Should you get an ‘estimate’ or ‘quote’ for your home renovation?


The other day I was with my friend when he picked up his toddler from daycare. I asked her how her day went, and she joyfully blurted out that her daycare teacher had to “execute” a hamster that morning. Now I’m not necessarily the world’s biggest hamster lover, but I was pretty shocked. Even more disturbing was the way she was smirking — like hamster execution was something cool.

“Uumm sweetie, do you mean your teacher ‘excluded’ the hamster?” asked dad, smiling. “Yup,” she nodded. “He excluded the hamster at show and share because Spencer is allergic to it.” Thank god, I thought.

Turns out that the difference between the terms “quote” and “estimate” for your renovation is almost as huge. Yet it’s remarkable how many people think they mean the same thing. Even some general contractors use these words interchangeably. But the reality is that an estimate is exactly what it sounds like — a contractor’s best guess of your cost based on some generic square footage calculation. A quote, on the other hand, is an actual “fixed price” based on a detailed analysis of your renovation project.

You see a lot of general contractors offering “free estimates” because they are quick and easy to calculate — and also utterly unreliable. Believe or not, I’ve even seen them done on the back of an envelope.

To get a proper quote, you need to have a finished design and material specification list. You need to get bids from subcontractors. And actual costs from suppliers. All of this is then calculated into the final quote, giving you a firm cost for the project.

Doing a quote requires a significant investment of time and effort — I’ve seen some complex kitchen renovation projects take up to 40 hours of labour to calculate. And even then, to have any degree of confidence, you need to have rock solid operational processes in case changes occur (and I’ve yet to see a project without at least one). That’s why it’s not feasible to expect a reputable, experienced contractor to do free quotes. If they are, you can bet you are paying for the time it took to prepare that quote somewhere else in the budget.

Here’s the takeaway. If you are offered a free estimate for you renovation, be clear on what you are getting. And if you want to build a realistic budget, ask your contractor for a “fixed quote” and be prepared to pay for it.

An exclusion like this could otherwise result in some very poor execution.

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