ESTIMATING STEP-BY-STEP

In This Article
Customizing the Estimating Worksheet
Itemized Bid Worksheets
Clear Plans & Specs
Get Bids in Writing
Labor vs. Materials
General Conditions
Site Prep
;                                   On-Site Water & Sewerage
;                                   Excavation
;                                   Foundation
;                                   Rough Framing
;                                   Roofing
;                                   Windows & Exterior Doors
;                                   Exterior Finish
;                                   Masonry & Paving
;                                   Plumbing
;                                   Electrical
;                                   Heating & Air Conditioning
;                                   Insulation & Air Sealing
;                                   Drywall/Plaster
;                                   Interior Finish
;                                   Kitchen & Bath
;                                   Porches & Decks
;                                   Appliances                    View all ESTIMATING articles

Before you start tallying up costs, you need to know all the steps required to complete the job. If you are new to construction, that is the most difficult part of the process, and the one where you risk the largest errors. If you’re off by a few hours or few percent on one work item, that’s one thing; if you leave an item out altogether, you are 100% off for that item’s labor and materials.

The best way to avoid omissions in your estimate is to start with a checklist. Start by downloading and printing the Estimating Checklist.  Next read through the entire checklist while reviewing your building plans. Use the main headings and line-items to run through your entire project to see which items relate to your project, and which are missing or need modification. Build the project from start to finish in your mind with the checklist as your guide.

Mark  items that aren’t relevant as NA (not applicable). Add notes for items that need to be modified to better fit your project. Sometimes items can be combined because they will be handled by one vendor and one bid; some may need to be modified or broken down further to match the way you are receiving bids.

CUSTOMIZING THE ESTIMATING AND BUDGETING WORKSHEET
Next, download the Excel version of the Estimating & Budgeting Spreadsheet (xls).  (The Excel version is much faster to use as it has the formulas built in. If you’re not comfortable with Excel, you can use the MS Word version and a calculator). You can add up to four custom items at the end of each work category, by selecting the last row in the section (“Other”) and the following row, then right-click and select “Unhide”.

The spreadsheet will work to track estimates, actual costs, amounts paid and owed, and the variance between estimating and actual costs. As you go through the Worksheet, it’s important to carefully consider every line item and either assign it a cost or mark it NA (not applicable) if it does not apply to your job.

For example, if you are getting one subcontractor bid for roofing, covering all the items listed in that category,  just enter the price after the heading Roofing.  You can mark all the other line items covered by the roofing bid as NA. You can hide the other other rows, using Excel’s Hide function,  but I recommend leaving them in place as reminders of the steps involved.

Excel Tip: To hide rows, select the first row you want to hide by clicking the row number at the far left, then hold the Shift Key and select the last row you want to hide. Now right-click and choose “Hide”. To unhide, select the row above and below the hidden rows, right-click and choose “Unhide”.

On the other hand, you might want to break down some categories or line-items further, such as Permits and Fees in General Conditions, or Countertops in Kitchen & Bath. I recommend tracking these cost breakdowns in individual Itemized Bid Worksheets, described below.

ITEMIZED BID WORKSHEETS
While you can enter bids directly into the Estimating & Budgeting Worksheet, on large, complex jobs with a lot of multiple bids, I prefer to track bids with Itemized Bid Work Sheets, at least for those work categories with a lot of competing bids. This allows you a lot of flexibility in organizing your items to match your approach to the work and bidding. See the sample Itemized Bid Worksheet for Kitchen & Bath (xls).

These worksheets allow you to break down items as much as necessary, and to compare costs from as many competing vendors as you like, by inserting new rows as needed. Once you’ve completed an Itemized Bid Worksheet, you can enter the winning bids back into you Estimating & Budgeting Worksheet. If you’ve changed items in the Bid Worksheet, you’ll need to make those same changes in the Estimating & Budgeting Worksheet as the two must coordinate for the system to work. More on tracking itemized bids.

