In this age of information overabundance, keeping things simple is critical. One of the simplest estimating methods is the stick method, which many contractors use when they first get started — me included. I used to make a list of the materials I needed, then go to the hardware store and lumberyard to find out what everything cost. To determine a project's price, I doubled the cost of the materials — thinking that would also cover my labor — added a bit for Murphy, then added overhead and profit. While I rarely lost money on materials, I often didn't make what I wanted to on labor. Plus, doing the material takeoff and pricing that way was about as efficient as watching paint dry. (On the bright side, I didn't need to maintain a material database, since I used whatever prices were marked on the materials at the lumberyard.)

Though today I generally use a unit-price estimating system (more on that in a future column), I still use the stick method for any task I have never attempted before. I've made a few upgrades, however, to my original process. To get a labor number, I look at job histories or consult with my production team and subcontractors. And trips to the...

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