McCadden: How to Stop Defending Why You Charge for Estimates

by Kyle Clapham

Most homeowners looking for remodeling services expect a free estimate. Unfortunately, this is a precedent set over many years, so we can’t blame them for wanting something that they’ve become used to getting just for the asking. But just because there is a well-worn path doesn’t mean those who forged it knew where they were going.

Additionally, because homeowners are accustomed to free estimates, collecting them before they do a project has become part of their planning process. In reality, homeowners not only collect estimates to compare prices, they also do so to gather project ideas and specifications.

Then they will try to compare remodelers on price based on disparate, imaginary projects they would never build. They’ll also try to settle on design details and products from their bid-gathering experience—ideas from all the remodelers who donated time.

Free estimates are not in the best interest of the consumer or any remodelers who offer them. There’s a lot of wasted time for both parties. The process of getting to final design and specifications inherently takes longer than it should. Plus, your typical homeowner isn’t qualified to design and specify the project they ultimately need. This leads to constant project revisions and change orders after construction begins.

No More Free Estimates

If you are tired of wasting your time with free estimates, there are two things you must do. First, you must commit to never doing them for free again. You must believe that you should be compensated for your efforts. Second, you must define the process for how you will do business—in writing.

By doing so, there are several benefits. You’ll capture all the details and critical considerations related to your process. This will help you make sure you haven’t missed any steps and will even help you explain it to others logically.

With your process documented you can review it each time you prepare to meet with prospects. Share your process on your website, so consumers can decide for themselves if your process makes sense for them. To help avoid a lot of wasted time, you can require consumers review the “how we do business” page on your website as part of your prequalification process before you are willing to discuss getting together.

If they still want free after reading or hearing how you do business, you can help them decide and agree you and your business will not be a good fit for them. This will save a lot of valuable time and free you up for other more productive and money-making activities.

Don’t Defend; Explain and Let Them Decide

As I said earlier, consumers have come to assume and expect free estimates. When you tell them you don’t do them for free, they will likely want to know why or try to make you feel like you are doing something wrong, leading you to try to defend your stance.

To avoid this scenario, send them to your website first. If you can’t, won’t or don’t send them to your website before you visit with them, get permission and a commitment from your prospect for a few things. Get their commitment to listen to you fully explain your process in a logical order before interrupting and asking questions.

Also, get their commitment to letting you know if how you do business will work for them. There is no reason to discuss project details and offer free project advice if your prospect will not do business with you the way you have decided works best for your business.

Differentiate Your Offering

As you explain how you do business, help your prospects differentiate what you have to offer from what others have offered and demonstrate how your process is different from what they had assumed or expected from you. The words you choose can help you with this differentiation. For example, maybe after you let them know you don’t do free estimates, ask them if they what they really want is an estimate or a fixed price proposal.

They may not know there is a difference, so you get to explain the difference. In my opinion, an estimate is really a guess, and a guess is only possible before plans and specifications are completed. On the other hand, a fixed price proposal requires plans and specs, so both of you know what will be built, what is included and what is not included. The goal here is to help them see the need for—and benefits of—having accurate plans and specs before assembling a fixed price proposal.

Engineer Your Referrals

If you do your part well, consumers should come to realize the differences. However, keep in mind not all prospects will give up the idea of—and the pursuit of—free estimates. That’s OK. In addition to believing and committing to no more free estimates, you will also have to accept that not everyone should be your customer.

However, consider this: People who expect free estimates hang around with other people who think like they do; it’s human nature. So, if you do business with those people, to whom do you think they will be referring you?

On the other hand, people who see the value in your process and can justify paying for your services rather than expecting them for free probably hang around with people who think like they do. Where do you want your referrals coming from? QR

Shawn McCadden is a speaker, business trainer, columnist and award-winning remodeler with more than 35 years of experience. He can be reached at

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