Construction estimating, also called construction cost estimating or simply estimating, is the process of identifying the approximate, yet detailed, costs associated with a construction project. For small projects, an experienced contractor can come up with a quick estimate in his or her head. For large projects that require detailed bids, the process requires much more due diligence to achieve an accurate cost estimate.
To create these estimates, the contractors and their subcontractors must determine the quantities and cost of all of the materials, equipment, and labor, for their work, which usually begins with generating a takeoff list using information found in the bid package. Takeoff (also construction take off or take-off) refers to the quantities and amount of labor required to complete a construction project. Gathering this information uses a process in which estimators use project blueprints to determine the amounts and types of each material and the labor necessary for each section of the project they are responsible for. (Quantities of each material are “taken off” of the blueprints). The takeoff list is then used to create the cost estimate and the project bid.
Construction estimating software is cloud or desktop technology designed to streamline and improve the process of creating cost, material, and labor estimates for construction projects. Construction estimating software is available in many varieties, ranging from simple spreadsheet templates to online collaborative software with many features that optimize much more than the estimating process. Contractors should also consider that some software is also designed with specific subcontractor trades in mind, including capabilities that are specific to electricians or HVAC contractors, for example. Other products may be designed for general contractors or with no specific trade in mind.
Construction Estimating vs. Takeoff vs. Bidding Software
As we covered above, the bidding, estimating, and takeoff processes are all very closely related and intertwined. Recall: contractors and subcontractors use project blueprints and bid documents to perform takeoff and then use that information to create construction cost estimates. These estimates are then used to create project bids, or work proposals.
Many products that are branded as “Estimating Software” focus specifically on estimating, but it’s also common for software products to span takeoff, estimating, bidding, or any combination of the three, all within one platform. Most often, however, these products are separate tools, offered by different companies. Buyers can easily be confused because some companies advertise “Estimating Software” and some “Bidding Software” — with product descriptions that appear to address the same needs when the tools are often different.
To add clarity to what software developers usually mean when they use these terms, we’ll define the most common phrases estimating software providers use to brand themselves, and what set of features these terms usually imply. Typically, software providers will brand themselves in the following terms:
- Bidding software: typically focuses on the creation of project bids / proposals, subcontractor and project scheduling, client management, and bid analysis / reporting
- Takeoff software: actually specializes in pulling information off of digital blueprints and spec-sheets, and uses this information to ultimately generate the cost estimates
- Estimating tools: help estimators (usually contractors and subcontractors) create the line-by-line cost and quantity estimates for materials and supplies. Typically, these tools include cost summary templates, preconfigured formulas and calculations, and regional part / material cost databases. Sometimes estimating software can refer to products that cover all aspects of bidding, takeoff, and estimating.
- Bid management software: this sounds very similar to bidding software; however, it actually refers to a set of tools for contractors to manage their subcontractor bids. Sometimes these tools will let contractors generate their bid proposals (which is the purpose of bidding software), but that is not the focus of these tools.
Which type of tool fits your business needs depends on how you manage the bid process and whether certain elements of the process need specific improvement.
The Best Construction Estimating Software
In our research, we consider the above criteria and make sure to only recommend products that are top of their class in each of these categories. Read on to see how the best estimating, takeoff, and bidding software compare in terms of functionality, pricing, customer service, and more.
ProEst Estimating Software (Best Overall)Founded in 1976, ProEst is one of the longest-standing companies offering construction estimating software. They’ve worked with over 8,000 different construction companies and have used that experience to craft a truly awesome product. The product is designed to be used by both subcontractors and contractors. The highly intuitive user interface is one of the smoothest to use of any product on this list. While ProEst takes advantage of spreadsheets and tables, it is by no means “excel-based” as many estimating products tend to be. Even better, the software is fully cloud-based, so it works with any laptop, tablet, or desktop computer you use, as long as you have an internet connection.
ProEst spans a full range of capabilities that help contractors throughout the bidding process. More specifically, their technology includes customer relationship management tools, cost estimating features, digital takeoff capabilities, and report / proposal templates helping contractors easily manage the bid process for many different projects and customers. ProEst also integrates with a number of different construction management tools, including project management tools, construction accounting, and more. The list of companies that they seamlessly integrate with includes Procore
, Foundation Software, ComputerEase, Acumatica, Dexter + Chaney, iSqft, Premier, Viewpoint, QuickBooks, JobPower, and Jonas to name a few. ProEst has great reviews from its customers and rightfully earns a perfect A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. ProEst has one of the strongest reputations with its customers of any estimating software company we reviewed. ProEst’s pricing is variable for each user based on the projects awarded using ProEst’s system, so you only pay for what you need, and the price of the tool scales with your business. All customers get unlimited users, storage, estimates, and support. ProEst bills annually. Because ProEst is rated so strongly on every metric we reviewed, we rate them as the Best Overall Construction Estimating Software
, and highly recommend them for contractors and subcontractors of any trade.
