Thom asks: Should I pay for a cost estimate? This is a remodel project of a kitchen and three baths.
Steve Bliss of BuildingAdvisor.com responds: While most contractors advertise “Free Estimates,” some contractors charge a fee for estimates – especially higher-end contractors who often spend a lot of time preparing detailed estimates, plans, and specifications for jobs they may or may not get. Some will only charge of estimates on jobs that require a lot of time researching new materials and techniques, or if they are doing a lot of the design work as part of the proposal (like doing a new layout for your kitchen) in order to come up with an estimate. In that case, the charge may be billed for the design work rather than the estimate.
Some contractors may also charge for an estimate if they are asked to bid a job that they feel they have very little chance of getting. If the owner walks away, the contractor may feel he has he avoided wasting a lot of time bidding the job.
Whatever the reason for charging, in most cases, the contractor will count the fee as payment toward the job if he does the work. The contractor should make his fee policies clear, and put them in writing at the outset. If you have not signed anything agreeing to these terms, then you are not legally obligated to pay the estimating fee. In construction contracts, anything that is that not in writing is generally not a binding agreement.
If you really like this contractor and think that you are likely to choose him for the job, then maybe it’s worth paying a modest fee for an estimate — especially if it will count toward the project. If you are pretty much set on this contractor, then you may be working on more of a negotiated bid rather than a competitive bid, in which paying for contractor’s time in developing the plan and specs is more common. However, if you are planning to get multiple bids, and can find equally qualified contractors who provide free estimates, then they may be a wiser choice for you.