Kelvin Pierce of Commonwealth Home Remodelers in Vienna, Va., can give accurate ballpark estimates on design/build remodeling jobs in about 20 minutes. How accurate? “Although we tell clients [that we can estimate to within] 10% or 15% of the final selling price, we're usually within 5%,” he says.

Pierce credits his accuracy to “reliance on historical data and willingness to remember numbers.” For the last five years, he and his estimator have created monthly reports on estimated and actual costs for every job. Pierce used this data to create an Excel spreadsheet with costs for different phases of different types of jobs.

To create a ballpark estimate, Pierce asks prospects a set of questions, then compares the answers to the spreadsheet. It's not strictly a mechanical process, however. Pierce uses his judgment and past experience to estimate costs based on what the current project requires and how it relates to costs incurred on past jobs.

Pierce is so confident about his system that he even gives rough quotes over the phone. “We get 300 calls per year, so we can't visit each one of them,” he says. In fact, he says it's a good pre-qualifying tool. “If I give them a figure of around $25,000 and they say they were thinking of $10,000, I can tell them that we're probably not a good fit for them.”

The Client Interview To create a ballpark estimate, Kelvin Pierce interviews his clients. “I try to determine the general project scope and the level of fixtures and finishes the client is looking for,” he says. Pierce asks clients questions about the age of the home, site access, and whether the remodel will add space or will stay within the existing footprint. If adding on, he probes about dimensions and what type of foundations they would consider. He also enquires about fixtures, interior finishes (especially flooring), and exterior finishes. Finally, he asks about budget. “Depending upon their response to my budget question, I may start quoting typical ranges on what the budget should be based upon historical data,” Pierce says. “The goal is to help both of us determine if there is a potential fit and if it makes sense to take it to the next step.”