Pricing Custom Cabinets and Trim

Even within one local market, prices can be all over the map. Balancing careful itemized estimating against local market conditions can help you turn a decent profit. August 23, 2006

I have a job to bid on in East Texas. I have to build 124 feet of upper and lower cabinets with raised panel doors made out of red oak. Also need to bid on all the trim work for a 3925 sq. ft. house with 9 ft. and 13 ft. ceilings. What is a good price for the finished cabinets? On the trim work, my customer doesn't know what kind of trim they want (paint grade or stain). What is a good price to just install and a good price to purchase and install? Is it better to bid on linear feet or sq. feet on the trim work?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor C:
If you are having to ask these questions, you need to walk away from this job. I am not being ugly here, just to the point. In East Texas there are some very good shops that can do this work, and do it brilliantly, for prices that would send the rest of us running for new careers. If this is not a negotiated contract, walk away, mate.

From contributor H:
We all have to start somewhere. Have you done your homework on what cabinet shops in your area are charging? Have you made even some sort of business plan that indicates what it costs you to build cabinets/install trim, etc? Have you been in business a while or are you just starting out? It almost sounds as if you have done installation of trim work and might be relatively new to the cabinet business. (If I'm wrong, please accept my apology.) If you are just starting out, you might want to get your business plan in shape to know what you can do going in, then these types of questions will answer themselves. I'm just starting out myself and had a lot of these kinds of questions, but by doing a lot of research, footwork, and talking to the pros in my area and on this forum, I've come a long way.

From contributor G:
Have you seen this?

Pricing Cabinet Installation Work

From contributor D:
I have a shop in east Texas (one cabinetmaker, one helper, and myself) and I can tell you that sometimes it can be tough to survive. That said, I can tell you that I would build 124í of cabinets using red oak starting at around $9500. Basic trim work starts around .50 per sq. ft to install paint grade trim. However, these prices really donít mean much unless you know what your expenses will be. If you do go ahead, I suggest that you spend some time and figure out what it would cost you in labor and material to do this work and then add in your profit and not worry about what other shops are charging. A good price for finished cabinets is one that allows you to be paid fairly for your work

From contributor P:
Are you serious? Around $9500? And .50 sq ft? I don't know where in East Texas you are, but I lived in Longview for about 30 years. I moved away in '86 when the economy went south. But even before then, going back to about '78 or '79 when I started on my own, I was charging .50 sq ft plus extras for homes in Wildwood and Northridge which was the exclusive area at that time. I know the economy there still isn't as strong as other areas of the country, but come on, .50 sq ft now?

In '81 and '82 I also worked in a cabinet shop (3 man shop with basic equipment) where we regularly built red oak and ash cabinets. Even then, cabinet jobs with raised panel doors and ends were going for over 10K... unfinished. Most of ours were for a builder that moved from Longview to Red Oak (south of Dallas) and were installed in 3000 to 4000 sq ft homes. Homes in and around Longview went for a little less, but not much. So you're saying that in 25 or so years, prices haven't increased at all?

From contributor P:
Apparently, builders in East Texas are still using sq ft pricing. If you're not careful, sq ft pricing will bite you in the butt and leave a big scar. This is really unfair to both you and the builders.

Lets say Builder A pays .50 sq ft (a very unrealistic price in my opinion) to set all doors, trim all windows, run base and install crown in 3 rooms. Builder B, for the same house, also pays .50 sq ft but, in addition to the previous work, expects chair rail, crown in 5 rooms, and closet shelving installed.

This isn't fair to you because you are being asked to do more work for Builder B without being compensated for it. It isn't fair to Builder A because he is getting less work performed for the same money. Builder B is making out like a bandit because you're giving him free labor. You don't know if you're leaving money on the table or being taken to the cleaners.

