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Buyer's Guide

by Eileen O'Loughlin,
Market Research Associate
Last Updated: March 7, 2017

There are more than 50 construction estimating and takeoff software packages available. They range from Excel add-ons to enterprise-class, multi-user systems. Some cost as little as $99 while others are a six-figure investment. Meanwhile, there are unique systems designed for different industries, trades and divisions.

If you haven't been in the market for some time (or ever), there's a lot to figure out. We've written this guide to help you make sense of the market so you can choose the best construction estimating software. Here's what we’ll cover:

Common Features of Construction Estimating Software
Benefits of This Application
How Estimating and Takeoff Differ
Market Trends to Understand
The Vendor Landscape

Common Features of Construction Estimating Software

Construction cost estimating software, also known as construction bidding software, helps estimators calculate material and labor costs as well as produce detailed, professional proposals from these estimates. While these systems have always been useful, the proliferation of fixed-bid work and intensifying competition for projects is making them an even more important tool. Below is a breakdown of the functionality included in a typical contractor estimating software package.

Construction Estimating Software Functionality

In case you aren't familiar with these terms, here is a plain English description of the function of each module.

What it does
Proposal Generator Takes your cost estimates and creates an accurate and professional-looking bid proposal.
Cost database Stores materials and labor costs to reference when creating an estimate.
Visual assemblies Displays a graphical view of a build assembly to visualize which portion of the project you're estimating.
Labor & materials Automates labor and materials cost estimates based on calculations from your project takeoff.
Historical database Stores all of your past projects with related materials and labor cost estimates in a database.
Pre-built templates Accelerates the process by providing a set of commonly required parts and labor for standard jobs, such as a bathroom remodel.
Project reporting Creates cost breakdown reports using charts and graphs to improve the analysis of project costs.
What-if analysis Models how your bid will change if assumptions (e.g., project completion date) change.

Many contractors require specialized construction estimate software to handle their trade-specific requirements. As such, specialty contractors should evaluate products designed for their unique needs. For example, a mechanical contractor who needs to estimate custom sheet metal work for HVAC ducts would benefit from a specialized application such as Wendes Systems WenDuct.

Or, a residential contractor who is performing his own project estimates might want a straightforward, affordable residential estimating solution where ease of use trumps depth of functionality and sophistication. Other contractors that we often find have unique needs include electrical and earthwork contractors.

Benefits of This Application

Last year, we surveyed contractors, estimators, building owners and other construction professionals about their estimating processes. In our survey, we asked industry professionals about their top priorities for 2013 and beyond, and the benefits of using technology to support these processes.

The top priorities of construction firms (improved process standardization, accuracy and speed) mapped closely to the benefits firms say they noticed after deploying construction estimator software.

Benefits of Construction Estimating Software

To gain more insights into industry benchmarks and best practices, check out our 2012 Benchmark Report.

How Estimating and Takeoff Differ

We find that buyers sometimes confuse estimating software with takeoff software. The confusion stems partly from the fact that these two programs are often deployed in conjunction, as both are critical to developing accurate bids. But they perform two distinct functions. To simplify it:

  • Takeoff systems help measure plans and blueprints to estimate the amount of materials and labor needed to complete a project.
  • Construction estimating systems determine how much the estimated materials and labor will cost, and then produces a complete bid in a professional format.

This table will help you determine if you need takeoff or construction estimating software (or both):

If you... Then You Need...
Spend too much time measuring plans and blueprints Takeoff
Often incorrectly estimate labor/materials quantities Takeoff
Spend too much time calculating labor/materials costs Estimating
Often incorrectly estimate labor/materials costs Estimating
Have trouble creating professional-looking bid proposals Estimating
Need one system to estimate labor/materials quantities & costs Both

If, after reviewing our table of common pain points, you realize that a takeoff program is what you need, head over to our takeoff systems buyer's guide to better understand this market.

Market Trends to Understand

These pre-construction application market trends should be considered when evaluating a new system and reading construction estimating software reviews.

Digital takeoff. Digital takeoff has matured and it provides many efficiencies. It reduces the cost, time and hassle of printing paper plans. It also costs less than a plotter or reprographic service. Most systems can measure .pdf, .tiff, .dwg, AutoCAD and other digital file formats. Buyers should strongly consider (and trial) digital takeoff before investing in another digitizer board.

Increased competition for jobs. The sluggish economy means that contractors are competing for fewer jobs. GCs and project sponsors are running more intense selection processes with shorter bid turnaround times. Contractors need to produce bids faster and more accurately to compete for more jobs, win and make a profit.

Geographic migration. Some companies are now bidding on jobs outside their traditional territory. The availability of electronic plan files via online plan rooms, as well as data from BIM files, makes it easier to identify projects and get the data necessary to produce a bid. To compete, contractors need an efficient infrastructure that will allow them to access these online plan rooms.

Multi-user estimation. Many contractors are seeing a need to involve more employees in the process. In some cases, this results from growth. In other cases it results from a reaction to turnover of seasoned estimators and the resulting skills gap. And other times it results from a desire to gain consensus on estimates. Regardless, demand for multi-user systems is growing and if this is an important consideration you should evaluate the best vendors that support many users.

The Vendor Landscape

The application landscape is highly fragmented and can be confusing. However, we can simplify the market by matching top-rated solutions to our four buyer types.

If you are a... Then you should evaluate...
Commercial Contractor ProEst, Maxwell ProContractorMX, OnCenter On-Screen Takeoff, Sage Timberline, QuickMeasure
Electrical Contractor Accubid, ConEst, McCormick, Electrical Bid Manager
Mechanical/HVAC Contractor Accubid, Wendes, QuoteExpress
Earthwork Contractor / Heavy Construction Contractor BID2WIN, Hard Dollar, HCSS, SharpeSoft, WinEx Master
Residential Contractor Clear Estimates, Contractor's Office, GiddyUp, My Project Estimator


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