Pricing a Multifamily Cabinet Install Job

Cabinet installers talk ballpark numbers and hard lessons. December 19, 2009

I've recently been asked to quote the installation on a multi-family project (apartment complex of 260 units). There are 6 types of units, simple layouts, either straight run or L shape, 12 to 18 cabinets per unit, no crown or light rail. There may be laminate countertop installation involved too. They asked me to give them a total for the entire project.

I've never quoted jobs with huge volumes like this one before. I don't want to price it too low but I would hate to lose this project too. I wouldn't like to be stuck with service trips either (and on projects like this, there are always more than enough service comebacks). I want to base my estimate on a box count for every unit type. Is $15-20 per box an appropriate number? The job is in Atlanta, GA

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor S:
What kind of boxes are we talking about? Melamine, plywood, face frame, Euro, raised panel, etc? As everyone else says, don't sell yourself short, price what it's worth to you. Are you outsourcing anything or all in house?

From contributor G:
Do they deliver the boxes to each unit or do you have to? (Time, stairs, wall damage, vehicle costs?) Have you factored in insurance and/or bonding requirements (if any)? Are you subject to time penalties? (Will you have to pay overtime if another craft is slow in turning the job over to you?) Will you need to scribe/fit either the cabinets or the counters?

From contributor D:
$20 a box is cheap, but that may guarantee you the job. With no crown, simple repetitive layouts, and a competent cabinet distributor, I could do it for $20 a box and make good money. Would be better for you if they could have multiple units ready to go at a time, and charge for the countertops too. I usually charge between $7-10 a lineal foot and $25 for a sink cutout. Sounds like a sweet job for times like these.

From the original questioner:
Thank all of you for your responses. These are knock down Chinese cabinets, plywood box, flat panel door (something like shaker). They promise to deliver and set cabinets in units by building (I assume around 24-36 units per building). They also take care of cabinet assembly.

I will have to sign a contract with them and provide worker's comp and general liability. My job is to install cabinets to a complete kitchen look (fillers, toekick, scribe, hardware, laminate tops). Tops are supposed to be pre-manufactured to certain sizes according to kitchen layouts, so no cutting of any tops from my side.

No time schedule at the moment. I know it will be in the contract. What kind of time penalties should I be aware of before signing it?

Now I'm more concerned about the total estimate. I need to figure out what the realistic figure per cabinet or unit is on jobs like this in the Atlanta area. They know my quality and would like to deal with me, but I know they will shop my quote and I wouldn't like to be outbid because my numbers are too high.

From contributor R:
Your numbers are your numbers, period. Figure out realistically what is involved in the job the way you do your work, and stick to that number. If you try to underbid someone else whose quality of work is not yours, you will still likely do the job your way and lose money.

There is no point in working that hard for no money. Figure in the efficiencies of doing repetitive work, but also pad somewhat for unexpected delays, bad rough-ins, scribing and all that sort of thing. It will happen, and more than once or twice.

Work the numbers hard but realistically. Losing a couple dollars per cabinet on a single family home is no big deal. Here, it will kill your business.

From contributor T:
$200 per unit. Nice round number. Toss in some extra for service.

From contributor S:
I don't feel you're too high at $15-20 to install each box. I would guess about 8-10 units per day for 2 guys. That's if everything goes together smoothly, no scribing or customizing. Better have a crew. It'll take longer to trim it all than to hang it I bet. Hope for you they built it square, plumb, and level. I doubt it, though.

From contributor D:
8 - 10 units a day? That's possibly the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever posted on WOODWEB. And he said no molding.

From contributor S:
What do you think is a more realistic number? Mine's a pure guess if all cabinets are assembled and ready to hang by somebody else.

He did not say no molding. He said no crown or light rail, but there are fillers, scribes, etc. And who knows, maybe even some shoe molding. And if there isn't, well shame on me for giving that some thought.

From contributor M:
8-10 units a day, 2 guys? That's about 120-180 cabinets with tops. Well, if you think you can do it, that's great. I must be getting old!

