Build Your Own House

Contractor Bids

Contractor Bids and Subcontractor Bids

Construction bids are very important. Be diligent! For each contracting or subcontracting job for your house, get bids or estimates from at least three contractors. Make sure the bids are for similar work and be sure the job specifications are the same. Read my Construction Bids for information on job specifications.

NOTE: No legitimate contractor, subcontractor, home builder, or building material supplier that I know of charges for preparing bids or estimates.

Never accept a bid that is “by the hour.” It doesn’t work. Remember Murphy’s Law; “If you want to see how long a job can take, pay someone by the hour.” You may pay a little more for a fixed price bid, but it’s worth it for peace of mind.

For example, if an excavator quotes $X per hour per man plus $X per hour per piece of equipment, insist on a firm total. If he (or she) won’t offer one, move on to the next excavator on your list.

The people and companies you will be contacting know how to give estimates based on plans and are used to being asked for bids. Don’t worry, this is part of their job, whether you eventually hire them or not.

I take my plans, drop them off or mail them to a sub or supplier, and say, “Give me a price on XXX. If you see anything else on the plans you can provide, give me a price on that too.”

One morning early in my building career I met with an excavator at my lot to give him the plans and get a price for excavating. I had never met him before. He was a friend of a friend. He gave me what I thought was a good price. He then said, “We also do septic systems, driveways, backfill, rough and final grading, and a few other things, and my brother does foundations, concrete slabs, flat work, etc.

Wow, I struck gold! I hate to shop, so I got bids on four more parts of the project. Got the picture? Note that your suppliers and subcontractors will determine the exact (almost) number of items and square footage of materials needed based on your house plans. This is called a “take off.”


Here is what you should expect when getting bids for various jobs.


Plumbing bids should include all plumbing fixtures right down to the toilet seats. They will not include accessories such as toilet paper holders. If colored fixtures are to be used, specify color and brand. Plumbing showrooms are your best bet for the selection of these fixtures. Magazines and brochures don’t tell you enough and often don’t give prices. Most plumbing showrooms won’t tell you the wholesale price, but you’ll be paying list anyway, as the plumber makes a profit on each fixture and it’s included in the bid. Don’t make an issue of this. The small profit in the fixtures is one of the plumber’s sources of income and he earns it.


Your heat and air-conditioning contract should include vents (generally fan-powered) for the bathrooms, clothes dryer, stove, and range hood.


Electrical bids should include all switches, wiring, receptacles, circuit breakers and their respective panel boxes, a temporary service box and installation, saw service, wiring of all built-in appliances, and installation of ovens and ranges, furnaces, heaters, and air conditioners. Electricians in many areas do the rough wiring for phones and Internet.

Utilities must be connected. Exactly who is responsible for running water lines, sewer lines, and electrical hookups will vary with each subcontractor involved. Get the responsibility pinned down when you are hiring the subs, then follow through to be sure it is done properly.

All subcontractors should be responsible for obtaining inspections from the building department, but make sure they do or you will have to do it yourself. Lack of inspections can cause delays. Proceeding without getting inspections can be troublesome and expensive. If, for example, you put up drywall before having your wiring inspected, you could be made to tear down some of the drywall for the electrical inspector. This is not likely to happen, but the inspector could force the issue.

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