Selecting a Construction Estimating System


By Mark Kennedy

Beware: You’ll be offered the “very best” computer-based estimating software for your company from almost every software vendor.  Prices for most off-the-shelf estimating systems can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars.  And some of the higher-end estimating software packages can cost upwards of  $100,000. The trick is to find the best one for your company, at the right price.

Construction professionals often select estimating software based on cost, features, functions, reviews, and recommendations, as well as compatibility with their current computer operating system. But how many stop to consider if this new software will fit in with their current estimating procedures?

In many cases, pre-packaged construction estimating software may not allow you to customize the software so that it works with your company’s business and estimating practices. Instead, you’ll be expected to shape your method of estimating around the limitations of the software.

Many software vendors provide their own material and labor prices with the estimating program. With some programs, you’ll have to subscribe to a database monthly. Sometimes the estimating program may contain construction database information from well-known vendors, such as RS Means, that has been formatted to work within their program.

This “published” data may offer a good baseline for most estimates, but all too often, construction professionals will eventually find that this data is not up-to-date enough for their specific needs. No database can accurately predict the productivity of your crews, or the prices from your suppliers. As a result, the construction professional often becomes disillusioned with inflexible pre-packaged estimating programs.

This disenchantment shows up on many internet construction forums. Construction professionals use these platforms to compare, contrast, or complain about estimating software packages that don’t perform as expected (or as advertised), and in many cases are perceived as “downright inaccurate”.

The problem with this perspective is that the estimating software is perceived as "bad", when, in reality, the software might be just fine (operationally). It’s the cost data which isn’t allowing that construction professional to build an estimate he’s comfortable with. In some cases, software vendors will actually "lock down" the cost data and not allow the end user to customize it to his job.

The best estimating software solution should give the construction professional complete access to existing industry database cost information. Such a system should allow estimators to create their own cost database and combine their data with “industry standard” costbook data. Estimators should be able to create as many costbook databases as they need – sometimes relying on prices from a costbook on areas they’ve never estimated before, and relying on their own historical data for familiar work.

Some construction professionals may feel that the material and labor costs taken from a costbook database could be inaccurate. A good software estimating program should give you the ability to change any cost information, on any item, to match your own labor and material costs. Your estimates should depend on the reliability of a current costbook database, but, most importantly, on the results from your own historical estimating. This way, you can factor in historical experience and change any costbook prices to reflect your actual costs. In addition, you should be able to factor in your own overhead and profit on every estimate.

Some construction professionals claim that cost database pricing is too time consuming. In reality, we have found that most general contractors only require from 300-800 items in a customized costbook database. This is a far cry from the 30,000-60,000 items which are typical of an industry costbook database - and much easier to update and manage.

When searching for estimating software, make sure the software you select offers the ability to create your own costbook database, as well as access existing industry costbook information. This way, you’ll be able to find estimating software that fits your business, rather than trying to fit your business into the methods and practices of an estimating software system.

Mark Kennedy is the Vice President of Marketing at Bid4Build Software. Mark can be reached at

Tags: Costs, Estimating Construction

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