Robert Ullman

Two years after Lorton, Va.–based Foster Remodeling Solutions made Remodeling’s Big50 Class of 1998, the company embarked on a daring initiative: an online do-it-yourself estimator for consumers to figure out what their dream project might cost.

It was nearly two years before now-popular online store Amazon posted its first quarterly profit. Foster Remodeling’s president, David Foster, admits the time was wrong. “What we ran into in that time frame,” Foster says, “was that people weren’t used to buying things on the Internet.”

Foster and his team’s lack of experience with online sales didn’t help. Foster says he thinks requiring a credit card number to be entered before allowing users access to the program, as the old do-it-yourself estimator did, turned off many potential customers.

Making a Comeback

After languishing until about 2002, the estimator was quietly removed from the website. Foster turned his attention to advertising through more conventional means. But the idea stayed with him, as he observed the rise of Amazon and similar sites.

In October 2009, Foster decided to give the DIY cost estimator another shot, and the company launched an updated version of the program on its website. “We’re in a very different place now than we were in 2000,” says Foster of online sales. “People are more and more into purchasing things on the Internet. … We thought the timing and the market were right [to bring back the DIY estimator].”

Clear Idea

The program has saved the company time and money by helping prospects get a clearer idea of what they want the remodeler to do before they meet with him. It also, Foster says, gives customers more ideas of what his company can accomplish at what cost. “People tend to see it as a starting point,” he says, often taking on bigger projects than they originally used the DIY estimator to plan. “We were thinking it was going to sell lower-price projects, but a lot of them have turned into larger [projects].”

The estimator — which gives users options and pricing estimates for projects including window replacement, basement finishing, and kitchen and bath remodels — has already generated $167,000 in additional profits, though not always through direct sales.

“It definitely ... has brought us some projects we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” says Foster, who plans to add options, including screen room remodels, to the estimator in late September.

—Mark Miller, Remodeling intern.