Construction Estimators: What Do They Do? [Complete Guide]

Whether it's a large construction project or a revitalization project, construction estimators are involved before the actual work begins. 

Construction estimators are also known in the industry as cost planners. They are involved in the early stages of a project, often while in competition with other companies. 

The construction estimators estimate the price of a project based on drawings and specifications. They are one of the determining factors whether a company will win or lose a project bid. 

Construction estimation sounds straightforward to people outside the construction industry. However, on the contrary, it is both a time-consuming and sometimes tedious process.

This article will discuss the role played by construction estimators in the construction process.

Who is a construction estimator?

A construction estimator is a person that draws up the overall estimate of a project. This estimate includes different items in the project, the contractor's general conditions, and fees and overheads. The construction estimator works closely with vendors, clients, engineers, and architects to arrive at these estimates.

A construction estimator needs a keen eye for detail and accuracy. They need to keep track of the materials and resources used in a project to avoid inaccurate estimates. Estimators, just like engineers and architects, have a background in construction design. To make accurate estimates, they need to assess the project from multiple angles. This way, estimators can determine the best way to account for costs in various construction types.

Estimators need strong analytical and mathematical skills. They also need solid communication skills as they work hand in hand with other construction specialists. They work in connection with construction designers to review project plans. The designers cover the technical aspects, but estimators need to view the designs to ensure they do not miss important details.

What does an estimator do? 

When it comes to project costs, there is nothing like "one size fits all." Every project is unique regarding size, materials, cost, functions, and project deadlines. This, therefore, makes an estimator's role crucial in any project. 

The estimator's role includes but is not limited to the following:

  • The estimator prepares cost estimates of probable project costs on materials, equipment, and labor. Estimators base the calculations on quotations, schematic drawings, contract bids, and specifications.
  • As earlier mentioned, construction estimators need good communication skills to set up cost monitoring systems and reporting procedures.
  • Estimators also advise on tendering procedures. They assess tenders, conduct negotiations, and recommend awards.
  • They also need to make a directory of contractors, subcontractors, and chiefly suppliers.
  • They also work hand in hand with project owners, engineers, contractors, and architects when conducting feasibility studies on adjusting cost estimates.
  • During the project's lifecycle, they prepare expenditure statements regularly to assess whether the project is on course.

Estimators and takeoffs

A key role for estimators is the creation of a takeoff.

A cost estimator must create a list of all of the materials required to complete a project. Known as a material take-off, or simply takeoff, this list of materials and their associated costs has a significant impact on the final cost.

When building a takeoff, construction estimators look at the blueprints and schematics of the project and carefully create a comprehensive list of all of the materials that will be required for a project. This includes materials like concrete for the foundation, wood for framing, roofing materials, wiring and plumbing supplies, and even things like hinges, screws, and nails.

Once a cost estimator has created a list of all the materials required for a project, they must then assess the cost of those materials. Cost estimators must ensure that the prices assigned to materials are as close as possible to the anticipated costs of those materials in the future when a project would be completed.

Additionally, construction cost estimators must consider things like the weight of the materials to factor in moving the materials to the job site and working with the materials to complete the project.

Creating a takeoff is a time-consuming process essential to arriving at an accurate final cost for a project.

Inaccuracies during a material takeoff can result in cost overages that impact the financial success of the construction firm completing the project.

As such, construction estimators spend a great deal of time accounting for every single material required and their actual cost when creating a takeoff.

For the most part, the materials on a takeoff can be quantified, and the risk of overages can be minimized with care. However, other aspects of an estimator’s job require assessing a variety of potential risks and factors that aren’t as black and white as a takeoff.

The importance of cost estimators

The initial cost estimate can't match the final project's price tag from the nature of construction projects. Cost estimators, however, help the project stakeholders make important decisions on a project's profitability and feasibility.

The procurement of a project's financing depends on the cost estimator's report. As the project progresses, the stakeholders can also make important decisions that impact the costs negatively or positively. A cost estimator needs to take a critical look at the material and design choices and advise the client accordingly on ways to increase the value but reduce the costs.

