Lowes, Home Depot, 84 Lumber, and other national or local home improvement stores usually have estimating services to assist you. Simply tell them the general nature of the work, such as replacing cabinets or installing a new bathroom. Next, pick out some item, such as a wall cabinet or a tub, that represents the quality of the whole project. After obtaining some measurements from you, the home improvement store can give you a fairly accurate estimate of your costs.
You can also go online and do this yourself. One of my favorite sites is www.contractor.com. The specific page for estimating is at www.contractors.com/h/info/resources.html. It might be a good idea to get estimates from your home improvement store and online, and see how close they are to each other. If there is a significant difference, ask someone at the store to explain the possible reasons.
Whenever possible, ask for firm bids from subcontractors. Subcontractors will give you a wide range of prices. This is usually because of the following reasons.
1. Some bid very low because of mistakes or misjudgment.
2. Some bid very low because their scope of work does not include many standard items for which you will have to execute expensive change orders after the work has started.
3. Some bid very low because their overhead is low, they have no offices, no liability insurance, no workers’ compensation insurance, and perhaps other matters that should scare you away from them.
4. Some bid very high because they allow for too much cushion in case something goes wrong or their workers damage materials or perform work improperly and must redo it.
5. Some bid very high because they use a pricing model called value pricing, which is based on what the market will bear, not what it costs to complete the job, plus a fair profit.
6. Some will give you a reasonable price based on the anticipated time and materials, plus something extra to cover general business overhead expenses, plus a reasonable profit.
As you become more experienced, you will have a better feel for what the bids should be. While you are still a beginner, though, my advice is to get as many bids as possible, read the fine print about what is not covered in the bid, and ask questions if you do not understand something. There is nothing wrong with saying, “Your bid is twice as much as Acme’s bid. I’m not trying to beat you down on your price, I just want to understand the difference, and why I should choose you. Can you help me with that?”