Free Estimates vs. Paid Consultations

I would absolutely say yes there is a difference between a Free Estimate and a Paid Consultation. An estimate is the anticipated cost of work you are requesting to be completed. You have a list of specific tasks.  A Consultation is an analysis of wants and needs specific to you, the corresponding cost vs value, and general brainstorming to meet your budget needs.  But first let’s make sure that we understand the key characteristics of each.

Anatomy of an Estimate

1. The Details or “Scope” of work has been determined in order for estimate to have accuracy.

2. Product to be used has been selected or is not incorporated

3. May or may not take place in your home depending on work to be done

4. There is zero value to the estimate if 1 and 2 has not been determined. Without those two its a "WAG" wild arse guess.

5. Next step is usually sending you off to see their approved vendors

6. Typically lasts 30-45 minute

An example of an estimate as it relates to kitchen and bath remodeling would be; costs to install a specific cabinet layout, install a defined amount of tile or flooring, painting a particular area and may or may not include a generic (unrelated to your wants and needs) dollar amounts placed on materials. You want to avoid making your buying decision from the “free estimate” particularly if your project has a lot of variances built into it. This can be when the cost can be greatly influenced by decisions yet to be made making the estimate not worth your time. An estimate is more of a commodity, you should be able to have 3 professionals create 3 duplicate estimates so you can determine the best value. An estimate can be an extremely valuable tool if you treat it as a “bid” process but it only works if all the details; scope of work, materials have been determined. Use this for task based pricing.

Anatomy of a Consultation

1. You meet with a licensed and/or certified professional referred to as consultant.

2. Wants and Needs analysis is performed with you in your home

3. Professional is more interested in the development of your project scope so that accurate costs can be determined

4. Ideas and advice is offered based on their experience and your wants, needs, and budget

5. Budget ranges can be developed but are dependent on final design development

6. Next step is usually a Design or Project Development Service retainer

7. Can take place at their place of business or in your home

8. Typically lasts 1 ½-2 hours

9. Usually involves a fee for their time.


A consultation is a deeper discussion into the features and functions you want from your room's remodel. By discussing your specific wants and needs specific elements and ideas can be shared. The more details discussed the better information can be provided. A consultation is an excellent tool to find a professional, you get to develop the know, like and trust factor which helps guide you through the process of designing your remodel and developing your scope. It is also a great tool to use to begin to educate and build your project’s budget range.  An experienced designer/remodeler will offer advice on the appropriate budget and the ways in which to save costs.  Consultations with the remodeler and/or the designer versus a sales rep saves valuable time and produces more accurate costing models because they are going to be the one guiding you through the planning phases.

Understanding What You Need 

Understanding the differences will help you make the first important decision in the remodel process; who should I talk too about my remodeling questions. If you want help budgeting your remodel then the consultation format is going to give you a lot more information. If you know what you want but need someone to do the work then the estimate will be advantageous. Either way by simply asking during the initial phone conversation, what is included in their “Free Estimate" you will be able to quickly separate the contractors who are focused on providing a generic or task related price to those that are there to educate and guide the process through the paid consultation. Both are valuable but for different needs in your process.

Free vs. Paid

The truth is there is no such thing as “Free” . It might be “Free” to you at the time but it is costing the professionals actual money to offer this service. That business cost is taken into consideration once you become a paying customer.  The cost burden of the estimator in your home gets added into the overhead for the company, not just for your estimate but all the estimates that are done annually then become part of the cost of your project.  Industry experts will charge for their time and they work hard to provide you with maximum value. The best and brightest in the design and planning arena will charge for their time, so look for reasonable fees and valuable information. Remodeling is a significant investment, a small fee is money well spent when you get a smart industry expert into your home to help guide you at the earliest stages.

What To Watch

Be watchful for those who waste your time providing no real value in advice, guidance or information, whether it be free or paid.   If an estimate or budget is discussed you should gain clarity regarding what tasks have and have not been specifically considered,  provide additional resources to check out, and generally help you to understand the process and next steps. Too much focus on who they are or what they want is a sales call.

Your time is the most valuable thing you control so I recommend protecting it, if a professional is wasting your time it’s costing you money.