Like a lot of other remodelers, Strong Construction in Fremont, Calif., can't afford to waste time with clients who want to push $50,000 where $100,000 should go, or who get fixated on some magic number for a project's cost. But co-owners Steve and Sandy Strong also can't afford to turn away good business, so they bring up the big, bad B word — budget — as part of the typical first phone conversation.

Talk, Talk, Talk Talking about money isn't easy. “First, you have to get them to warm up to you,” Steve Strong says. He asks questions such as how old the house is and whether the client has had any other remodeling done (and thus whether they have some sense of the marketplace) before he asks about a price range or a budget. He wants customers to have a budget in mind by the time he visits, so there are no unpleasant surprises as homeowners get their hopes up for a project they can't possibly afford. “Screening the call [for a realistic budget] from the very beginning is the best way to avoid sticker shock,” he says.

Sometimes, callers don't want to say how much they want to spend. “They think we'll fill the estimate, so they give us numbers they know are too low,” says Sharon Bellamy, general manager of Bellamy & Sons Construction in Scotia, N.Y. To counter that approach, Bellamy will ask what the project encompasses, and details such as the size of the room in question or any added space — anything that will help him generate a more reasonable ballpark figure. “We try to give them an idea right away of whether their budget will work with the project,” Bellamy says.

Even before they get on the phone, Classic Homeworks, in Denver, makes it possible for homeowners to get a sense of the money they might need to spend on a project: Its Web site lists typical budget and scope of work for projects such as a complete bathroom remodel ($20,000 and up), a basic kitchen remodel ($55,000 and up), and additions ($200 per square foot). “Sometimes that's the only price they know,” says company founder Rick Pratt. The site also serves as a way to weed out tire kickers and people whose budget is too tight: A lot of people leave the Web site after visiting that page, Pratt says.

Classic sometimes — but not always —asks about budget. The goal is to qualify leads, Pratt says. “So many people have no idea how much it costs to remodel. We get people saying, ‘We've saved $2,000 or $3,000 to remodel our bathroom, and we're eager to get started.'” Warning bells go off in Pratt's head when callers say they saw the company in the phone book or a listing of contractors, especially if the kinds of questions they ask show an unrealistic sense of what the project might cost.

If Classic offers an estimate on the phone, it will gauge the response. “That's a very rough number and risky,” Pratt says. “Sometimes it's not the right thing to do,” and it's better to wait and talk numbers during the sales presentation when the salesperson can see the house and get a better handle on what the homeowners want done.

Indeed, some remodelers habitually wait until visiting the home to talk money. “We don't talk pricing until we meet with them the first time and see the site and the unique elements of that particular project,” says Roger Sirany, president of Plumbline Builders in Hopkins, Minn. At that point, “our goal is to clarify a budget.”