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A Guide to the Construction Bidding Process

by Chris Lee | June 28th, 2020

Responding to bid solicitations or requests for proposals and winning construction projects is an integral part of any successful subcontracting business. It is the way you acquire new work and brings revenue to your company. Of course, the construction bidding process can be costly and time-consuming. But done correctly, it's an excellent opportunity not only to increase your profits but to expand your network of general contractors, building a pipeline for future business.

While most subcontractors have years of experience in their specialty, many enter the bidding process with little practical knowledge. To put your best foot forward, you must have a solid grasp on the methods and contracts that make up construction bidding processes, as well as the common mistakes to avoid along the way.

What is the Construction Bidding Process?

A construction bidding process involves the submission of a bid form or proposal to either the owner, construction manager, or general contractor. Typically, construction managers or general contractors will solicit construction bids from subcontractors by sending out bid invitations: documents that detail the construction project and scope of work. Subcontractors can download the bid documents, review the project information to determine whether they will be a good fit, then submit a detailed bid to the general contractor. From that, the general contractor awards the bid to one subcontractor based on the best value, which in many cases is the lowest price, but can include other variables like past performance, bid capacity, and experience in the type of construction project. Long story short, the lowest bid price does not guarantee that you'll win the project. In many cases, the general contractors will disqualify the lowest price contractor and go with a middle number to reduce their risk.

"The lowest bid price does not guarantee that you'll win the project"

Although the terms "bid" and "estimate" are often used interchangeably, they have some critical differences. An estimate is a ballpark number based on the scope of work and the estimated total costs to complete the project. A bid is a hard number that you agree to complete the job for and if selected during the competitive bidding process. By submitting a bid, you typically don't leave yourself room to negotiate, and there are sometimes punitive damages for pulling out. That's why it's crucial to thoroughly review the bid packages and accurately bid the project so that you don't underbid and leave yourself without profit margins — or overbid and risk losing construction projects. Keep in mind that requests for proposals can have different delivery methods like design-bid-build or design-build. You need to understand those methods and bid processes before submitting a proposal.

Construction Contract Types

A construction contract is a vehicle by which the job gets done. It outlines the roles and responsibilities for each party as well as how you will be compensated. No two construction projects are the same, and the type of contract is usually decided based on the size of the project and the owners' tolerance for risk. The three most common types of contracts you will encounter are the firm fixed price (or lump sum) contract, cost plus contract, and time & material contract.
  1. Firm fixed price contract - Firm fixed price contracts are true to their name: in them, the contractor agrees to deliver a specific scope of work for a fixed price. This provides a barrier of risk for the project owner, but the contractor is usually compensated for taking on the risk. Some construction contracts are also written to provide extra incentives if you finish the project ahead of the deadline or under budget.
  2. Cost plus contract - Under a cost plus contract, the project owner agrees to pay for all of the contractor's expenses, as well as a percentage of profit. This contract type can appear under several names, including cost plus a fixed percentage, cost plus fixed fee, and cost plus with a guaranteed maximum price contract.
  3. Time and material contract - A time and material contract involves an hourly rate plus the actual unit price of materials. It is usually used for projects with a vague or small scope of work. The contractor bills using labor cost codes and material costs. This option poses less risk for the contractor and more risk for the project owner. To offset this, many contracts are written with a "not to exceed" clause, where the contractor has a certain number they cannot go above without requesting approval from the owner.
Always review the contractor's prequalifications to ensure you can bid the project. On private projects, the qualifications aren't as strict, but for government contracts, you need to make sure you can perform the work if you're the low bid and awarded the contract.

Top 4 Mistakes to Avoid in the Bidding Process

For public works projects in the construction industry, subcontractors are likely to win 1 project for every 11 bids they submit. That's a lot of estimating and increasing your overhead every time you respond to an RFP and lose. However, you can lower your bid-hit ratio by taking your time in the preparation process to avoid these common mistakes.
  1. Failing to review the bid package thoroughly - it can be tempting to rush through the bid process to meet a bid solicitation deadline. But you risk inaccuracy when you don't take the time to properly review all the construction documents included in the bid package. You should have a system of reviewing each request for proposal carefully. We suggest building a check-list of common items to look for in the project specifications and drawings and have someone on your team double-check your work.
  2. Bidding on a project that doesn't fit your organization's skill set - you should avoid bidding on construction projects where you have limited experience and are more likely to make mistakes during the bid process and the construction process should you win the project. There's a learning curve for construction estimators and your construction management team when taking on any new type of building construction that can eat into your profit and reputation if you make mistakes during the process.
  3.  Not visiting the site before you submit a bid proposal - is the job located far away from where you usually work? If you don't visit the site, you may overlook the cost of travel or specialized equipment that you'll have to rent or assign to this project. In addition, if you don't attend pre-bid meetings or get your feet out on the project site, you'll miss out on face-to-face time which can help you establish a relationship with the general contractor. In some cases, it's outlined in the RFP and bid documents that you attend a pre-bid job walk.
  4.  Making an inaccurate estimate - an inaccurate bid can cut into your profit margins or keep you out of the competition altogether. If you don't have an estimating system in place, it can be very difficult and complex to put together an estimate. And you risk repeating the same mistakes in future bids.

Improve Your Bidding with Estimating Software

Navigating construction bidding can seem complicated at first, but subcontractors can streamline the process by implementing the right estimating software. Cloud-based takeoff and estimating software stores your data in a central location, giving you the ability to compare past bids. Instead of wasting time collecting data from old spreadsheets and unconnected systems, you'll have a log of profitable projects to use as a reference point for future estimates. At Esticom, our purpose-built estimating software is built for contractors by contractors. Start your free 14-day trial and see how our award-winning takeoff and construction estimating software can lead to more accurate and successful bids.
Chris Lee
Chris Lee has an extensive background in preconstruction management as a former specialty contractor and business owner. As the Chief Estimator at Esticom, he’s helped thousands of specialty contractors digitize their preconstruction process to increase revenue and profitability while decreasing unnecessary overhead.

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