Tools for estimating

Painting contractors know that they have to use the right tools for the job. A 2″ sash brush is not an effective tool for painting a cathedral ceiling. The same applies to estimating. Using the right tools can make the job much easier and effective.

One of the best tools that I regularly use is a measuring wheel. This device allows me to quickly and accurately measure both interior and exterior surfaces. I have recently begun using an ultrasonic device for interior estimates. I have found the ultrasonic device a little difficult to use for exteriors, as the device needs a solid surface for the ultrasonic wave to reflect from, and these are not always conveniently located on the outside of a house.

A third device that I use regularly is a moisture meter. This is an invaluable tool when moisture problems are suspected, as well as for testing substrates during the job. Images of these devices can be found below, along with links to the products on

Click here to learn more about estimating paint jobs.

Two mistakes in setting up production rates

A widespread error by painting contractors when estimating paint jobs is to use the wrong production rates. Given that many contractors have extensive experience painting, they incorrectly assume that the craftsmen they employ must produce at the similar rate. But this is seldom, if ever, the situation.

Although you certainly do not desire craftsmen who take far too long to prepare and paint a surface, you should also supply them with a realistic amount of time to carry out their work. This may be figured by talking to your painters, timing them, and utilizing bidding manuals.

Production “shrinkage” is a second cause of erroneous production rates. Many things take place throughout the course of the day that do not directly play a part in preparing and painting a substrate. Activities like getting a drink, going to the bathroom, walking to the van to get supplies, etc. All of these activities take time, and during a typical day the time can be significant. It is usually accepted that a painter will just have 6.5 productive hours in an 8-hour day (or 18.75% of the day).

If such actions are not correctly calculated into the production rates they usually negatively impact your profitability. After all, the painter has to still be paid for the full day.

The easiest way to account for shrinkage is to modify production rates. Assume that it takes 30 minutes to prepare and paint a window. But you understand that 18.75% of the painter’s time on the job site is not used in actual production. If you boost your time for preparing and painting that surface by 18.75%, or 5.6 minutes, you have adjusted for the shrinkage.

If you utilized your “standard” rate of 30 minutes, you could expect the painter to paint 16 items of the surface per day. With the modified time of 35.6 minutes, you now require him to prep and paint 13.5 items per day.

To look at this another way, if your hourly rate is $40, you would be charging $20 per door at your “typical” production rate of 30 minutes per piece. You would count on income of $320 per day. However, the painter would actually just paint 13.5 items per day and produce $270 in income, or $50 less than anticipated. This can grow to be a significant sum of money over the course of year when numerous painters are involved.

These principles are equally accurate whether you utilize subcontractors or have employees. How you pay your production people is unrelated to this concern. In other words, a painter will have about 6.5 productive hours a day regardless of whether he is a sub or an employee. Accounting for this in your production rates is an important component of setting up accurate rates.

Absent correct production rates, accurate and profitable bidding is virtually hopeless. And to get accurate production rates, you must have realistic expectations of your employees, as well as consider all of the factors that influence those rates.

Why advertising prices for paint jobs is a bad idea

Every so often I will see a painting contractor will advertise a ridiculous price for his services, such as $100 per room. There is actually a franchise that makes this a big part of their advertising. If you read the small print on these ads you will notice that the price typically only includes the walls, does not include paint, and limits the room size.

On the surface, this may seem like a good idea. For the consumer the price might seem reasonable. For the painter, he gets his foot in the door and can then pile on the extras.

The truth is this is a bad idea for several reasons. For the customer the extras can become significant.

For the contractor, this tactic positions him as the “cheap” contractor. And if he does start piling on a lot of additional charges he also develops a reputation as being somewhat shady—i.e., using bait and switch tactics. Neither will serve him well in the long term.

In a similar fashion I occasionally see painting contractors advertise a set price for painting exteriors. These ads include similar restrictions as the $100 a room gimmick. And they are just as bad of an idea.

Anyone who has painted more than a few houses has probably discovered that each home, even within the same neighborhood, can be vastly different. Among the items that must be taken into consideration when estimating job are:

  • The type and quantity of the surfaces
  • The current condition of the surfaces
  • Access issues
  • Repairs

Each of these can have a huge impact on the price of a job. If they are not identified they cannot be properly priced. To advertise a set price without this information means that the advertised price won’t stand, the customer will receive a mediocre job, the contractor will lose his shirt, or perhaps all three.

If you think advertising fixed prices is a good idea, consider giving me a price for painting my home. If you can’t because you haven’t seen it, then what makes you think you can price any other job sight unseen?

Ballpark prices and paint jobs

I occasionally receive a phone call from someone wanting a price over the phone for a painting project.They are usually quick to add, “I just want a ballpark price. I won’t hold you to it.”

I explain that I can’t do this–there are too many factors to be considered, such as the texture, the prep required, the number and style of the doors and windows, etc. Most people understand this and schedule an appointment. But several years ago one lady was less than understanding.

“There is no texture. I have standard doors and windows. There is no prep,” she insisted. I repeated my explanation. “Come on,” she said, “you should know what kind of doors and windows I have. They are the standard style.”

“Ma’am,” I explained, “I look at more than 300 houses a year and there is no such thing as standard doors. There are French doors, there are panel doors, there are patio doors, there are louvered doors, and more. In addition, I must see what kind of coating is on the surface now so that I know what prep we must perform.”

She wasn’t having any of this. “Look, you are the professional, and I would expect you to be able to give me a ballpark price.”

“You are right, I am the professional,” I said. “And as such, I am telling you that I cannot give you a price over the phone.”

“Well,” she snorted, “you must not be a very good professional if you cannot give me a price over the phone.”

Growing more annoyed, I asked her how much a car costs. “That depends,” she answered. “You can get a Yugo or you can get a Lexus. You can get something very basic, or you can get something with all of the bells and whistles. What does that have to do with painting?”

“Because,” I responded, “the same is true of painting–it depends. It depends on whether you need a basic type of job, or a more extensive type of job. It depends on whether you need the bare minimum or you need more bells and whistles. Just as you can’t tell me what a new car costs, I can’t tell you what a paint job costs. It depends.”

“That’s different,” she said. “Just give me a price.”

“Okay,” I said. “How does $20,000 sound?” She hung up.

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