The most crucial role of a cost estimator is ensuring a project is delivered within budget and on time. The developer and contractor are held accountable for cost overruns. Cost estimators, therefore, primarily offer clients information that is necessary for making critical decisions on projects.

Types of estimators

Types of estimators

There are different types of cost estimators depending on a project's size. Estimators may hold different positions throughout various construction projects. 

Primarily, we classify cost estimators according to their employers. The different types of cost estimators are as discussed below:

1. The Client's Cost Estimator

The Client's Cost Estimator makes investment decisions at the conceptual stage of a project. They negotiate and finalize a contract then implement cost control measures.

2. Contractor's Cost Estimator

The contractor's cost estimator has a detailed task of determining approximate project costs needed for bidding. They also have a database of company data that shows records of the company's equipment and labor. This cost estimator also knows the best construction methods for the company. The contractor's cost estimator also must know the material suppliers needed in a project and the likely discount prices.

3. Engineer's cost estimator.

The Engineer's cost estimator, in most cases, works as the client's cost estimator. His purpose is to determine approximate costs and present them to the client. The Engineer's cost estimator also evaluates alternative construction methods that will be budget-friendly for the project.

Construction estimator salaries: How much do they make?

According to ZipRecruiter, as of June 2021, the average salary of a cost estimator in the U.S. is $75,186 per year. The pay ranges from as low as $40,000 for entry-level to as high as $112,000 for experienced cost estimators. This range is based on the level of skill, education, location, and years of experience.

The table below shows average earnings based on experience.

ExperienceAnnual salaryHourly Wage
High experience (15+ years)$102,000$49
75th percentile (8+ years)$86,000$41
Average (4+ years)$75,186$36
25th percentile (Fresh graduate)$60,000$29

On the other hand, the salaries vary in different cities across the U.S. offer different salaries. The highest paying city is Sunnyvale in California. Below is a list of cities with wages more elevated than the national average.

CityAnnual SalaryHourly Wage
Sunnyvale, CA$92,581$44.51
Santa Rosa, CA$89,567$43.06
Williston, ND$88,051$42.33
Manhattan, NY$87,819$42.22
Cambridge, MA$86,781$21.72
Arlington, VA$86,244$41.46
Dickinson, ND$85,716$41.21
Ketchikan, AK$85,397$41.06
Vacaville, CA$85,113$40.92
San Mateo, CA$84,723$40.73

Becoming a construction estimator

There are no formal requirements needed to become a construction estimator, but there are several routes you can follow. 

The typical condition is a Bachelor's degree. However, if you are an experienced worker, you can become an estimator without this degree.

Most of the construction estimator job openings need you to meet some educational qualification requirements, but employers look for people who are enthusiastic, teachable, and quick to learn.

Education/training

In general, for you to be a construction estimator, you need the following educational requirements:

  • A minimum of 3.0 cumulative high school GPA.
  • A Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering, Quantity Surveying, Construction Management, or Building Studies. The courses should have units covering construction estimation and tendering.
  • You would also need a minimum of three years of experience in managing construction projects.
  • Information technology is also catching up in the construction industry, and building up skills in this area is also vital.

Skills required

The right skills allow construction estimators to place themselves in a better position to obtain a good job and a competitive salary. The necessary skills include:

  • Mathematical prowess: Construction estimators need strong mathematical skills to calculate the slightest discrepancies in construction projects.
  • Time Management: Projects run within constrained timeframes, and construction estimators need to be good at time management to ensure the work is completed on schedule.
  • Communication skills: The nature of a construction project makes the estimators work with various people, thus creating the need to coordinate communication among project stakeholders.
  • Eye to detail: Construction estimators need a keen eye for detail as they need to work with various blueprints and reports. All materials, labor, and equipment need to be well understood to develop good reports.
  • Critical thinking: Other skills include organization and critical thinking as a construction estimator needs to give a lot of input to the project's stakeholders throughout the stages of construction.