From contributor S:
I would never know unless I tried, but in all honesty probably would not make it. I'd have to make it a very long day if I did. You're not the one too old - I'll admit I'm the one too young to really have experienced a big job like that. I'd trust your judgment if you told me it could not be done. Bottom line, I'm probably wrong and it wouldn't be the first time. I'm sorry to everyone if I've given unrealistic answers; I do have a lot to learn. I'm no pro, just somebody working my way up there and making many mistakes along the way.

From contributor T:
8-10 units a day is not that unrealistic. I know I'm good for three a day at 45 and after back surgery, and I know guys that are true speed demons, while maintaining a level of quality acceptable by anyone who could reach these numbers daily. He did say 2 guys at 8-10. On apartments it's all about prep work. Getting pre-cuts done, distribution, etc. saves a ton of time at the end of the day.

From contributor G:
There are all sorts of ways that language for time penalties can be done. You would prefer no such clause at all, of course.

Watch out for:
Fixed date. If some other trade is slow, you don't want that to eat up your time window. Any clause that doesn't allow additional time for delays not your fault - fire, flood, electrical outage, governmental stop work order, etc.

I presume you get paid as you go along. If so, you do not want a clause that carries a requirement to go on working if they fail to pay you.

This one is a bit harder to describe. You assume, I presume, that the other trades will be finishing some number of units per day/week and that you can then move in and do your work. You need to avoid the possibility that instead of an even flow of units, a whole bunch get released to you all at once and there is not enough time left before penalties start to run. (Suppose you are not allowed in until the electrical folk are done. They run out of light switch plates. The next to the last day, before their penalty clause kicks in, they finally get their delivery and install them in all the units. They have not run over their time, but you are suddenly given all/most of the units at one time, not over a period of weeks, and your clause says that you are to finish a week after the electricians.)

You will most likely have limited ability to negotiate these things, but keep them in mind.

From contributor B:
I also do projects in the Atlanta area, and charging $15-20 a box you will never make it. One top guy can only do about two units per day.

Sounds like you're an installer who is out of work. I pay my guys $15 a box, which equates to a $22 a box cost for me because they are on payroll, drive company trucks, insured, health insurance, bonded etc.

Throw in a 20% margin above COGS and you're looking at upwards of $28 a box plus countertops. I hope you and your buddy can do it...

From contributor J:
How long will it take you to do the job? How much money do you want in your pocket after all your expenses are taken care of? Divided by how many boxes you are going to install, plus a fudge factor, equals how much per box. Forget about what others are charging; you need to make a profit on all your work. Or work as an employee for someone else.

From contributor P:
Determine your costs for the job. Break it down into manageable pieces, either by apartment type or by box. I would think by apartment type would be the easiest. Then how many hours to complete an install. How much do you pay your guys per hour? Determine all expenses. The difference between your potential bid price and your costs is your margin. This is where the art comes in. What do you think you can live with on the margin? Many businesses cease to exist by going too low on the margin. Once you know what margin you have to have, then bid that number and let the chips fall where they may.

From contributor A:
Contributor G brings up a good point. Many larger jobs can have a liquidated damage clause in the contract. If you/your company is deemed to have caused a delay in turning over the project, you can be fined x amount for each day the job is delayed. Usually the bigger or higher profile the project, the bigger the penalty. We have been involved on projects where the GC would be fined $20k a day if the project was not turned over on time, and they then pass along that fine to the subs. Read the contract twice or three times before you sign it.

I would guess a 260 unit project is going to have a schedule that a small install crew (3-5 people) will have no chance of meeting. Carrying costs on a project of that size are far too expensive for the schedule not to be aggressive. Multiple units being scheduled to install at the same time, schedule compression based on sales, schedules based around inspections, etc. Doing a little homework will help a great deal.

From contributor V:
One important thing to look at is time frame, before anything else. How long would it take to do one unit from start to finish? Let's say it takes 4 hours per unit, times 260 would give you 1,040 hours, so for one person it would take 6 1\2 months. How does that compare to what they expect as a completion date? Can you and your crew honestly complete all 260 in a reasonable time? If the answer is maybe or no, then pass. It would be a great job to have, but you probably won't have time to line up other work when this one is finished because you will be awfully busy. I wish you luck.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for your feedback. So far, having looked at the blueprint, there are 7 unit types. As stated, the best idea is to quote by a unit type which, in its turn, will be based on cabinet count.

