Ask the Architect

Can we accurately predict the cost?


Q. We want to get a clear idea of the cost of our upcoming remodel/dormer addition before we get too far, because it may be more than we want to spend and we only want plans and a permit for what we need, not a project we can’t or won’t afford. Is there a way to get a real estimate before hiring anyone, an architect or contractor? Should we interview contractors and architects and get estimates from them as we discuss our project? Will their estimates be realistic?

A. Your questions are the most asked. Everyone wants to know the price of doing work before they start. The problem is that you can set a budget based on different methods, but confusion is going to frustrate you unless you prepare yourself for a broad range of potential expense.

It’s almost impossible to nail down a specific number by interviewing many people because their level of services, overhead costs (salaries, insurances, equipment, rentals, etc.) are going to vary, as are their visions of projected tasks and the time they will take. I usually tell people to anticipate a cost based on per square foot plus separate average amounts for kitchens and baths, feature windows, specialty lighting fixtures and upgraded finishes. The number I use is $175 per square foot as a base average. Add approximately $10,000 to $12,000 for hall bathrooms and $20,000 to $22,000 for specialty master bathrooms with tub platforms, large, glass-enclosed showers, double-sink long vanities and luxury upgrade toilets. Other extras include stripping exterior siding and roofs of shingles, since most people redo entire common exterior surfaces when they realize that you can’t easily match them.

One client told me she got a preliminary estimate of $125 per square foot, and I told her two things: one was that I hoped the contractor would still be there at the end of the job, since lowball estimates lead to anguish when the contractor realizes he underestimated and either wants more money or just stops showing up, and two, that I was concerned that we were already seeing the effect of foreign tariffs, which meant that my $175 base average may be too low. Other issues affecting an estimate are profiling, meaning that some contractors develop their estimates around the neighborhood value and their perception of your ability to pay more, and because of how busy they are, they ask for more because they have plenty of work.

I just reviewed a client’s estimates for a project we priced at $250,000 to $300,000, which came out to $450,000 to $500,000.  Working backward, including the bathrooms and kitchen separately, the cost per square foot came out to over $335. The owner has moved on to other contractors, and hopefully you would, too. Without well-noted and detailed plans, I can’t imagine how you can even get a uniform estimate, comparing apples to apples, so I don’t recommend expecting anyone to hold to a price without plans. You’ll need to be flexible, and firm.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.