CLEAR PLANS & SPECS
Before soliciting bids from subcontractors or suppliers, make sure you have a clear written description of the work or materials required. This information is typically communicated by a combination of drawn plans and written specifications. Without a clear description of the scope of work, you may not be getting apples-to-apples prices. The more precisely you define what you want done, the more likely you are to get an accurate and get the job you want. You won’t be left holding the bag when the wrong materials show up on site or the subcontractor says, “You never said you wanted two top-coats of paint.” or “We always staple our shingles; we never use nails.”

Don’t ASSUME anything when soliciting bids. Remember what ASSUME stands for: Making an “Ass” out of “U” and “Me”.

GET ALL BIDS IN WRITING
Make sure you GET ALL BIDS IN WRITING from contractors, subs, and vendors, with a full description of the materials and labor provided. Whether it is called an estimate, bid, or proposal, make sure that it is a binding bid, guaranteeing a fixed price for a period of time. (In some cases,  a contractor may provide a non-binding “estimate”  or “guesstimate” of what he thinks a job might cost, but may be planning to charge on a time-and-materials basis – not what you want here.)  If there are large differences between bids, make sure the two vendors or subcontractors are really bidding on the same work item and providing the same materials. Maybe one roofing estimate includes a waterproofing membrane and one doesn’t. Maybe one painting bid has two topcoats applied by brush, and the other has one topcoat applied by spray. Is the painter planning to apply matching putty to the hundreds of nail holes in clear-finished woodwork? Don’t make any assumptions about what is included in a bid, unless it is clearly spelled out in writing!

This is the time to ask lots of questions. Even the best plans and specs rarely cover every little detail. Some “little” details aren’t really so little and can have a big impacts on cost and quality. Things like concrete mixes and slumps, properly compacted fill, proper flashing details around windows and doors, using the right type of non-corrosive fastener, and so on. If these are not specified in your plans or in a subcontractor’s bid, find out exactly what materials he is planning to use and how he plans to install them. Ask them to bid the job the way you want it done.

If you know the right questions to ask, by all means ask them. If you’re not sure, ask a lot of open-ended questions. Play a little dumb and you will probably learn some useful things and get a more accurate estimate and a better job.

For example, if you ask a well driller how much it will cost to drill a well, you will get one number. If you ask how much it will cost to drill and develop the well, you’ll get another. If you ask for the cost of a completed well system that delivers tested, pressurized water to your domestic water supply inside the house, you will get yet another answer. If you don’t know the right question to ask, you won’t get the right answer. The best approach, if you’re unsure about an area of construction, is to ask a lot of questions.

Don’t be a know-it-all, because there’s too much to know about construction. If you’re working with an area of construction where your knowledge is limited, ask open-ended questions like, “Are there any other costs I can expect to complete this job the right way?” “Anything else you would recommend here?” “Anything I need to do before you start this work?” Playing a little dumb can be a valuable tool in eliciting information – and improving your estimate and job quality.

LABOR VS MATERIALS
The estimating worksheet  separates out materials and labor for all categories. Which items will be materials only, labor only, or combined will depend  on how you structure the job. If labor and materials are bid together, enter one value under total. For example, the roofing subcontractor might include all materials in his estimate. In some cases the materials will come from one vendor and the labor from another. In that case, you will need to enter separate vendors for labor and materials. The best way to do this is to insert a new row for the second vendor or sub– use one row for for labor, one for materials.

If you are acting as your own contractor, many of you subs will prefer to provide their own materials, as many make part of their money by marking up materials. This is especially true of plumbers, electricians, HVAC contractors, and some specialty contractors such as kitchen and bath installers.

If you want to purchase the materials (a furnace, say from your brother in law who owns a plumbing supply house) and hire the contractor for installation only, plus incidental materials, you should discuss this with him before buying the furnace. When all is said and done, it’s not clear you will save enough money to make it worth the hassle, and the contractor may refuse to warranty his installation on owner-supplied materials.

The discussion below offers tips and techniques for each main category in the Estimating & Budgeting Worksheet.

GENERAL CONDITIONS
This is the first category in the estimating worksheet. These are called soft costs, but they can hit you pretty hard and are easy to overlook (I learned about the impact of “impact fees” the hard way several years ago). You can get most of these costs from your local building and planning department and from your local utilities. Don’t assume you know all the required fees as cash-strapped towns and cities seem to add new ones every year. Find out if one or more surveys will be required by either the building department or lender – if not, you may want one anyway unless the corners are marked recently and reliably.

