With nearly 90 years of history in the landscaping business, Schoenbrunn Landscaping, Inc., of Dover, Ohio, has the process of estimating hardscape projects down to an exact science.

“If you don’t learn to properly estimate, you can end up either way over or way under, in which case you’re either going to have to come out of pocket on a job or end up with a reputation in the marketplace for being really high,” says Schoenbrunn’s senior estimator Liz Stevens, ASLA, who has over 17 years in the industry.

As a seasoned estimator, Liz shares some of her insights on best practices for estimating hardscape installations.

Develop “man-hour” formulas: Schoenbrunn has a formula sheet for every type of landscaping job, where the amount of man-hours are figured to the quarter hour based on historical data. For example, Liz knows that it will take 0.25 hours per half ton to lay and compact limestone. These formulas are regularly checked and updated by keeping detailed records of every job.

Build in overhead costs: The cost of a job is not just about paying for the product and the man-hours. There are trucks, equipment, insurance, and office expenses – even for home-based businesses. Profit margins need to include these costs of doing business.

Plan for contingencies: Liz recommends adding 5%-10% of product to the square footage to account for cutting curves and edges, as well as potential breakage. It’s better to overestimate to avoid additional shipping costs or time delays caused by shortages.

Take advantage of design technology: When a hardscape design involves multiple curves or other intricacies, Liz recommends using programs like AutoCAD to help provide square footage numbers. To aid in the estimating process, Belgard provides AutoCAD files for all hardscape products, including various laying patterns for each product. For contractors who do not have AutoCAD capabilities, the Belgard Design Studio is available to create 3-D renderings with optional fly-through animation, which not only help sell the job to the homeowner, but also provide materials estimates.

Take advantage of pre-fabricated outdoor living pieces: When building an outdoor kitchen or a living room, Liz says that pre-fabricated pieces—like those found in the Belgard Elements outdoor fireplaces and kitchen collection—are much easier to quote than building out from scratch. Although the product cost is higher, the man-hours are significantly reduced and much more exact, lowering the overall cost and simplifying the estimating process.

Compare to “per square foot” estimates: With every estimate, Liz double-checks her numbers by looking at the overall estimate divided by the square footage. For example, she knows that a paver installation should come in somewhere between $14 and $16 per square foot, based on historical data. If the estimate is outside of that range, she knows to look at the numbers again. Keeping detailed records of each installation will also help maintain accurate cost ranges, which will also help in cases where a “quick” estimate is needed.