Pricing Trim Work

Stay away from square foot pricing for finish carpentry. Here are details on how to price by the piece and the joint (and factor in aggravation). June 23, 2006

I'm a master carpenter with 20 + years experience (most as an employee). I started my own business five years ago doing mostly high-end kitchen cabinets, offices and furniture. I've never really had a problem pricing cabinets or small trim jobs, but my latest project is to trim an entire house (6500+SQ.FT.) and I'm a little bit unsure of how to price this big of a job. I don't want to overbid, as it seems I have the job, but I don't want to cut my own throat to get it (it was hinted to me that 2.00 dollars +/- per sq. ft. was the going rate, but that seems too low for the level of craftsmanship desired and needed).

I read some earlier posts related to trim pricing, but it was concerning spec homes. Some replies varied from a dollar +/- to 3.50 a sq. ft. (custom homes in Dallas, TX). Don't know if I can get 3.50 a sq. ft. here in middle TN.

How much should I charge per sq. ft. to trim a 6500 + sq. ft. custom house with 7 1/2 inch crown downstairs, 5 1/2 inch upstairs, hang doors, run casing and base? I'm a master carpenter, not a master estimator. Please help!

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor C:
Sit down and work out your cost per foot of moulding. Exactly how long does it take for you to install crown moulding, base moulding, hang a door, etc.? I know this will take some time, but it is necessary unless you don't want to make money. Take your costs per foot and add what you want to make on top of that, then add contingency for all those little things that will happen and you have your bid price per foot of moulding. Apply this method to each and every little piece of trim in the house and you have your bid. If you get the job, you know you will make money, and if you don't, you won't lose any. I actually developed a spreadsheet for my trim business to do exactly this and it worked great. I lost a few jobs, but not many, and never worried about what the other guys were bidding because it didn't matter. Be thorough and accurate with your cost analysis and stick to your prices. Give your builder a detailed "by room" quote, but don't give away your pricing. And lastly, enjoy doing what you love doing for a living and don't sweat the small stuff. You could be stuck behind a desk somewhere listening to someone complain about a policy you have absolutely no authority to change and they just don't get it.

From contributor K:
I know what you're feeling - more stress on quoting than actually doing the work. (Except when you quoted it too low and things didn't go as planned.) But you do have 20 years under the belt, so you have a good handle on how long each step should take.

Crown: First I would like to see the profile I am quoting on. It sounds like you know what detail you are looking at. Paint or stain grade? I don't like a per-foot on crown. I'll count inside/outside corners (and mitered returns). $45 per corner has worked pretty well. I'll add about $20 per scarf for longer rooms. I am faster cutting crown in place against the fence, upside-down and backwards. I can do that up to a 6" crown. For the 7 1/2", I have to do that on the flat with compound cuts. That would bit a bit more. Also, any two story (18 - 20') ceilings off scaffolding or ladders? Add time for marking studs and also give yourself extra for time and material for crown nail blocking on the 7 1/2". Fill nail holes and caulk your job? Could take a few days just doing that on 6500 house.

Doors: Pre-hung and bored for locksets? If possible, I'd like to sell these at 2 hours per door, hung and cased. You can do them faster, and that should give you some time to distribute around the house and make a little extra.

Base: $2 foot and $1 for shoe (both coped) lets me make decent money for a whole house.

Other items: Mantels, stairs and railings, windows - picture frame case or cut stoops? Closet/bifold doors, closets and shelves? Are you working over finished floors? Give time to red rosin paper and 1/8" hardboard in traffic areas. On a job that size, I'll add a day for unloading tools and prep, a day for cleanup, and an hour per day for setup/cleanup/move crap around. Might not use it, but good to have it in there. Break it to smaller projects, add it up, and look at it like your smaller trim jobs, just no need to pack up tools and clean up every two days.

Bottom line, try to get your time and materials, a little extra for changes, problems or unexpected delays, and a little for profit. However you price it, need to sell it that the cheapest bid is not always the best value.

From contributor P:
If you want to make any kind of money doing trim and easily see where you make your money (or lose money), stay away from sq ft pricing. Lumping all work, detailed work, easy work, time consuming work, into a sq ft price doesn't allow you to see where your prices need to be adjusted.

You need a per item and per lin ft price for everything you do. Hanging doors, trimming windows (picture frame trim or stools and aprons, etc), running base, crown, chair rail, wainscoting, handrail, stair treads, cabinet boxes, cabinet crown... everything. You also need to have pricing for paint grade versus stain grade. For example, my crown price is per lin ft, per piece up to 10 ft clgs. Over 10 ft clgs is double. I don't charge extra for corners or miters, as there is enough built-in to cover the cost of corners. Once you have your individual prices, it is very easy to work up your estimate. Simply add up how many of each item and multiply it by the cost per item. It's also easy to see where you are making or losing your money.

From contributor A:
Price per square foot is a number that builders look at which really has nothing to do with how you bid a job for trim. I have a cabinet and trim business in central TX and we have done houses that range from $.85 to $5.5 a square foot. But that has nothing to do with how we bid the job. We break the job down by tasks, windows, doors, base, crown, etc. With your experience, you should have a good idea as to how long it should take someone to do each task and how much that will cost you, add in profit and overhead and that is your cost per item. In a large house with a lot of detail, you are going to have to add in some type of a PITA factor, as you can't account for time spent in meetings, samples, etc.

The other thing I have found is that in large custom homes, there are going to be multiple change orders. We have found it best to bill for changes on separate invoices as they occur. Don't wait until the job is over and hit them with $5,000 in change orders or they will want to start negotiating the price. Better to hit them 500 at a time and get paid for extras and changes as they occur. It is very easy to set up a spreadsheet for this that will work 80% of the time, however you always have to use common sense and factor in level of difficulty - how cut up a room is - and adjust your base prices to accommodate.

From the original questioner:
I took all of your advice. Sat down and figured out every room with a tape, considering all details. Crunched numbers, placed bid, crossed fingers. Thank you!