Providing free estimates for kitchen remodeling is a standard business practice for decades.  Homeowners see this as an advantage when considering whether a kitchen remodel is possible. A typical homeowner will begin getting estimates so that they can identify the costs and ultimately find the right contractor.

In the contracting world, however, offering “Free Estimates” has become a marketing and sales tool, sometimes with very little value to the homeowner.

In this post, I’ll outline what you can expect from a “free estimate” versus what you really need and how to get that information.

What can you expect from a free estimate?

In the typical “Free Estimate” appointment, you call the contractor to schedule a time to come to your home to give you an estimate. At this stage both people will be taking time from their schedules to meet which helpful as long as everyone involved in the decision making is present. Often times, only one person is present which is the first step in getting inaccurate or incomplete information.

Lots of ideas are tossed around, some big and others more realistic. Still, for the estimate to be of any value, it needs to be specific to one course of action. At this stage, most contractors will default to the most manageable scope of work and throw out general ballpark numbers for other changes. It’s almost impossible for you to keep straight what the estimate actually includes, and whether it accurately conveys the quality of materials you would expect.

You walk away with a couple of cost ranges and a detailed sales pitch on how they can take your kitchen anywhere you want for a price. They may or may not go back to their office and follow up with a floor plan and proposal to get started on your project.

Many homeowners will meet with as few as two companies or as many as five, which can lead to vast ranges of cost between companies.

Estimating is the same thing as pricing, except you don’t know what you will be installing. For this reason, it is like preparing a best guess. A bid is very different. In a bid, a specific scope of work with all the details and materials relating to the project already identified.

You shoul not assume that you are getting a bid. Many times customers are shocked when the original estimate is not even close to the proposed cost because of decisions made during the design and selection phase. This is where a design build company can excel at providing you with more accurate estimates and the guidance needed, helping you make the selections stay in line.

Wild fluctuations from company to company are caused by three factors:

  1. Opinions on what contractors think they heard you wanted and what they think you should do. Not everyone is a good listener. A misunderstanding of what they think you are visioning and what they are seeing can cause both low or high estimating.
  2. Good listeners can bring up ideas and solutions you have not thought about. This can cause one estimate to be for an entirely different scope of work. One thought or idea could add/subtract substantial cost.
  3. The varying overhead costs each company maintains.  The Direct cost of your project is the overhead of the employees and subcontractors and materials used to execute your project. Then general overhead is added to the project which covers the cost of the companies operations. General Overhead is maintaining office or showroom space, insurance, administrative personnel, management, benefits such as health insurance and 401K to employees, taxes, vehicle maintenance and continual education.

For more information on cost you can read; “How do I select the right Company for my Kitchen Remodel?”. This is one of the reasons it is not the wisest decision to go with the cheapest estimate, quality employees and business practices protect you, the homeowner, comparing two companies that are not the same quality can lead to disastrous results.

This is where “free” typically ends and you can now expect to pay anywhere from a small fee to a large deposit based on the proposal that has been provided. What you pay to proceed with your project is determined by the contractor/company you select.

If the contractor is only interested in installing and you provide materials, you are sent off to finish the design and make selections. Final pricing will be subject to what you pick. If the contractor includes design in his proposal, they will either have a designer on staff (this is Design/Build) or give you the contact information on where you are to go to make your selections (not Design Build).

Not all contracting companies offer free estimates for all types of kitchen projects. Once you start to talk about Design Build projects, there are so many variables that affect cost in impactful ways that a free estimate would be a waste of time. Asking about a Feasibility Study or Project Development Agreement would be a much better value.

When does a free estimate make sense?

A free estimate makes the most sense when you are doing minor remodeling updates and a pull and replace kitchen project. Cabinet and other material costs can be allocated.  The direct costs associated with the remodel can be estimated more accurately. It is not the best decision when looking at major structural or mechanical change to the space. The effects the scope of work can have on construction and design make them basically worthless.  In this event the next best option is a Feasibility Study.

What is a Feasibility Study?

A feasibility study is a paid process to identify, render, and estimate multiple options. A detailed feasibility study is valuable to you to determine if you have the right team to make your ideas come to life. It quickly shows you what improvements will be too cost prohibitive when compared to other options.

If your investment range doesn’t seem like it will work with the costs, you don’t waste your time spending hours designing and planning the wrong space. The investment range for a Feasibility Study can be several hundred dollars, but can save you thousands of dollars by identifying solutions that make a similar impact without all the headaches or cost of a larger remodel event. Once a Feasibility Study is complete you can move forward with the project by entering into a Construction Agreement or, better yet, a Project Development Agreement.