Stack (Best for Estimating & Takeoff)
Stack is a product that offers both estimating and takeoff capabilities, and it is among the most popular takeoff products on the market. Stack offers a pre-built materials database, pre-built assembly libraries, cost codes, and other features to help estimators. Since it is primarily a takeoff tool with strong estimating capabilities, we rate Stack the best product for those who need both estimating and takeoff
. To learn more, read the full Stack Review
Clear Estimates (Best for Small Contractors)
Clear Estimates is an affordable, yet powerful, web-based estimating and proposal generation tool designed for residential contractors and remodelers. It was designed by experienced home remodelers, so it has a smooth user experience and workflow. It has one of the cleanest interfaces of any estimating tool, and it is accessible from any device with an internet connection. While other estimating products span much of the project management process, Clear Estimates focuses primarily on creating and managing project estimates and proposals. And while the product is focused specifically on estimates and proposals, its feature set is complete. It also integrates with Buildertrend, a leading project management tool
, and Quickbooks, the most widely used accounting software, so companies can add additional software as they need it or add Clear Estimates to a workflow that they already use.Clear Estimates offers three versions of their product–Standard, Pro, and Franchise. All versions of the product include unlimited estimates, access to a 10,000+ line item cost database, 60+ preloaded templates, and the ability to create payable invoices. Users can store unlimited customers and prospects in the built-in customer database. Customers get unlimited support, ongoing material- and price-database updates, and never have to sign a long term contract. The Standard version of Clear Estimates comes with everything mentioned above, and costs only $59 per month, which is a great value. If buyers purchase an annual license, they save 20% over the monthly cost of the product, paying a net $47 per month. Fortunately, Clear Estimates also offers a free 30-day trial of their product, so anyone can test out the tools before they commit any money.Clear Estimates Pro costs $99 per month and includes everything that the Standard version offers with access to key integrations with Buildertrend
and almost any CRM using Zapier. This plan also allows the ability to add new users at a rate of $9 per month. As with the Standard version, buyers save 20% when purchasing annually.Clear Estimates Franchise is for the power users. It costs $249 per month, and it includes custom branding, custom feature development, and employee training. We recommend that companies and contractors start with the Pro or Standard version and purchase a Franchise license if they need it. Again, the 20% discount is available when purchased annually.Clear Estimates is among the best estimating products on the market. It starts at a very reasonable cost, includes unlimited estimates, access to updated pricing data, and can be accessed readily on the jobsite from any device. For this reason, we recommend Clear Estimates and rank it the Best Estimating Software for Small Contractors
Sage Estimating (Best for Large Enterprises)
Sage Estimating, formerly a part of the Sage Timberline
suite, is an estimating tool designed for construction contractors and businesses of all sizes. Its core function is to help its users build accurate bids and project estimates using data from their takeoff and BIM files, but it does much more than that. Even the most limited version of Sage Estimating can do basic takeoff, sync with a price database, and generate detailed estimates and customized reports. The more advanced versions of the tool include the RSMeans cost database, build estimates from 3D BIM models, and generate Bill of Material reports.Sage Estimating integrates with a number of tools, which could make it a great solution for companies who are already using a compatible product. For instance, eTakeoff
are two of the most popular products in digital takeoff and both integrate with Sage Estimating. It also integrates with 3D modeling software by Autodesk to massively improve the takeoff process. By mapping the 3D models to the 2D project plans easily using Sage, estimators can create detailed estimates incredibly quickly.And of course Sage Estimating integrates seamlessly with Sage’s other tools, including their popular project management tools Sage 100 Contractor
and Sage 300 Construction and Real Estate
.The look and feel of the software is very similar to that of Microsoft Excel. The interface is a bit less intuitive than some other products on this list, but that is in part because the software is so flexible and full of features. One of the reasons Sage has that Microsoft Excel feel is because it only runs on Windows operating systems. It must be installed on a primary company server and accessed through company workstations that have the client software installed. Because of this infrastructure requirement, we believe that Sage Estimating is best suited for larger companies, though it can also be suitable for small companies with a large budget, complex requirements, or plans to grow. Because Sage Estimating is so modular and can be mixed and matched to meet each company’s needs, pricing isn’t one-size fits all. The total price will depend on the number of modules and features a company purchases, how many users or workstations need to access the tool, and whether or not training and support are needed. Sage Estimating has been on the market for a long time (originally marketed as Sage Timberline
Estimating), is flush with features, and is highly customizable. We recommend Sage as the Best Estimating Software for Large Enterprises
Sigma Estimates (Best for Windows)
Sigma Estimates is a powerful estimating tool built for subcontractors or general contractors who estimate construction projects using Microsoft Excel. The interface has the look and feel of Excel and should be easy to use for anyone with experience in Excel. Its long list of features and integrations make it a good fit for most general contractors, subcontractors, architects, and engineers.
