is. You're going to learn about the relative price points of your flooring options. You'll learn about the pricing structure of granite counters. You'll learn why some appliances cost more than others. You'll learn a lot about your home too. You'll find out about how your floor and roof trusses are set up. You'll learn about your electrical service. You'll learn about any structural problems your home has. In the course of learning all this stuff, you'll become an educated customer and you'll start to feel pretty empowered. Before you know it, you'll be forming learned opinions about engineered floors and self-closing drawers.

Once your job starts, you'll understand what drives cost overruns and construction delays. More important than anything else though, you'll be in charge of what's being done in your home. You'll be the boss and that always feels good. Right?

So if I were you the first thing I'd do is call a kitchen designer. If you need help with that I'll find you someone. Good luck and let us know how you do. Keep in touch and send me some photos of your job when it's all done. OK? OK!


  1. Excellent, excellent article Paul! The only thing I would add is to suggest people ask for EVERY contractor's license number. They should go on line to their state's license board and check it out and see if there are any complaints about them posted. (In California go to http://www.cslb.ca.gov/Consumers/). Be sure the contractors are bonded and insured to a level that will cover whatever work they are doing for you before they start work. Most likely you'll just find their license number, but it's worth the peace of mind.

  2. Great point Pam, hiring only licensed contractors and tradespeople is very important.

  3. That is a fantastic article. Really, really, really great advice.

  4. Thank you! I'm about to dive into this exact situation in an hour-and-a-half.

  5. Very well written Paul. Finding a contractor you are confident in is key and kitchen designers are a great resource here too.

  6. Awesome response, Paul! My favorite line is "Be the driver of this train, not a passenger."

    Couldn't be better said!

  7. Excellent article.
    I would also recommend the vetting process for hiring the kitchen designer just as much as hiring the contractor.
    A good designer who has been around the block can help you develop a budget during the design phase and not the other way around as so many do.
    If you know you want to only spend X amount of dollars then tell your designer this up front. This will streamline the design process and won't waste time.
    I you don't have any idea of the costs associated with construction then ask an experienced designer and s/he can give you some estimated costs to help you educate yourself about the process.

  8. Absolutely fantastic post, Paul! I'm going to print it and share it with future clients... hope you don't mind!!

  9. Hi Paul! Just found your blog and I like it very much!You said through twitter that you are looking for someone around Boston right/ Check us out..http://capstonefabrication.com I will pass on your blog...

  10. Thank you Jane, Nick, Michelle, Victoria and Capstone. This stuff can't be repeated enough. And Victoria, I would be honored if you passed this around.

  11. Michelle: I just read over you blog --fantastic tag line you have there. "Is that a pistil in your calyx or are you just happy to see me" made me spit coffee out of my nose. Thank you.

  12. Great advice Paul! My advice to anyone doing a renovation is "to do your homework". From my own personal experience; a REPUTABLE Architect, Contractor or Designer "is worth their weight in gold". -Brenda-

  13. Thanks for the ringing endorsement Brenda!


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