From my experience, the small kitchen will probably take 2.5 - 3 hours to install and the large one is 4 hours +/- half an hour depending on the readiness of every single unit. My guess is two knowledgeable installers can do 5-6 units a day considering that units are fully ready for installation and there isn't any material missing (like fillers, scribe, hardware).

From contributor N:
The units will not be ready together. You'll do two units on floor 3, then go to floor 8 to do the owner's sister's spec place, then to back to 5 to do four units, then...

How are you calculating your time for setup and moving tools, etc.? Who's going to pay you when you have to move the cabinets that are in 7c but actually belong in 7a? Who's responsible for damage to cabinets after they are installed? How are you going to protect yourself in the "those doors were damaged by your box builders/no, they we perfect when we left" argument? How are you going to charge for the time CYA?

Is there a holdback; how much and long? Can you live with it? Do you have a good attorney familiar with multifamily construction law? If not, walk right now.

Are you responsible for putting on knobs, placing shelves, adjusting doors? Are there appliance panels? If yes, no way one crew will do more than 2 kitchens a day. How are you allotting for time waiting on the Buckhoist to go to units to be done because the floors won't install sequentially?

How are you going to hang the wall cabinets? Is there sheet metal on the metal studs in the correct locations? Are you just going to hope it's there? What about those units that have a 3' wide AC chase right behind that wall cabinet in the "E" units and have no studs, metal blocking to attach to?

This is so much more than 200 installs; it's a project management exercise.

From contributor O:
I have no idea what to charge for this job, but your best bet is to do as others have suggested and read and re-read your contract. Another thing is to get sign off's by the site super immediately once you're done a unit. Take pictures as well to avoid other trades blaming you. I've been through that a couple of times, and had I not taken video of the suites I finished, I would have been back charged for a rather large sum of money. Pictures before and after; it may save your bottom when the time comes.

From contributor Z:
The total quantity of units is not the issue. Take it by each unit and quantity of boxes per unit. Then take it by delivery mix. How many of what type per delivery? Then overall. This will allow you to man up on buildings that have harder units. 1 installer should be able to 100% complete 2 units at first, then advance to 4 a day after repetition kicks in.

Liquidated damages is in every multifamily project. If you are not supplying the boxes, then your concern is production. We have done thousands of units and it just comes down to your quality and ability to organize. Never let an installer leave a unit incomplete. Go-backs will kill you. Once the building is 100%, get the builder to walk with you and sign the building off. That is not saying that you won't come back and do a builder's and then an owner's punch. Make that clear to the builder. It is just saying that on that date you had installed all material to the industry standards and any replacements will be additional.

Submit your bid based on the cabinet take off, and everything that comes up down the road is a change order. 25 to 30 a box is not unreasonable - paying the installer 15 a box including tops is fair. That allows for punch. Hold at least 10% retention on installer to cover them returning to complete the other 2 punch list. Specify in your contract that you will compile a punch list for your installers and then you will complete any for builder and then owner of building. That does not include individual punch list for a condo environment. Remember! One unit at a time, one building at a time.

Oh yeah! Do an inventory of all products in the units in the building before beginning. Get that parts list to the supplier that day. Parts list will hurt you on time. Get addition skin for inside and out. Stain pens that match product. Color caulk that matches laminate. Seam fill that matches laminate. Supplier should supply all of this in first delivery.

From contributor Q:
I think 15 to 20 dollars a box is good if you're an idiot. I don't know anyone in this business that would subject themselves to that kind of torture, which would result in complete humiliation. My guess is that you probably don't have enough experience in the multi-family industry. If I was you I would do it for 25 a box with no contract. Then you would be safe.

Me on the other hand, I absolutely would not do it for less than $30 box. That would be rock bottom. My average is $35 a box depending on the type of contract I am entering. You have to make money. Even though you can make good money you need to know that you can keep up productively to avoid huge liquidated damages, then the money or your labor that was making you good money now doesn't look so good. Don't be afraid to charge the big bucks. Do us all a favor and keep it real. People like you drive the PPB down too much to make a fair living.