Employment

Cost estimation is one of the most critical jobs in construction, and demand for cost estimators will continue to rise as the constructor sector is insatiable. Companies, therefore, capitalize on cost estimators to help them with growth in construction. There are numerous career choices for cost estimators. Some of them are:

  • Project managers
  • Building construction cost estimators
  • Cost consultants
  • Procurement managers
  • Quality control specialists

There is a low unemployment rate of cost estimators. Most construction cost estimators work with contractors or engineers, but you can also build your online portfolio and work as a freelance construction cost estimator.

Challenges cost estimators face

Like any other career, cost estimators also face a lot of challenges.

The main challenge is working with schedules and fixed budgets. The client, contractor, or designer may have unrealistic expectations for a project, but the project operates on a tight budget. A cost estimator may therefore feel the pressure to report cost estimates inaccurately. 

This is an unfortunate circumstance as the project will inevitably run beyond the stipulated budget. An estimator needs to be very accurate in work, and such a situation is a blow to their reputation and work relationships.

A cost estimator also comes across the challenge of shifting costs. The availability of materials, labor, and equipment is constantly shifting. The estimator, therefore, needs to be tuned to market trends.

An estimator can estimate using current costs, but the current estimates will be rendered obsolete if the actual project commences a year down the line. Shifting demand and supply forces in labor and materials affect an estimate's accuracy by the time a project starts.

Cost estimation is therefore heavily dependent on current data. Trying to estimate costs using outdated data will make work harder for the estimator. Cost estimators can use predictive cost estimating software that automatically updates materials, equipment, and labor costs within a region.

Tools construction estimators use

Tools construction estimators use

There are some tools that cost estimators use for better accuracy in their estimates. These tools are usually either software applications, spreadsheets, or simulation tools.

Estimating software tools

Software has revamped the cost estimation process. Estimating software helps estimators avoid bidding too low or high and consequently miss out on business. Software also allows the estimator to assess costs more accurately, thus putting forward the best possible bid.

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are among the long-standing programs in existence used in cost estimation. The most well-known is using complex Excel spreadsheets to estimate. 

The benefits of spreadsheets are clear. They are:

  • Easy to use
  • Flexible
  • Have many customization templates
  • Coupled with solid mathematical control
  • Great for data visualization with built-in graphs and charts.

Simulation tools

Simulation tools quantify how well costs have been estimated and the likely eventualities of errors in cost estimation.

FAQs

There are very many questions surrounding the cost estimating career. Below are some of the answers to some of the frequently asked questions.

Do you need a degree to be an estimator?

To be a construction cost estimator, you will typically need a Bachelor's degree in Engineering, Quantity Survey, Construction Management, or any other related building science. Some employers may, however, want someone with a background in finance, economics, or business.

Is construction estimating a promising career?

Cost estimating is an exciting and well-paying career. It involves a lot of experience and skills. An estimator combines quantity surveying skills and sound financial analysis.

Can estimators work from home?

Yes, an estimator can work from home. A work from home estimator evaluates a project's scope and the approximate costs needed to complete the project. However, a work-from-home estimator needs to occasionally travel to the site and note omissions or required additions to the estimate. Still, the majority of the work can be done remotely. Work from home estimators can also work remotely to forecast costs for upcoming projects or operation costs for current projects.

How long does it take to become a construction estimator?

It takes an average of a combined eight years of education and experience to become a licensed cost estimator.

Is being a construction estimator difficult?

It can be. 

The combination of technical expertise, in-depth knowledge of the construction industry, and excellent communication and presentation skills make estimating a crucial role in the construction industry challenging to fill.

Estimators must fill various tasks throughout the estimation process and stay engaged with the multiple parties involved in a project from the planning stages until the project is completed. At the same time, estimators must be able to work quickly and meet deadlines.

Summary

The input of cost estimators is pivotal in every project. While it is impossible for the initial estimates to match the costs accrued in a project directly, cost estimators provide the roadmap needed to plan accordingly for a project. A cost estimator also limits the probability of things going wrong in a project by researching the costs of materials and operations needed in a project. Cost estimation is an exciting career that requires a lot of skill and is also rewarding for a person who thrives in a challenging environment.