Estimating Software

September 07, 2000

Very few remodelers use the pen-and-paper method to write estimates nowadays. It’s common for most estimators to create a spreadsheet template in a program like Microsoft Excel, using the spreadsheet’s autocalculating abilities to make the mathematics less painful.

But remodelers must still go through the tedious steps of contacting all the various subcontractors and suppliers, getting price quotes and entering measurements. With so many time-consuming steps, it’s easy to make mistakes or have to re-enter information before a remodeler can have an estimate ready to take to a customer.

"I think over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a big change in [estimating methods,"] says Gary Staples, marketing manager for Xactimate software. "In the 1990s, the majority of contractors were still using a pencil and paper. Now, the majority of professionals are using computers, but they try and use spreadsheets for estimating, crunching numbers in there. Not many have investigated or demoed estimating software."

Estimating software can greatly reduce the legwork for contractors willing to invest the time to learn how to use it. Depending on the complexity of the program, estimating software can perform tasks as simple as calculating the cost per square foot of an installation all the way up to pulling the latest price updates off of the Internet and e-mailing subcontractors automatically.

Despite the complexity, all estimating software works in a similar way. Remodelers enter the dimensions and materials required for a particular project, and the software will line item and calculate the estimated costs to install all the elements of the project. Many estimating packages pull the rates and costs for materials and installation directly from a database
inside the estimating program created by the remodeler.

Most estimating programs also have a system of reminding the remodeler to include all the elements of a particular project. For example, if a remodeler is inputting plans for a wall addition, the program will automatically ask for the costs for framing, drywall, paint and labor. It’s also common for estimating packages to be able to read blueprints and designs and to be able to calculate all costs right from the specifications. Some packages can integrate with popular design programs and use those diagrams; others incorporate design software as a part of the program.

"There is a movement away from manual methods or even generic spreadsheets," says Steve Watt, director of estimating products for Timberline. "This is because every time you use those methods and create an estimate using a spreadsheet, you have to create the logic all over from scratch every time. With dedicated software, you have the ability to replicate the same system over and over again -- you can capture information for re-use."

Higher-end estimators have the capability to use pre-made databases, taking the work out of building up an information bank for the remodeler. Programs of this type can either pull general pricing estimates for different areas of the country off of CD-ROMs, or off of the Internet. Internet-received information is more accurate, although generalized information is always less accurate than price quotes obtained directly from suppliers.

"Most remodelers who own their own companies don’t want to take the time to key information into an estimating database," says Dan Rich, director of sales and customer development for BuildNet. "So, consequently, they’ll use a spreadsheet or another non-integrated method to do their estimating. Most estimators won’t take the time to find a program that works for them, because if you only put garbage into a database, you’ll only get garbage out, and the program isn’t worth as much."

Estimating programs can also take advantage of the latest technologies to streamline the process even further for remodelers. Some software packages can be used in conjunction with images taken from a digital camera, assisting in floorplan creation. Others can be used on a handheld computer such as a laptop. These estimators prompt remodelers for information as they survey the job, making sure that measurements aren’t missed the first time around. Then the information can be automatically sent to a desktop computer for the creation of a detailed estimate.

"One area that hurts remodelers on job estimates is error. It’s amazing what falls off the yellow pad. A remodeler knows that in most cases, if there’s an error [on the estimate] then he ends up eating the cost, so those errors become expensive," says Watt. "This is pretty important for a less-seasoned estimator. They can use the application on the handheld device, and it prompts them for pertinent information. It becomes a lot harder to forget something."

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