WARNING: Even if you are hiring a general contractor or buying from a developer, some of these costs will NOT be included in the price you are quoted. Be especially aware of impact fees and utility “tap” fees which can run into thousands of dollars.

Typical Building Dept. Fees for a Mid-Sized City
Plan Review Fee
Building Permit
Electrical, Plumbing, Mechanical Permits
Additions to Existing Structures
Alterations/Repairs to Existing Structures
Change of Occupancy in Existing Building
Fire Protection Systems Accessory
Building & Engineering Field Inspections
Pavement Cut Permit Fee
Driveway/Sidewalk
Research & Records
Project Revision Fee
Zoning Fee
Re-Inspection Fee/Extra Inspections
Re-Review Fees
Tree Conservation Permit
Special Enumerated Fees

 

You or your contractor will need proper insurance to protect the building during construction, and to protect against harm to others (liability).  Lenders require this, but you should definitely have it anyway.

Legal fees are easy to run up if you require easements or variances or, especially, if you are challenged by an abutter – unfortunately a common occurrence nowadays in some areas. Beware of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) neighbor, who wants their house to be the last one built in the neighborhood.

Engineers and consultants may be required for such things as steep slope foundations, problem soils (expansive clay, uncompacted fill, peat), complex drainage issues, unusual structural design, septic systems in environmentally sensitive areas, and so on. Sometimes a quick $200 consult is all you need, but try to anticipate and budget for it.

For more information, review the section on  budgeting for site development along with the  sample site development budget.

Who to Contact: Town Building and Planning Dept., Sanitation Department, banks, insurance agents, surveyor, engineers, lawyer, as needed.

SITE PREP
The first three items listed – Demolition, Jacking & Shoring, and Dust Control are listed for remodeling projects. Conscientious contractors put a lot of effort into keeping dust and debris out of the home’s living area, and spend a lot of time each day cleaning and securing the job-site.

Who to Contact:  remodeling contractor for demolition, shoring and jacking,  electrician and power company (temp. power), forester or logger to clear land, waste management company

UTILITIES
Contact both your building department and utility companies to get a handle on all fees and costs involved. These costs have been rapidly increasing as towns look for new revenue sources. Find out what the town or utility provides, if anything, in exchange for their “tap” fees. You will most likely be responsible for all hard costs for trenching and backfill, wiring and plumbing, and meter installation.

WARNING: Even if you are hiring a general contractor or buying from a developer, some of these costs may NOT be included in the price you are quoted. Be especially aware of utility “tap” fees, connection fees, trenching, plumbing, and wiring fees, which can run into thousands of dollars.

Who to Contact: Town Building and Planning Department, individual utilities, excavator if needed for trenching

ON-SITE WATER & SEWAGE
Typical costs for these items are shown in the sample site development budget.  Many pieces of land today are sold with a septic plan in place and sometimes even a cost estimate. If so, make sure the plan is still current (many expire in two years), and reconfirm the estimate. A mound system or other alternative system may be required if the soil does not drain well, the water table is too high, or is close to a body of water. Mound systems in my area can cost over $30,000 and require pumps, monitors, and regular maintenance. See more about septic systems.

Wells are tricky to estimate since the required depth of the well is unknown. Talk to local well drillers – they know typical depths and flow rates of area wells. Some will give a fixed bid or will guaranty a certain flow rate. Find out what the well driller will provide in his bid and what you will need to provide to get the water from the well bottom to your home. This includes  pump and wiring, trenching to the house, underground plumbing, pressure tank, and possibly water treatment for hard, acidic, or poor tasting water. See more about water wells.

Who to Contact: town sanitation department, septic system designers, septic system installers, well drillers, plumbers

EXCAVATION
These costs can vary greatly depending on site conditions: steep, wet, or rocky sites can add significant costs to development. So will sites with problem soils such as expansive clay, uncompacted fill, or toxic materials in the soil. In some cases, soil testing by a geotechnical engineer is advisable to help formulate a workable plan.
Steep sites may need retaining walls or other approaches to soil stabilization. Wet sites may require extensive work on the surface and below to divert and drain water away from your foundation.