The only fair, equitable, and profitable solution is itemized pricing. Everything you do needs to be itemized. Per door, per window, per ft of crown, per ft of base, per cabinet box installed, per door lock installed, etc. If Builder B wants chair rail, you get paid for it. If Builder A doesn't want crown, he isn't charged for it. Yet you are charging the same amount per item to each builder. To estimate and/or bill for the job, you simply add up the items you installed and charge for them. You get paid for everything you do and the builders don't pay for some obscure work that may or may not be included in sq ft pricing. I know that if I absolutely *had* to price per sq ft, I wouldn't touch it for less than 1.50 sq ft and that would only be for the very basics. (I just billed today for a house we just completed. I took my total and divided it by approximate sq ft. It came out to 2.51 sq ft for a 3100 sq ft house. Paint grade executive trim, cabinet installation, 2 stairs.)

Are these supposed to be shop built or site built cabinets? Are you providing materials and labor? Or can you have a real cabinet shop build and install them for you? I have a good friend I went to school with that has a very successful cabinet and millwork shop in Longview and could probably build, finish, and install them in less time than you could cut out the parts by yourself. You could be trimming the house while the cabinets were being built, assuming, of course, that his schedule and your budget can come to an agreement. But I can assure you, 124 ft of cabinets will be more than $9500. On second thought, if contributor D would build them for around $9500, maybe you could get him to build them. Then you could add 50% and still give the customer a discounted rate.

From contributor C:
Do you feel that your assessment of the market in East Texas is still valid after 30 years away? Contributor D is still in the market working each day and probably has a better feel for the pricing and based on the queries I've made, he is spot on. Just so you know, I've seen the Houston market do the same thing... residential millwork going for what it did back in the 70's and if you speak English, forget it... On top of this, the Hispanic crews do a very decent job. Just the changing of the guard.

Your other advice to the questioner is excellent! He should heed well. Price each item of work and come up with a total that works for you. If your builder is not bright enough to work out the square foot pricing from your quote, you can offer to show him how to use the calculator. Sorry... a bit of a jab at this kind of builder. Price the job for you to make money and if he takes it, great. If not... even better.

From contributor P:
I am not actually assessing the East Texas market, rather questioning it. 20 years with no price increase?

If basic trim starts at .50 sq ft, this means the 3925 sq ft home would be 1962.50. If he is like me, working alone, a house that size would take about 3 or 4 weeks to do. That works out to somewhere between $12 and $16 per hour. Take out workers comp, liability, and taxes from that and you're down around $8 to $12 per hour. Not to mention tools, supplies, repairs, gas, vehicle expenses, etc. It wouldn't be worth the trouble for this price in today's economy.

As far as the cabinet pricing, $9500 is only around $75 ft. Perhaps this is for labor only? When I'm trimming a house, that's about what I charge now for on-site cabinet work such as built-ins, niches, etc. with the materials being provided by the builder. Surely to goodness $9500 isn't materials, labor, and installation?

It's been 20 years since I moved away and the economy there is one reason why I will probably never move back, although I still consider it home. My mother still lives in Longview. I have friends that still live there, and I sort of keep up with things with the online newspaper. But I still find it hard to believe that prices could be as low as those mentioned above.

From contributor D:
I am glad to know that you can get such a price for your trim work. But I am serious, those prices are correct. I know that there are problems with square ft pricing for trim, and ln. ft. pricing for cabinets. That is why someone like the questioner needs to be careful when pricing his job. For myself, 50 cents a ft is a starting price. That covers the basics, hanging doors, closet shelves, base molding, and window stools of a paint grade material. Crown mold, chair rail, window trim, build up moldings, etc. are extras and are added to that price. As for cabinets, 9500 is for basic cabinets, raised panel ends, bullnose corners, pullout shelves, and other things will raise the price. That is why I said that prices donít mean much unless you know your expenses. You have to know when and how to charge for extras. It takes time to learn. Perhaps it would be better to learn on a smaller job than the one described.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the feedback. I have done my homework and was just curious about what is going on in the area. I'm not new to the field of work, but been out of it for a little while.

I did post the bids:
Cabinet work @ 210.00 ft.
Trim work @ 2.25 per sq.ft

Thanks again for the feedback and I did get the jobs.

