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How to Become a Construction Cost Estimator

by Chris Lee | August 8th, 2018

When you work in construction, one specialty you may consider is becoming a construction cost estimator. An estimator is the person who looks at prospective projects, determines the cost of materials and labor, adds in any overhead and profits, then presents the final estimate to the customer. Sometimes this task is also handled by the contractor or technician for smaller projects or companies, but larger construction firms tend to have a separate estimating department with dedicated construction cost estimators. Here's a look at how to start the process of becoming a construction cost estimator.

How to Become a Construction Cost Estimator

Core Skills, Education and Experience

To be an estimator, there are a few things you'll need to know. You'll need to have some amount of skill with math to be able to complete your counts and double-check your work for errors. Being detail oriented helps a great deal so that you can be sure you're not missing any essential points of the project you're bidding. You'll need to be able to work in an organized fashion so that you can complete the estimate without omitting any materials or labor issues that may arise in a project.

You'll need also critical thinking and analytic skills to help you recognize potential problem points in the construction process. Technical skills and knowledge of the industry, codes, standards and materials will be needed so that you can effectively bid new projects, especially being able to effectively and quickly read blueprints and complex project and materials specifications. The ability to effectively communicate with clients will help you justify any alternative materials or sway the customer in favor of your firm.

Beyond these skills, it's probably expected that you'll have some combination of education and experience that gives you a strong background to pick up on all the factors of a project. Some estimators work their way up through the ranks on a job site, getting a view and appreciation for the industry from the inside as they add to their knowledge. Others finish a bachelor's degree in a related field and use that knowledge to work their way through a project from the plans and specifications that have been laid out.

The Estimating Process

Then there's learning the estimating process itself. You'll need to learn how to perform a takeoff, which involves carefully going over the blueprints and recording the materials that will be needed for the project, whether it's a count of how many of a particular light fixture will be needed or how many yards of concrete will go into a pavement project. You will have to be able to recognize different materials and be able to record each separate material as you go.

One of the next steps involved in the process involves pricing the materials you've counted in the takeoff. Now that you have a complete list of everything needed for the project, you will have to send in requests for quotes from your suppliers, check prices online, in a pricing database or a pricing book, or otherwise obtain the cost of these materials, then total all the material costs up. Don't forget that some projects, especially those funded by the government or non-profit agencies, may require that materials be sourced from small businesses, women-owned businesses or minority-owned businesses.

Once you've priced out the project's materials, it's important to account for the labor needed to complete the project as well as any factors that may impact that calculation. If you go straight into estimating from school, you may want to befriend a foreman in your company to sanity-check your figures, ensuring that you're keeping the number of man-hours in a reasonable range. Don't forget that environmental conditions, such as extreme cold, heat, damp or dry conditions may drastically impact your crew's ability to get the job done as effectively. Multi-story buildings often have an additional amount added for every floor above a particular level to account for crew and material travel to that height.

No construction company stays in business very long without making a profit. Beyond the costs of the job itself, you'll need to learn how to calculate the amount of overhead expenses to attribute to the project and add profit into your estimate before sending it to a prospective client. Overhead expenses involve costs that are not directly related to the project but are required to keep the business in operation, such as an accounting clerk, warehouse space, advertising and insurance. It's important to break these expenses up among the projects you expect to work over the course of the year. Profits should also be added into the project, as well as a buffer to cover any unexpected expenses, such as materials accidentally damaged by the crew or odd scheduling due to delays.

Of course, you can only be as effective an estimator as your tools allow. Though there are any number of ways to calculate your estimate, there are some ways which are much more effective and accurate than others. When you incorporate a solid estimating software package into your overall tool kit, you can complete your takeoffs and final estimates much more quickly. This allows you to optimize your time and get more estimates completed in a shorter amount of time, lowering your overhead costs and improving profitability.

A good estimating package allows you to do all your takeoffs or material counts on-screen using a single window to help avoid errors, includes an integrated products and materials database and compatibility with popular programs such as Quickbooks and Microsoft Office products. When you use cloud-based estimating software, it's automatically updated by the developer and is accessible on a range of devices whether you're across town or around the world. Esticom has one of the best estimating packages available, allowing you to automate your business' estimating workflow under a low-cost, month-to-month subscription. Our 14-day free trial is awaiting you – why not see what Esticom can do for your cost estimating software process?

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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