The highest cost items in this section, potentially, are blasting and bringing in large quantities of fill. In “cut and fill” operations, soil is cut from one area and use to fill another. Often, however, additional fill needs to be purchased and trucked in to level the house site or elevate the house for improved drainage. You may also need granular fill (gravel or crushed stone) for improved drainage under and around the house or for curtain drains to control subsurface water.

The cost of fill varies greatly with local availability, but can run into the thousands of dollars. Make sure your contract covers all these costs. If you are the contractor, get written estimates beforehand from a local excavation firm.

Wet building sites that need special surface and subsurface drainage, including, swales, culverts, curtain drains, and extensive subsurface drainage beyond normal footing drains, can also run up big bills.

Finally, don’t forget the topsoil, lawn, and plantings that will complete the earthwork.
For more information, review the section on budgeting for site development along with the sample site development budget.

Who to Contact: Excavator, blasting company if needed, sand and gravel suppliers, landscaping contractor,  geotech engineer, if needed.

FOUNDATION
Foundation costs will vary a lot depending on the soil type, slope, drainage problems, and type of foundation.

In general, crawlspaces are the least expensive foundation, followed by slabs-on-grade, followed by full basements. If you’re considering a slab-on-grade foundation in a cold climate where you have to excavate deeply anyway to get below the frost line, I’d suggest also pricing a full basement, which can provide you with ample utility and recreational space for a modest upcharge.

In areas subject to rain and/or snowmelt, proper management of surface water around the foundation is critical to a dry basement or crawlspace. Footing drains, granular backfill, and finished grade sloping away from the house is the “belt.” The “suspenders” are the Dampproofing or waterproofing of the foundation walls.

Damproofing, essentially a thin layer of tar painted onto the foundation wall, slows the movement of moisture though your foundation walls, but will not stop water from leaking in. Full waterproofing of foundations is more expensive, but worth considering if below-grade areas are to serve as prime living space.

People don’t like to invest a lot of money below grade where they can’t see it, but investing in good waterproofing and drainage controls will pay years of dividends in terms of warm, dry living or storage space in the basement.

Who to Contact: Foundation contractor, concrete ready-mix company, dampproofing/waterproofing contractor, pest control operator (in termite zones)

ROUGH FRAMING
Your framing crew is critical to the success of your house. Framing that is sloppy, or undersized, or uses substandard lumber will result in sags, cracks, nail pops, out-of-square rooms, and bouncy floors later on. So pay for high quality lumber and a reputable crew. Your lumberyard will usually be happy to take-off you plans and provide you with a lumber list and material bid, and may also be able to properly size support beams. Newer wood-composites such as LVL and Glulams have made steel beams less common on residential building sites.

Who to contact: Lumberyards, framing contractors

ROOFING
Roofing is pretty straightforward, and is bid quickly by the “square,” equal to 100 sq. ft. of roof surface. In cold climates, remember to use a membrane flashing along the eaves and around skylights to prevent roof leaks from snow and ice buildup. On lower-slope roofs, it’s often worthwhile to run membrane under the entire roof.

In high-wind areas, special shingles or installation techniques may be required. For asphalt or fiberglass shingles, also consider whether nails or staples are used. In general, nails are better and more forgiving if installed less than perfectly. In the real world of construction, you can assume that most things will be installed less than perfectly.

On low-slope roofs (often called “flat roofs”) avoid single- or double-coverage roll roofing as the stuff made nowadays can fail within a few years. Options include: asphalt/vinyl shingles, composite shingles, metal, wood, clay toil, concrete and composite tile. For low-slope roofs, single-ply membranes are your best bet, typically EPDM, which has a 50 year-plus lifespan.

Who to contact: Roofing contractors

WINDOWS & EXTERIOR DOORS
Windows and exterior doors are often installed by the framing crew, but I’d prefer to have them installed by a finish carpenter or door and window specialist. In either case, make sure they closely follow proper installation procedures for insulating, sealing, and flashing around openings (a common place for leaks).

