As a relative newcomer to the competitive Wilmington, Del., high-end market, four-year-old Signature Design & Construction can't charge for pre-bid estimating. That's a problem when you're spending 50 or 60 hours bidding on complex whole-house remodels, only to discover that you're over the clients' budget.

So now, general manager Mark Benzel does a preliminary estimate for each job he's asked to bid. Working from the plans, Benzel, a 16-year industry veteran, manually writes down the quantities and unit prices of materials then enters the data into a spreadsheet that calculates a total, which can be counted on to be within 10% of the final estimate. From there, Benzel can decide whether to submit a detailed bid.