Mr. Handyman Asks: Are Free Estimates Really Free?

Photo of someone taking an estimate of a kitchen

There are few topics in the home improvement industry that generate as much discussion as the topic of Free Estimates. Both customers and service providers play games with this concept, frustrating the other party.

If one is considering a new roof on their home a roofing company will send a commissioned sales person out to measure your roof and present a proposal. A new roof can run $10K, $15K or even higher, and the sales person’s commission is built right into the price you are given.

Considering that, are these estimates really free?

For smaller projects, where there isn’t a sales person involved up front, some independent service providers offer free estimates as a loss leader. They know this will be irresistible to some consumers. Like airlines, that overbook their seats, they’ll schedule several free estimates. Once they turn an estimate into paying work those remaining estimates are no longer a priority. Estimates are how they find work, working is how they get paid.

If you’ve ever had guys not show for an estimate, it’s likely because they landed another job and yours was no longer important. Now consider, if you took time out of your day to meet this guy and he didn’t show up was that free-estimate really free? What’s the value of your time?

On the flip side, many consumers look for more estimates than they reasonably need. Some of this is due to guys not showing up, but it’s also due to price shopping. If a consumer gets three estimates each vendor has a 1 in 3 chance of winning the job. As consumers get more estimates, chances of winning go down. Customers waste a lot of service provider time doing this, and so missing a few estimates doesn’t concern them.

So, is there a better way?

The best way to handle smaller project (a few hours to a few days in size), is the ‘service’ model. Think plumbers, or the appliance repair guy. They generally quote a dispatch fee, or service charge, simply to arrive at the door. An hourly rate applies thereafter, and minimum charges apply. The appliance repairman won’t know what’s wrong with your fridge until you authorize them to work on it. So, they explain their rate structure and offer you a slot on their schedule.

In the service model they are coming to work, not just to review the work. This is paying work and the person is much more likely to show up. He’s not overscheduled on free estimates to win work, he’s appropriately scheduled for the work to be done. Once onsite he’ll review the work, explain likely costs, and get to work.

If you find a company with a great reputation, that offers good value for the rate they charge, that has the staff with skills to complete the work, and that offers you a convenient timeslot, this is the fastest path to getting your project completed.