Job estimates and change orders are two of the most common business areas where remodelers can lose time and money. Past software programs gave businesses some tools to help manage estimates and change orders, but current software offerings streamline these processes and address the larger, complex challenges of managing jobs, subcontractors and client relationships.

Fast Tracking
Because software programs store information for repeated use, automatically calculate quantities and do the math, labor-intensive estimates that took many hours to do on a spreadsheet today are reduced to approximately one-fifth of the time using new software developments. Unlike Excel spreadsheets, software programs allow remodelers to keep all information in an easily accessible database for quick reference and populate the inputs into other forms. In addition to the time savings, the automatic inputs and calculations increase accuracy.

“There are several hundred pieces of information involved in estimating and it’s easy to make math errors and quantity mistakes,” explains Dennis Kolva, programming director for Ithaca, N.Y.-based Turtle Creek Software. “Good estimating is critical for a small remodeler’s profitability, and the bigger the company gets, the more necessary software becomes. In addition, the software helps you track job costs so you can get feedback on how close your estimates are.”

Newer programs that offer remote access allow estimators to pull in additional expertise if needed. Corey Thrush, officer at Brookville, Ohio’s H.I. Technologies, says the company’s C.H.I.P. (Complete Home Improvement Program) software allows company owners to easily weigh in on estimating decisions. “If one of your sales reps has a question about an estimate he is putting together, he can take a photo at the jobsite and upload it onto the software. You can look at it instantly, answer any questions, add specific wording and save it into the estimate.”

Many beginning builders absorb the cost of change orders, which is a very expensive practice. Monmouth Custom Builders, Deal, N.J., designed Builder’s Dashboard software for its own use, which lets field managers create change orders on-site. The software calculations have a built-in safety: an owner is required to override any estimate that falls below the needed profit margin.

Monmouth Custom Builders emails the change order to the homeowner for a “digital signature” where they can click on “accept,” “decline” or “call to discuss” options. Jon Levy, vice president at Monmouth Custom Builders, says the process gives field managers more responsibility while ensuring work is properly documented. “Everyone agrees to the contract price, but the change orders can kill your profit,” Levy notes. “Because homeowners formally agree to the work and I can immediately send over all accepted change orders if questions arise, we collect virtually 100 percent of the money on our change orders.”

Access and Interface
Some of the newer software programs are Internet-based, where the software company hosts a remote server that each user can access with a password. Internet-based software backs up and retains all records instantly so if the remodeler’s hard drive crashes, all information remains logged and accessible.

Rich Applegate, chief executive officer of Applegate Construction, Brookville, uses C.H.I.P.’s Web-based program. At first, he was concerned he wouldn’t be able to get Internet access while on jobsites, but he hasn’t found that to be a problem. “I like the convenience of clicking on the Internet and everything is right there for me—from estimating, work-order sheets, job invoicing and completion certificates—and everything I enter gets saved right away on the Web.”

Some remodelers still prefer the security other programs offer of a downloadable disc onto their private hard drive with the ability to access it from a remote location. The trend is moving toward access on more portable devices and, as technologies converge, more companies are making their programs readable from smartphones and tablets.

Orem, Utah-based Xactware offers a suite of software tools like XactRemodel and Xactimate that are loaded onto a hard drive and accessible from laptops, iPads and smartphones. XactRemodel can send forms, visual information or work orders through the remodeler’s network. “If one job is delayed, the scheduling portion of the software helps contractors move people around within your network. You can send assignments and supervise who is doing what, where and when,” says David Luse, project manager for Xactimate.

Most software programs offer tiered levels of access for different users. For example, sales reps can tap into certain data while homeowners can view all information. Compatibility with other computer programs and the ability to customize information is another trait shared by most software on the market. For instance, some programs allow remodelers to import supplier’s materials costs directly into the software. Pricing updates are populated throughout the program. If a homeowner decides to proceed with a job five years after the original estimate, the remodeler can pull up the estimate and the updated pricing is included.

Occasionally a software program geared toward one aspect of the business has additional built-in advantages. Jud Aley, owner of RJ Aley Building Contractors, Westport, Conn., signed on for Turtle Creek Software’s estimating program but found that it had many project-management functions already included. “The to-do list function was one of the biggest things to transform my business,” Aley remarks. “It offered a far superior way to track everything from project punch-list items to small projects within my company, like setting up 401(k)s.”

Closing the Deal
An added benefit of current software’s remote access is that sales reps can provide on-the-spot estimates. “I keep a printer in the back of my car,” Applegate says. “I just access my Internet database, work up a quick estimate, print it out and hand it to the homeowner.” In addition to helping contractors run their businesses more efficiently, the polished forms produced by software can make an independent remodeler or small company appear larger and more professional.

Xactimate, for example, allows contractors to “sketch” a before-and-after rendering to show homeowners the proposed remodel as a floor plan or in 3-D. “Most problems come from misunderstandings between the structure’s current condition and what it will look like when you’re done,” asserts Jeff Taylor, assistant vice president of Xactimate. “The most important thing in marketing your business is the interaction with homeowners, and this software helps them clearly understand what you’re offering.”

Thrush says software also can provide contractors with protection if questions arise after the job is done. For example, C.H.I.P.’s photo specifications page gives direction about when to take work-progression photos and which photos to take. These photos can provide critical evidence work was properly performed.

Where to Begin?
“A website can make any software look good. Take a test drive on the demos companies offer,” Kolva advises. “What’s important is the quality of design and how it suits your needs and your day-to-day use.”

Aley also notes software comes with a learning curve. “You can’t expect to buy software and have it work smoothly within your business. You really need to take the time to do the tutorials and learn how to customize the software to how you do business. Spend the time poking around inside the programs and find out all that’s available to you,” he says.

Still, enterprising contractors may decide to create their own software. Builder’s Dashboard was developed so Monmouth Custom Builders could manage the company the way its owners wanted. Builder’s Dashboard provides employees with increased responsibilities but maintains management signoff. Levy says it’s also unique in the way it tracks homeowners’ selections and punch-list items, manages change orders and produces easy-to-understand estimates. Levy says he’s always updating it, but developing Monmouth Custom Builders’ own internal program was worth it.

“I can delegate work to field managers and project managers and check on their progress and client signoffs at the click of a button. That’s what makes our business efficient and profitable,” Levy says. “This software saved us tens of thousands of dollars.”

KJ Fields writes from Portland, Ore., about remodeling and design.

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