Sigma Estimates is a Windows-based product, so it requires installation on a Windows operating system. The software also plays nicely with other Windows products and integrates with several other Windows-based construction tools.Sigma doesn’t include built-in takeoff capabilities, but it integrates seamlessly with PlanSwift using real-time Live Link technology. PlanSwift is one of the most popular takeoff products on the market, and the tight integration means users don’t have to transfer files between platforms, and all data is shared between the two programs.The software also integrates with Autodesk’s Revit and BIM 360, so users can begin estimating straight from the 3D models they’ve built in Autodesk without having to download and transfer files between programs. It also includes access to the RSMeans database to help contractors and estimators keep on top of constantly changing prices of labor and materials. Sigma even has an Open API, so developers can build their own integrations and connect their existing apps and workflows into Sigma Estimates.Sigma has three different editions of their product designed for the different types of users—Personal, Professional, and Enterprise. The Personal edition comes with the base estimating features and formulas built in. The Professional plan improves on the baseline product by including additional customization and reporting capabilities. The Enterprise version of the software includes everything that Sigma offers, including a greater level of estimate automation and the ability to integrate with Autodesk products.Sigma is quite affordable for the fully featured takeoff software it is, and they offer discounts to users who sign extended contracts at sign up. For example, users who sign up and pay for an 18-month license save 20% compared to users who pay monthly. The Personal edition starts around $50 per user per month, and the Enterprise version costs about $150 per user per month, depending on the term length.Contractors, architects, and other estimators can get a free two-week trial of Sigma Estimates for free by signing up for the trial on Sigma’s website. Additionally, many universities have existing relationships with Sigma that gives them access to Sigma for free.With such a strong product and an affordable price, we highly recommend Sigma Estimates as one of the top construction estimating software on the market. We rate it as the Best Estimating Software for Windows.
simPRO Estimating Software (Runner-up)
simPRO offers a diverse set of features for trade service, maintenance and project contractors of any size. Whether for small residential contracting or large scale commercial development, simPRO’s online technology can scale to fit your organization. The Australia-based company was founded in 2002, and has a good reputation with its customers. A search of simPRO’s reviews reveals mostly satisfied customers and top ratings from users of all business sizes and trades. simPRO’s product is sold on a per-office license basis, with the base version of their product starting at $69 AUD (~$48 USD) per month. However, to have the estimating features of simPRO included in your package, the minimum cost is $129 AUD per month, but it includes all of simPRO’s features. simPRO also offers a full-featured and fully customizable version of their software for $249 AUD per month. Adding field user licenses runs an additional $29 – $39 AUD each, and there are also additional setup costs for training and “initial investment”, which will vary for each company.
simPRO is an online tool that boasts a modern interface and a wide range of construction management features, including project management, field service management, accounting, scheduling and more. They design tailored solutions for plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and other specialties. Their collection of estimating features are also top-notch. Their estimating suite comes with a custom quote designer, which automatically fills in data from your database and allows for quick editing of quotes.SimPRO also allows contractors to keep a detailed database of their costs, which stores cost, sale price, and markup, allowing for extremely detailed estimating for each project. The platform includes supplier cost databases and allows the import of any material and supplier cost database that contractors work with. Another great feature is the ability to save common assemblies, which can easily be reused in future projects. simPRO unfortunately does not include takeoff features, but it does include integration for Groundplan takeoff software. simPRO offers free scheduled demos of their technology and offers a number of helpful videos for anyone looking to learn more about their construction estimating solutions. simPro’s estimating technology is very strong, and they were a close contender for Best Overall on this list. We rated them as a runner-up in our list of the best construction estimating software.