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The first guy who said "free esitmates" should be shot. What was he thinking? Look at what he did to our industry! Darryls post on the medical community stirred up alot of ill feelings, as discussions on the medical community always do.

Think about it, you pay doctors for estimates. Infact think about it you pay everyone except auto mechanics and construction/remodeling guys for estimates.

Now when people call me they ask "Do you give free estimates?" Of coarse I answer "yes". Then some go on to tell me in a shocked voice of horror "Do you believe XYZ said they charge for estimates?!" The whole time in the back of my mind I am wishing I could get away with charging for estimates and keep my job.

Here is my opinion of how free estimates should work:

I will come and measure and inspect your roof. I will discuss your ideas and goals. I will specify the best roof I can think of. You pay me before you get your hands on my price or specification. If you decide to use my company I will credit the estimate charge, on your final invoice, towards payment for your new roof.
 

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We do free estimates too, and yes we lose out a tad if they go buy somewhere else. Luckily for me, there are not many tire kickers out here, so I get along just fine.
I agree with grump on the fact that the client will see no numbers or details on the estimate that will give them sq footage, or reveal how I came to that number. Untill they sign the contract.
In the flooring industry, this really plays a part in the laminate field. People will get a free estimate, then they will want sq footage, moldings used, ect....And I tell em to sign on the line please, and all that info will be theirs. Too many do it yourselfers who want the numbers so they can go to the home improvement stores to do it themselves.
 

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There's nothing wrong with free estimates as long as the homeowner understands that it will be verbal only, and based on a quick look.

If they want a real written estimate, we tell them that detailed estimates are possible only if our experienced technicians do a detailed roof inspection and roof system analysis, which, depending on the home could cost anywhere from $200 to $600. Following this, we will present them with a detailed estimate. This is usually in form of a 1-page proposal summarizing our estimate. The details are on an adjoining sheet which is NOT left with the homeowner, but they do get a detailed roof inspection report which describes their current situation. However, if they choose us to perform the work, we will credit them the cost of the roof inspection. As in incentive, if they agree to do the work within a short period of time (say 2 weeks), we credit them an additional 10-20%.

This strategy gets rid of the price-shoppers very quickly, and we save time in not going through the work unless the customer is serious. However, since many of the prospects come to us as referrals, they already know how we do things, so it's not a problem. Given our niche market (aluminum shingles and custom metal work), we are 3-4 times more expensive than the competition, and this strategy allows us to focus on the customers who want a real solution to their roofing problems, not just a cheap quote.
 
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