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Free is a 4-Letter Word

Veteran remodeler Michael Anschel makes a case for integrity in remodeling 

September 29, 2020
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deceptive acts are hurting remodeling

Caveat emptor—buyer beware. These words should be stamped on the front page of any proposal that offers free services or its evil twin "fees credited back." 

Both of these practices are commonplace in the remodeling industry, which is already on the "approach with caution" list for consumers. The damage that is done by engaging in misleading or deceptive business practices extends to beyond the consumer to the entire industry. It damages the adjacent industries of design and architecture as well, cheapening the service they make their lively hood from.

Free Is For Bottom Feeders

Free design isn’t really free. It is part of the company’s overhead which is reflected back in the pricing of the project. Free is the tactic of the bottom feeder who has chased discounts all the way to the bottom. Not only do you eliminate a revenue source for yourself, but you undercut the companies for whom this is their revenue. If a remodeling company offered free tile setting or painting with every project, how would you feel about that?

It gets worse.

Credit Deceptions Are Corrosive

Crediting design back to the project is insidiously deceptive. A remodeler openly bragged to me about how they use this tactic to snatch the client using the bait of a 10% design fee ($10,000 on a $100K kitchen) that would get waived if they build, but behind the scenes they were only providing $1,600 of services and adding $3,000 to the cost of the project to cover themselves and make money. Not only deceptive, but dishonest and lacking in integrity.

Where is the moral compass of this industry pointed?

Free is the tactic of the bottom feeder who has chased discounts all the way to the bottom.

A Case For Integrity

These are selfish acts that come from a company or individual focused on themselves. A win at all costs mentality that does nothing to create longevity or stability. The company that uses these tricks is not a friend to the industry or our clients.

We also need to ask what this word "design" means. The remodeling industry has become careless with this word. It gets thrown around and diluted as remodelers engage in that chase to the bottom. What does it mean to design a kitchen? What level of detail should it include? Is it any wonder that ASID keeps trying to take away access to that word, or that AIA guards the word "architecture" with a legislative fist? Maybe they are right, if this industry can’t respect the word and the craft perhaps it should be taken away.

The practice of offering free design or crediting design back to the project should be abolished. The industry associations—NARI, NAHB, NKBA, etc—should take a firm stance against these practices and reprimand and remove those firms that engage in these bad practices. They won’t but they should. In the absence of leadership, ethical remodelers, designers, and architects should come together to launch a PSA campaign for consumers so they understand how they are being duped.

For those remodelers who read this and realize how they have been hurting themselves, the industry, and the public, it isn’t too late to change. Take the high road. Explain on your next lead how you used to operate and why you no longer play that shell game. Become a remodeler of integrity.

About the Author

About the Author

Michael Anschel is president of Otogawa-Anschel Design + Build, in Minneapolis, and a founding board member of Greenstar, Mich.



for over 20 years I have had a design/costing process layout form for arriving at cost. Design work and other related documents is a separate business action. I am on YOUTUBE stating design work issues. i do not sell remodeling. I do sell remodeling documents that exemplify the owners requirements and wishes. I don't do comparable guessing. with my laptop i present design work examples and charge for establishing existing floor plan and the "PROCESS" of arriving at conceptual designs for the owners acceptance. I work from directives and approvals. NOTHING is FREE!

On one hand I agree that the big box stores offering free services is deceptive. (Because when you read the fine print...) I do not agree with the statement about crediting back Design Services being deceptive. If that is your stance on a design credit, what is your alternative method? Getting paid for Design Services as a remodeling contractor is essential. Now, do I agree with how many render that service? No. However, offering design service to clients is a loss-leader. It is an opportunity to develop a further relationship with a client and better understanding of budget and lifestyles. Design Services are not an income source but more of an insurance policy of sorts, in my opinion, to secure a construction contract. In the theory of "free being deceptive", what do you think manufacturer's & vendors are doing with rebates and back end credits? Securing business.

Interesting article, like many contractors, "free estimates" can eat away at time available for jobs, management and other items also important. We have a estimator and we track how much time is spent doing estimates in comparison to estimates for projects that turn into jobs. As a business owner it is my job to qualify customers, we have many repeat customers and that is different as you have developed relations ship and if they have called you back , we would take that as a indication we have treated them fairly in the past. Its much trickier when you are first talking to a new client and trying to make determination if both parties are a good fit in terms of their expectation, type of work they are requesting. Over time this gest easier as one gains experience and has a back-sight of jobs to reflect back on. This simply takes time and you have to pay your dues. Free estimates for us are typically a onsite visit and evaluation. If that number fits what they have in mind, then we can proceed to the next step, which means we will make drawings specific to their project, Engage our subs, electricians, plumbers, tiles setter, floor installer and drywaller, all this takes time and subs appreciate it when you don't waste it. At this point on our 25 year history we have a pretty good idea as to what thing's cost. For a detailed "scope of work" we charge a fee, that is a commitment to the project for both parties, we are no longer talking and dreaming, we are moving forward and gears are in motion. If our final estimate is nit within 10% of our budget than we offer to return the fee, and we do apply it to their contract, Although there certainly is potential to take advantage, that just depends on who you are, contractors have plenty of opportunity to take advantage of clients. I live by this quote "One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised." Sometimes it cost us money and is painful, in the long run it is without question the path to a stellar reputation.

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