What is a Project Development Agreement?

A Project Development Agreement is a paid service offered by Design Build Companies and Interior Design Firms. The fee paid will either be a flat fee retainer or an hourly retainer. During project development, you will have a kitchen designer to consult with, prepare layouts, renderings, research available materials, and specify all the products to be used. In some cases architects and/or engineers may  become involved.

You receive individualized attention and someone guiding you on decisions, making sure the project is staying on track both in vision and cost. This is not an additional cost but takes the cost line item that would normally be included in a Design Build Proposal. By offering it as a stand alone feature, it is the best way to obtain a fixed price contract based on exactly what you plan on doing. No guesswork or large deposits ahead of final costs.

The Project Development Agreement can be used in conjunction with the Feasibility Study. Companies that offer the ability for homeowners to work with them and obtain detailed cost information are more vested in the success of your project. Kitchen Remodeling is an investment into your home and overall quality of life. When a company invests in having the right people on staff guiding you through that creation process they will have a higher burden of overhead and will naturally cost more than a Contractor that sends you off to make selections on your own.

What if I don’t know what kind of remodel I need?

So what happens if you don’t know whether a pull and replace Kitchen or a more major design build kitchen is what you want? In the past, most homeowners have turned to the Free Estimate as the first step. But there is a much better alternative that will give you more of the information and vision you need.

A Kitchen Design Consultation is a meeting with a Kitchen Design Professional in your home to review the state of your current kitchen. Armed with detailed lifestyle questions and focusing on your goals for the completed project, this one appointment can provide the clarity you need to best proceed. Usually billed at an hourly cost this will save you days of frustrating meetings and stress.


Finding the right Kitchen Designer can be easier than you think. Many Design Build remodelers can arrange for you to have a meeting in your home called a “consultation.”

You can expect that a consultation is a deeper discussion into the features and functions you want from your room’s remodel. By discussing your wants and needs, specific elements and ideas can be shared. The more details discussed the better information can be provided.

A consultation is an excellent tool to find a professional with whom you feel comfortable. It is also a great tool to use to begin to  build your project’s budget range.  An experienced pro will offer advice on the appropriate budget for the most expensive aspects of your project such as cabinets, flooring and countertops. They can also provide additional ways to save costs.  Consultations with the designer versus a sales rep saves time and produces more accurate costing models because they understand more deeply what you are visioning and are going to be the one guiding you through the planning phases.


Understanding What You Need

Understanding the differences between an estimate appointment and a consultation appointment will help you make the first important decision in the remodel process: who should I talk to about our remodeling questions?

If you want help budgeting your remodel, then the consultation format is going to give you a lot more information. If you know exactly what you want but need someone to do the work, the estimate will be advantageous.

Either way, by asking what is included in their “Free Estimate,” you will be able to separate the contractors focused on providing a task related price from those with options available to educate and guide the process. Both are valuable, but for different reasons.


The Last Word on Free vs. Paid

The truth is there is no such thing as “Free.” It might be “free” to you at the time but it costs professionals money to offer “free” services. When you become a customer the service is no longer free. The expenses of the time already provided is taken into consideration once you become a paying customer.  Here’s what I mean:

The cost burden of the “free” estimator in your home gets added into the overhead for the company, not just for your estimate but all the estimates that are done annually. They ultimately become part of the cost of overhead for your project.  The estimator gets paid whether you move forward or not. That means that his overhead shows up in your project price and how greatly that affects your bottom line depends on how successful he is at selling. The more projects contracted, the more projects his overhead gets split between.

Kitchen experts will charge for their time and they work hard to provide you with maximum value.  Remodeling your kitchen is a significant investment.  A small fee for a Kitchen Designer or Certified Kitchen Remodeler is money well spent when you get an industry expert into your home to guide you at the earliest stages. For more information on pricing I recommend “How do I select the right Company for my Kitchen Remodel?”


What To Watch Out For

  • Be watchful for those who waste your time providing no real value in advice, guidance or information, whether it be free or paid
  • Obtain License and Insurance information before meeting with them
  • Before moving forward with any company after the meeting make sure everyone is on the same page as to what the goal of the project is, cost and scope
  • be weary of too much focus on who they are, their accolades or obtaining an immediate commitment to move forward because of promotions or discounts only good that day.

“Time is one of the most valuable resources we have these days; protecting it for each other is the ultimate sign of respect.”

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