Giving "Ballpark" Estimates

Most cabinetmakers agree: They'll buy you some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, but they won't give you a ballpark estimate. August 7, 2006

So you have an initial meeting with a potential customer and you measure up the room. You know you need to do drawings and a full blown accurate estimate, but they are standing there panting and want to know "roughly" what the ballpark estimate is. Do you tell them the kitchen they might want to spend $15K on will be $25K roughly, to qualify them, or do you say "wait until I crunch the numbers"?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor F:
No ballparks from me. For those that ask, I will say that it's not fair to either one of us to shoot from the hip. Or, it will surely cost more than you would like to spend, but it will be built better than you expect.

I once asked a man to tell me what a car costs. Well, he said, I'd have to know what size, what engine, what bells and whistles, etc., and I said, well, there you go. If you can't tell me without knowing everything that will be included, I can't tell you for the same reasons.

You can ask what their budget is, but don't expect to get an honest answer. If after you give them the figure you come up with, they balk, tell them you can subtract this or that to get to their figure.

From contributor M:
I tell them that everything we do is custom. I would rather tell them a good price than give them a price that is too high or too low. If they continue to push, I tell them how I am more expensive than mass producers. Some think a smaller shop ought to be able to charge less because we have less overhead.

I ask about their budget. If they are reluctant, I tell them that I believe in a reasonable profit - fair to them and fair to me. Then I tell them about the lady who had a $5,000 budget for her closet and when I finished the bid, it came to $3,200.

As we make our verbal exchange, I evaluate the client. If they are going to be pushy and impatient about something as important as numbers, then I take it as an indication that they will be the same about other things. You actually win by losing some.

From contributor J:
I almost gave a ballpark figure for a vanity recently, but I didn't. After adding up all the components and labor, the final cost was double what I thought it would be. The customer had me build it, but if I had given the ballpark estimate, I doubt he would have agreed to the actual price.

From contributor H:
I have been using the following reply for the last several years and it gets a laugh, but also gets the point across. "We don't sell ballparks anymore, because the last one we sold we lost our shirt on. And the one before that the buyer lost his."

Then I tell them how unfair it is to them for me to guess at something so important to them and my business. It works for me.

From contributor T:
I tell those needing a ballpark that everything I do is custom, including the estimates, and as such it takes time. I generally get them a proposal in 4-5 business days, which I think is reasonable. (I am a one man shop.) When I am standing there with a client, as you were, I come up with a ballpark number for myself. I haven't been right yet.

Once you throw out a number, regardless of any caveats you attach to the number, the number and *only* the number is what is remembered. If your ballpark number is too high and they go for it, great. If you have to backpedal and explain why the ballpark number you gave them has increased fifty percent, it does not make you appear very professional, and you will probably lose the sale. Better to have them wait a few days for a solid number that you can feel good about, and that gives you a good point of departure for starting negotiations if the number is not within your client's budget.

From contributor A:
"I am confident that we can design this to meet your budget. Let me get some more information from you so I can give you some alternates to add in or take out, so we can develop a design that gets you the most bang for the buck."

And for those that call on the phone:
"We use 0 through 9 with commas and decimal points for ballparks."

The other side of this, if you know what things sell for in general, is you can give a ballpark based on a selling price - not a cost with MU price. I use a fixed dollar per hour number and look at a project and can say that's around $25000 (150 hours at $160 per hour).

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the good info. I don't give out ballpark estimates myself, but I have a lot of people that ask for them, and I was wondering if it was just me or what - glad to hear I'm not in the minority, as I suspected.

From contributor X:
When I'm asked for a ballpark figure or a rough estimate to a future job, I turn the table on them by asking how much they can afford to spend on the job, then explain: Well, for this amount of money, I'll do this kind of construction, or for this figure, it will be another type. And then there's time and material. I get their budget cost for the job. I never say the amount that it will cost, thereby they can't hold me to it. Once I know what they're willing to spend, I know what I can offer them. If they want something extra, it's going to cost them more. They get what they pay for.

Quality at a price you can afford. Explaining to the customer that there are various types of construction, styles, finishes, types of materials, hardware, etc. is the reason I can't give a rough estimate. I have to know what they want and by their ballpark figure of what they want to spend. This is what they can afford to get. For a little more, they can get something more. People always tend to want more, so they will dig a bit deeper for the cash. Love them.

I make the decision in talking with the customer if I want the job or not. I do not lose control of the sale as to what they get or expect to get. My show you're in my ballpark now.

From contributor C:
Look, if you've been doing this for years, you know what the job is going to cost in terms of labor/material. I'll give a ballpark figure straight away and always highball it. Of course, having the luxury of more than enough work helps. If I'm slow, I just say, "The work here is too complex for me to give an estimate right off the cuff." Or, "The fluctuation in material costs are too severe and I want to give you the best possible price, so you have to wait."