From contributor J:
I build and install custom cabinetry in East Texas every day. I market to the high-end homeowner and never deal with builders or spec homes. I average $600/LF for the Longview/Marshall area. Sometimes more and seldom less. My piece of advice is simple - know what it costs you before you sell it.

From contributor E:
I have been a finish carpenter/cabinetmaker in the Toledo, OH market for over 20 years. You have to know how much per hour it costs you just to get to the job site, truck, insurance, tools, etc. I lose several projects a year to trunk slammers who think $18-20 p/h is a good wage. Take all of the above out of that figure and you might as well work at McDonalds. Then there is that little thing called a 1099.

Someone suggested that you ask around to see what other guys are charging. I wish people would ask me that more often in our area. In Toledo, for a house that was described, I start around $3 p/s/f and $125 l/f for cabinets, unfinished, no drawers or doors, but you also need to look at the whole project, crown mold, open stairways, curved stairs, and so on. The builder will take advantage of anything they can, so be exact in what you are bidding and what you are not.

From contributor V:
I am in the DFW area and see builders paying $60/lf for cabinets in homes north of $400K. And I had one remodeler approach me. He is getting plywood boxes, stain-grade, ash/oak rp doors for $55/lf. He's outside the metroplex, so I am sure his overhead is not as great. And I know a great trim guy who cannot get work in these houses when he bids it at $1 sq ft. It's tough around here!

From contributor P:
I was a project manager in the metroplex (Arlington, actually) in the mid '80's. Just about the last job I had before moving East. But I can still remember how competitive pricing was then. Everyone cut prices just to work. Heck, we did it too. But we had to just to keep the doors open. What we didn't make in profit, we tried to make up for in volume and diversity. But it was, and apparently still is, a very competitive market there.

But the prices do seem to be all over the place. Are we sure we're comparing apples to apples? Metropolitan areas are usually higher than rural areas, but the opposite seems to be the case here (at least as far as this thread is concerned). What does your $400K house in Dallas include? What does the original poster's 3925 sq ft house include? Can't get trim work in DFW for $1 ft, yet the questioner lands the job in rural East Texas for $2.25 sq ft? Cabinets starting in DFW for $55 to $60 ft, but going for $210 to $600 ft in East Texas? Something ain't right.

Even taking into consideration the importing of cheap cabinets from China and the cheap labor available from illegal immigrants, I can't see how plywood (not pb or mdf) cabinet boxes with ash/oak rp doors can start at only $55 to $60 ft. I'm not even sure if that would cover the cost of materials, much less assembly and installation, no matter where you're located.

Of course we all know there is no magic bullet that will guarantee us profitable work. It is a free market for everyone, legitimate or not. All you can do is make the best of what you have, and if that isn't good enough, look somewhere else.

From contributor E:
Judging from some of the sq ft prices you guys are talking about, I should explain my $3 sq ft price better. That is a very top end example. We finished a 12,000 sq ft with crown in every room, 2 staircases and five piece window heads. We got $3 for that one. We start at 1.35 sq ft for basic doors, windows, base and installation of cabinets, usually less than 14 in a kitchen. I would say the average price for something 2500 to 3000 sq ft is right around $2 sq ft and that would include about 8' of bookcases. Do you guys in TX trim the whole window or is it drywall wrapped? I know they don't get much to trim a house in FL, but there's not much in them. Sorry to be misleading in my first post.

From contributor N:
Trimming a door or a window or crown to a ceiling, that for me is lineal feet and not sq.ft. If I edgeband a panel, the counter on the machine counts linear feet!

From contributor V:
I am in Arlington. Small world.

He used to case the whole window, sides and front. Now it is just window stools and apron with returns. Builders stopped paying for it. That's my gripe. Everybody wants to squeeze every last penny out of these McMansions, but the quality and craftsmanship has been taken out of the picture. People are amazed to see how much house they can get when they move here. But what they don't realize is how little house they get.