Windows are a big-ticket item with a wide range of costs. You can’t beat a well-made solid vinyl unit for economy, durability, and low maintenance, but you may not like the appearance. Also, the screens that come with “builder’s grade” vinyl windows are pretty useless.

While solid vinyl now dominates the low end and middle of the market, consider upgrading to a solid fiberglass window or a wood window with vinyl or aluminum cladding. Whatever you decide, make sure you see sample windows in a showroom and operate the sash and screens on a display unit before ordering. You can negotiate significant contractor discounts on large window orders so shop around.

Who to contact: Framing crew, finish carpenters, lumberyards, window wholesalers

EXTERIOR FINISH
There are many choices for exterior finishes and trims. Key factors to consider are aesthetics, durability, maintenance, and cost. For siding, there are many wood and composite products to choose from.

Prefinished wood sidings can offer good value and good performance with a durable species and grade of lumber. For wood alternatives, the cheapest way to go is vinyl siding, with aluminum or vinyl fascia and soffit. If you want low maintenance, but higher quality and better performance, consider fiber-cement siding , such as Hardieboard.

For exterior trim, few people want the maintenance requirements of painted wood and the wood harvested today does not hold paint as well as in the old days. Popular alternatives to solid wood trim include cellular PVC products such as Azek. Azek is pricey, can be tricky to install, and has a high rate of thermal expansion requiring special detailing for long runs and at corner. Also, some don’t like the plastic appearance. There are now several other cellular PVC products on the market such as Marley Moldings, Versatex, and others. So if you’re set on cellular PVC, see what’s available in your area and shop around for the best price.
Another wood-alternative worth considering is Boral, made largely of the waste material fly ash. This has a more wood-like textured surface and holds paint well due to its thermal stability. Another alternative is fiber-cement, such as Hardiboard. It’s difficult to work with, but also is largely impervious to the elements and holds paint really well.

Siding and exterior trim can be performed by either rough carpenters (framing), finish carpenters, or siding installers. If you have complex exterior details, a finish carpenter would be a better choice for the trim work.

Who to contact: Framing contractors, finish carpenters, siding contractors, masons (for stucco, or brick or stone veneer)

MASONRY and PAVING
This covers anything made of masonry block, stone, brick, or other masonry materials, other than the foundation or siding. Examples include fireplaces, patios, exterior stairs, and walkways/driveways.

Who to contact: Masonry contractors, masonry suppliers, pavers

PLUMBING
Hookup costs and fees, including trenching, are covered under Utilities, but it doesn’t hurt to review your water and sewage plan with your plumber. Make sure all costs are covered for fees, pumps, trenching, plumbing, wiring (to a well pump or pumped septic system), pressure tank, water treatment, and whatever else is required.

Plumbers often want to buy their own bathroom fixtures and mark them up (they get a significant discount from suppliers). But don’t be shy about visiting showrooms or home centers to see and price out fixtures. Avoid low-end “builder’s grade” fiberglass tubs and shower stalls. I’ve seen too many problems with cracks and chips over the years. Choose better quality fiberglass or, if it’s in the budget, acrylic fixtures. Don’t be shy about getting into tubs and showers in the showroom to check out the elbow and leg room.

There are many options for water heaters. Consider integrating the water heater with your boiler if you have hydronic heat. Choose a high-efficiency unit large enough to meet your family’s needs.

Who to contact: Utilities, plumbers, plumbing showrooms, home centers

ELECTRICAL
Hookup costs and fees, including trenching, are covered under Utilities. Coordinate with your electrician regarding new or upgraded electrical service. Carefully plan all electrical circuits so you don’t need to pull wires after the walls and ceiling are up. Consider any special cables for phone, TV, internet, intercoms, and home entertainment, as well as exhaust fans, bath fans, doorbells, and security systems.

Also go on a shopping spree to lighting showrooms. Technology is rapidly changing with compact fluorescents, LEDs, and other low-energy lighting systems. Negotiate for a discount – or take your business elsewhere. Home centers have good prices, but not always the best quality in fixtures.

