Bidding on Builder Cabinets with No Details

Cabinetmakers discuss how to talk money with a builder client who supplies no drawings or specifications. August 13, 2007

I finally have a chance to bid a whole house cabinet job. The builder gave me a set of prints with no details about cabinets. It just shows a layout of where the cabinets would be going. How can I bid this without any details? Should I give an allowance based on the footage of cabinets? The vanities wouldn't be that hard because it is only a couple cabinets. The kitchen, on the other hand, looks like it has angled corners and more.

Not sure how to approach this first bid. I was thinking of just doing the allowance, explaining what is included. I know they are maple.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor L:
Give him two bids, the economy bid and the all-out bid. Explain in your contract(s) what is what and materials and finishes and everything you can think of. Being a builder, he'll likely choose the economy bid, so he can make more money on the bid he has submitted.

Or do the smart thing and ask him what he expects from you before you do all kinds of work to produce a bid he'll look at for a few seconds and say pass.

From contributor A:
When I get drawings like that, I call the contractor and ask for details. If they are reluctant to give details, he's probably looking for the least expensive product he can get. If that's the case, you may not be able to get down to his budgeted price. I've found that it is not worth pricing in cases like that because there is always someone who can do it cheaper.

From contributor J:

I usually do a base bid (flat panel exposed ends, butt jointed drawer boxes, square top doors... the usual with nothing fancy at all), then leave room on the bid sheet and offer upgrades to nearly everything, i.e. raised panel ends, applied moulding, dovetailed drawers, high quality slides and hinges, etc. This is a good way to make your bid seem low, but in reality, most customers will take the upgrades and allow you a nice sized somewhat disguised bid.

From contributor R:
Try something crazy, like ask for the details.

From contributor G:
Show the builder your cab design with details and your price, period. Sounds like the guy is shopping cheap which can get you in trouble fast. We never bid cabs per lf in a situation like this. Why doesn't he have cab drawings, details? Forget this job. If you are any good, good jobs will come your way.

From the original questioner:
I have asked for details. He said he needs pricing before he goes to the bank. Like I mentioned before, I have never done this. This is my first. I feel confident I will get the job because I know him on a personal level.

I think I will give an allowance per kitchen, bath, library, etc. I will list the details involved and mention this price is only based on a print and no layout. Final price will be determined after house is built and meeting with the homeowner to determine kitchen style and design.

From contributor H:
It's simple. You don't. To bid without details is unfair to the client and unfair to you. If you decide what the details will be, you are assuming responsibility from that point on. Everyone else involved with the job will love you because they will all be able to pass the buck back to you for any problems.

Wood type, door style, drawer construction, edge profiles, hardware, interior options, type of finish, appliance sizes and model numbers, who installs them. Homeowner needs to tell builder and he needs to tell you.

From contributor Z:
Did the builder price and build the house without blueprints or details? Why does he expect you to build your part of the house without them? You will get in trouble real fast pricing without all of the details!

From contributor Y:
I would, and have, bid jobs like this. Look at the house plans, look at the neighborhood that they are going in. Ask the builder what kind of wood he would like, ask him what type of finish. Gather all this information and then bid based on what you think the builder would want. When you give him the bid, be very specific as to what the bid includes.

Write it up like this or something similar:

Kitchen includes 3/4" white melamine interiors with knotty alder raised panel doors and solid slab drawer fronts finished clear with glaze. Drawers to be constructed of 1/2" Baltic birch ply with Accuride 3832 drawer guides. 3" crown to match doors on all upper cabinets.

I really don't think that he is trying to take advantage of you. He needs cabinets and wants to know how much for you to provide them. You decide what you are going to put in and bid accordingly. If and when the time comes to build the job, he wants you to do more than what you bid for, then let him know. If you become the solution to a problem, then he is likely to use you over and over again. I would be much more concerned with making sure I knew what to charge for the cabinets after I decided what was going in than I would him making decisions on door profiles.

From contributor B:
Do not waste your time doing drawings he can use with other people. The builder knows what he has into his contract with the client and he wants to get what he can for cheap and pocket the difference. If he's building spec, all the more reason to get everything cheap. One way to get cheap is to ask for bids without details. It will become an apples to oranges issue with you losing money on the upgrades.

The cost of the home is your clue to the value of the cabinets. I would do a linear footage estimate (ballpark) to include what you normally include in your kitchens (clear maple boxes, undermount slides, dovetailed maple drawers, etc.) with, say, painted flat paneled doors. Upgrade that by going to stained raised panel.

He has a hundred sources for cabinets, with builder discounts. What is he getting from you? One thing about builders - they will two-time you in a heartbeat. And this job is no guarantee you'll get the next one. Make your money now. And if you get this job, 50% up front with the balance on delivery!

From contributor C:
You might ask him, if he wants to buy a new auto, does he calls dealers and ask how much a car costs? Send the drawings back and tell him to have the architect do his job.

From the original questioner:

Thanks for all the replies. Most of you say that you wouldn't do this. I understand that. I gave him an allowance of cabinets. Stated that I had no prints or layouts to go off of.

This is his first home. He is building for a friend. I guess he is acting as the general. He has a full time job other than building. I don't think it is wrong to give him an allowance to take that to the bank or let the homeowner know it will roughly cost a certain amount. If I'm wrong in doing this, I will have to learn from my mistakes. I honestly feel I'm not making the wrong decision. I only spent about a half hour on the bid.

From contributor V:
So you gave him a guess? You could dig a hole for yourself and your friend - a serious hole! I gave a "friend" a guess last year. I told him probably $70,000 to $80,000. He wanted the job and since it was a "guess" as I told him, he figured I was guessing high. Well, it came in at $77,000 and he had plugged in $55,000. I bailed him out at my expense. We still have an occasional beer together, but we don't do business together.

From the original questioner:
You were right on with your guess. Why is it your fault he lowered it so much? I gave an allowance, different from a guess. If the customer wants more or less than the allowance, that is on the customer.

I understand what everyone is talking about. I've also heard of allowances home building. 6 months from now when the house is ready for cabinets, the customer might want more or less or changed their mind completely. I just don't see the harm in doing what I'm doing. I am not bound to anything.

From contributor T:
Maybe you could offer to design the kitchen for him and provide drawing, etc. for a price (maybe $50 an hour or so?). Then you could bid the kitchen exactly they way it should be. The contractor would have a set of drawings that he could use to have someone bid against you, but at least you would have been paid for your service. You could also offer to rebate the cost of the drawings if he ends up using you.