Regarding kitchen and bath vents, these are often installed by electricians, but must be ducted properly to work well. Ductwork that is two small, too long, or has too many turns will prevent the exhaust fan from working properly.

Who to contact: Electricians, lighting showrooms, local telecom company, home entertainment specialists, home security company

HVAC – HEATING, VENTILATION AND AIR CONDITIONING
In general, the more you spend up front for high-efficiency heating, cooling, and water heating equipment, the less you will pay over time in fuel bills. A well-designed hvac system will also provide greater comfort, due to more even temperatures, quieter operation, and fewer drafts.

In retrofits, the biggest energy savings and best return on investment in an older, poorly insulated home often come from upgrading heating and cooling equipment to high-efficiency units. Since you are starting with such a high fuel bills and low-efficiency equipment, the annual savings are typically 15% or more, depending on the efficiency upgrade from old to new equipment.

In a new, tightly built, energy-efficient home, a mid-efficiency heating/cooling system is often the most cost-effective. In hot, humid areas, pay special attention to humidity control as some of the high-efficiency cooling systems sacrifice latent cooling (dehumidification) for higher efficiency. Get bids on both mid- and high-efficiency units as well as a projection of annual energy savings from your HVAC subcontractor.

Plumbers and HVAC contractors get substantial discounts on equipment, but it is difficult for homeowners to get these discounts. If you are acting as an owner-builder, it’s worth trying to negotiate for a contractor’s discount from the plumbing supply house. It never hurts to ask for a discount and you will often be rewarded if you do.

As for whole-house ventilation, in a very tight house, a stand-alone HRV or ERV is the best and most expensive system. But an experienced HVAC contractor or HRV installer can integrate ventilation with your forced-air heating system for substantially less money. On a smaller house, one or two quiet bath fans with a timed controller can provide adequate ventilation very economically.

Who to contact: HVAC contractors, plumbing contractors (for hydronic heating), HRV specialist

INSULATION & AIR SEALING
Typical insulation contractors aren’t known for their precision, so if energy savings are important to you, look for a quality-minded contractor up on the latest in energy efficiency. A sloppy installation will compromise performance. You’ll find up-to-date guidelines for  insulating new homes and retrofits at the Energy Star website, or contact your state’s energy office.

In general, fiberglass insulation or cellulose are the least expensive insulation products. For high-performance walls, there are a number of options and no consensus on the best approach. My own preference is to use blown cellulose or fiberglass and build a thicker wall using double studs, staggered studs, or I-studs. Many builders prefer to add a layer of foam on the interior or exterior of your outside walls for enhanced performance. With foam on the exterior, it’s important to use a thick enough layer that you do not cause condensation problems. Also, detailing of exterior trim can be problematic.

Air-sealing is also very important for energy efficiency and comfort. It is best handled by a contractor who specializes in energy-efficient homes, or by an energy or weatherization specialist. For optimal results, a blower door is used to help find leaks and measure the effects of air-sealing. Some energy specialists will provide a written guarantee for specific levels of energy savings. You can locate energy specialists in your area using the RESNET website.

Who to contact: Insulation contractors, weatherization contractors, energy specialists

DRYWALL/PLASTER
Half-inch drywall is the standard interior treatment for walls and ceilings. For improved soundproofing (for example between a bathroom and bedroom) use two layers of ½-inch drywall, with the second layer glued on with no nails or screws, and a layer of fiberglass insulation in the wall.

Skim-coat plaster is a nice upgrade from drywall and costs only a little more in some areas. The finish is harder and flatter, and less prone to nail pops. It’s worth getting a quote.

Who to contact: Drywall contractors, plastering contractors

INTERIOR FINISH
The interior finish is what you see the most, so you want skilled craftsmen doing the trim work. One good trim carpenter, and perhaps one helper, is all you need. Get a bid for all moldings, built-ins, closet trim, and interior doors. Your finish carpenter may also be able to install kitchen and bath cabinets and countertops.

Wood flooring is generally done faster and cheaper by a flooring specialist. There are many wood flooring choices in terms of thickness, species, solid vs. veneer, and pre-finished vs. finished in place. While I like a traditional hardwood floor, sanded and finished in place, I’ve had very good look recently with pre-finished solid-hardwood with “micro-bevels.” It looks good and you can get super-hard factory finishes. Like traditional flooring, it can be sanded and refinished multiple times.

Stairs can be built on-site by a good finish carpenter, but you will probably do much better with a stair company that fabricates the stairs off-site and delivers and installs the whole unit.

For carpeting, vinyl, and tile, many product suppliers also have installation crews or can recommend independent contractors. Closet interiors can also be handled by specialty contractors or your finish carpenter.
Note: Ceramic tile and stone are found in the K&B section below since that is there most common location. However, many flooring retailers carry tile and stone, as well as other flooring types.

Who to contact: Finish carpenters, flooring retailers, wood flooring contractors, carpeting contractors, stair fabricators, closet contractors

KITCHEN & BATH
There are countless kitchen and bath contractors, many of whom sell and install cabinets, as well as design kitchen layouts. Most large home centers will do the layout work for you as well, at no charge, and will sell and install the cabinets and countertops. Alternately, your finish carpenter can install the cabinets and countertops, if you already have a design worked out and plan to buy the cabinets yourself. It’s tough to compete with home centers for price, but I can’t vouch for the quality of their installations. As with most jobs, get a few bids and compare (I’ve had mixed luck with carpeting and flooring installed by home centers).

Cabinets have a broad price range. As you go up in price, you are generally getting stronger cabinet construction with more solid hardwood and plywood, and less veneer-covered particleboard. Also drawers are built better, and slides, hinges, and other hardware are sturdier and smoother. Over time, cheap wall cabinets will tend to sag in the middle, especially wide ones. This can be avoided to some extent by adding more screws and braces during installation.

You may have a wholesale countertop fabricator in the area where you can get contractor prices on laminate, solid-surface, synthetic stone, and solid stone countertops. These are also available at home centers – compare prices. For granite and other stone materials, you should also call around to local stone fabricators who often have good prices on remnants from larger jobs. You’ll see an amazing variety of stone colors and patterns. The fabricators may also be able to install the product or recommend installers.

If you are installing ceramic or stone tile, I highly recommend using a professional tile setter, not a carpenter who sets the occasional tile floor. Tile work has changed a great deal over the past few decades and is still changing with new substrates, membranes, grouts, and adhesives. To get a job that’s waterproof, crack-free, and properly laid out and detailed (symmetrical and balanced, without little slivers of tile), go with a pro.

Who to contact: Finish carpenters, kitchen and bath showrooms, kitchen and bath contractors, countertop fabricators, stone fabricators, home centers, ceramic tile retailers, ceramic tile installers.

PORCHES AND DECKS
These are items you can add to your home later if you need to save money now. If you want them included in your main carpentry bid, solicit bids as a separate line item. That way you can get competing bids from deck specialists for comparison, or hold off on the project for a later date. Most deck builders also build screen porches, pergolas, and other outdoor living spaces. If you are installing an attached deck, pay special attention to how the deck attaches to the house – this area most be properly flashed and securely fastened to prevent problems.

The trend in recent years has been toward synthetic and composite decking materials, rather than pressure-treated lumber. In general, the composite decking materials work well, but some hold up better than others. Another high-end option that provides a long-lasting, low-maintenance deck is tropical hardwood decking such as Ipe. Despite what anyone says, there is no such thing as a maintenance-free exterior deck, although composite materials tend to require less maintenance than wood.

Who to contact: Finish carpenters, deck builders

APPLIANCES
Negotiate for a contractor’s discount if you buy all your appliances from one vendor. Large home centers generally offer free delivery, but may charge for set-up. Installation issues include vents for dryers, vents and ductwork for downdraft ranges, plumbing hookups for refrigerator ice makers.  Any appliance that vents to the outdoors will need a through-the-wall vent cap. Downdraft ranges have special venting requirements that must be closely followed for proper performance. In very tight new houses, downdraft ranges can cause backdrafting of furnace or water heater flues, so it’s best to avoid them.

In preparation for these appliances, make sure your electrician provides the necessary current and outlets: 220V for electric dryers and ranges.

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