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How To Estimate Rehab Costs In Real Estate

Brandon Turner
8 min read
How To Estimate Rehab Costs In Real Estate

One of the hardest parts of leveling up your real estate investment skills is learning how to estimate rehab costs properly. Watching a seasoned investor look at a run-down properly and quickly cite a $75,000 renovation budget feels almost like a magic trick. They arrived at that number how?

Do they have a secret computer in their brain? But it turns out that estimating rehab costs is actually simple—as long as you take time to learn the basics.

What Does ‘‘Rehab Cost’’ Mean?

‘‘Rehab cost’’ refers to the total cost of repairing or renovating a property. It includes all the materials, labor, and tools needed for the job.  

Why Is Estimating Rehab Costs Important?

There are a few reasons why learning to quickly estimate rehab costs is so important for newbie investors. Firstly, correctly budgeting for your rehab costs will help you decide how much you are able or willing to pay for an investment property. By understanding potential expenses, you can arrive at an accurate maximum allowable offer. No smart investment starts by paying too much! Begin each fix and flip or buy and hold purchase with rehab projections – before you buy. This ensures you won’t be underwater immediately after signing the closing papers.

Additionally, estimating rehab costs accurately is important if you are a wholesale property investor. Wholesalers with a strong understanding of the expected rehab costs can more accurately present the information to their cash buyer.

Keep in mind, this article will not be the end-all-be-all explanation of how to accurately estimate rehab costs. For that, you’ll want to get a copy of The Book on Estimating Rehab Costs: The Investor’s Guide to Defining Your Renovation Plan, Building Your Budget, and Knowing Exactly How Much It All Costs by expert real estate investor and flipper J Scott.

Here it is: the “magic” process that any experienced home flipper should follow. Estimating renovation projects accurately and quickly requires following these six steps. Our methodology is simple, and won’t take too much time. Before you know it, you’ll be all budgeted and ready for your own successful rehab projects.

How to Estimate Rehab Costs – The First Five Steps

1. Understand your buyer and the neighborhood

Before you start calculating rehab costs, understand what the final product will look like. Some high-end remodels take months – cosmetic renovations take just days. What level of finish are you (or your wholesale buyer) aiming for? A luxury kitchen, a simple IKEA set-up, or just a cabinet paint job? Do you need to add a master bathroom, or will your potential buyer or renter be satisfied with a new half-bath?

If you’re not sure, take a look around the neighborhood. Attend open houses, if any nearby properties are for sale. What’s the standard? Renovating either above or below the area’s standard can cost you big time.

In an inexpensive neighborhood, money spent on top-of-the-line finishes is wasted. Buyers won’t pay extra just because you put in luxe kitchen upgrades, like a six-burner stove. But in expensive neighborhoods, homes with below-market finishes will linger longer on the MLS.

Therefore, if the home is in a working-class neighborhood with mostly working-class rentals, you don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands on a rehab.

2. Conduct a thorough property inspection to estimate costs to rehab tour the property thoroughly

Next, with a good understanding of how you want the finished product to look, walk through the property very slowly. Take a lot of photos or record a video on your phone so you can easily recall the condition later. Trust me, you won’t remember it all!

Look out for any big problems, like a roof in need of repair, cracked foundation, mold, HVAC issues, and termites. These rehab tasks can quickly destroy even the most detailed budget if not initially factored in. Plus, you can’t truly understand the renovation scope if you don’t know all the issues. So be detailed here – you won’t regret it.

If you’re buying directly from the seller or in a wholesaling situation, the seller might be home. Let them know you will be taking pictures, but they’re only for analysis. You won’t be making the photos public. Don’t make them feel like you are invading their privacy.

3. Write down the potential problems

While you are still on-site at the property, go room by room and write down its condition, as well as any needed repairs. For example, if you walk into the living room and see carpet that looks and smells like dog urine, write down “replace carpet in living room.” Also, jot down a quick estimate regarding the size of the room. (It doesn’t need to be exact; just make your best guess.)

Take a look at the exterior of the home, as well, and pay attention to any big issues, such as the condition of the roof, siding, and any outbuildings.

This list creates an initial scope of work- a handy frame of reference for visualizing your renovation costs.

4. Create a master list of necessary repairs

Next, take your comprehensive list of repairs and classify each one into one of the following 25 categories, which encompass all of investment property renovation. For example, if the living room and bedrooms need carpet and the kitchen needs vinyl, group all of them together and include them under “flooring.”

Gutters, soffit, and fasciaPlumbingMold
Exterior paintingHVACMisc.
Decks and porchesFraming
SepticInterior painting
FoundationCabinets and countertops

5. Create a scope of work to estimate rehabbing costs accurately Determine a rehab price for each category

Once you have your 25 categories spelled out, it’s time for the most difficult part: estimating the rehab amount for each category. However, breaking everything down into the basic components of a renovation makes estimating rehab costs much easier. Remember how overwhelming the project as a whole felt at the beginning? Looking only at flooring, or decking, or septic feels much more manageable. This way, you are creating a scope of work for each category.

Let’s return to the flooring estimate as an example. We may determine we’ll need approximately 1,000 square feet of carpet and another 500 square feet of vinyl. With that information, we can call up a local flooring or big-box store and ask what they charge for the flooring we need. Multiply the quantity by the unit prices to fully understand how much this aspect of a property will cost.

Speaking of big-box stores – I recommend spending a lot of time in them in the beginning of your investment career. How much do materials cost for the most common repairs? Learn categories like flooring, paint, cabinets, counters, and appliances intimately. The more rehabs you manage, the quicker you’ll know how to get the biggest bang for your buck. You’ll also be able to quickly price out upgrade options, if relevant in the surrounding neighborhood.

For a rough estimate on labor cost in labor, double the price of the materials. Again, this provides just a rough estimate, but I find it to be fairly accurate. If you work with a contractor, they can provide you with updated costs for each rehab task. And after doing multiple renovations, you should be able to quickly budget for common renovations. Once you’ve priced one leaky toilet, you’ve priced them all! (Barring, of course, major systemic problems.)

Consider creating a database of each repair cost, including final receipts, quotes, and any other details that can help you pull accurate prices later.

How to Calculate Rehab Costs Accurately

Now that you’ve made a list and scoped out the work that needs to be done, it’s time to get o the business of calculating your rehab costs. Here are the basic steps you’ll need to take.

Get general contractor bids to estimate rehab costs

There are several ways to get bids from local contractors. You can place a request using an online contractor platform, or approach contractors yourself by performing a simple online search. Make sure you do your research: always read online reviews and avoid contractors that don’t have any. In many cases, it can be a good idea to ask friends and neighbors for recommendations rather than looking online.

Compare quotes

The recommended number of quotes is three per every rehab item on your list. Don’t automatically choose the cheapest contractor, though: consider their experience and availability. If you are a house flipper, you will want a contractor that’s able to do the work fast. If you’re investing in a rental property, focus on quality as you’ll want the results of the rehab to last as long as possible without needing to do more repairs.

When comparing your quotes, add 5-10% contingency to the costs quoted, in case the work requires more time or materials than quoted.

Estimate rehab costs based on square footage

Typically, contractors will give you lump sum quotes for the job. However, you can also estimate rehab costs by multiplying the rehab cost per square foot by the size of your property. This method inevitably works better for some rehab projects than others. Generally speaking, it’s a good way of working out the potential costs of new flooring, tiling a bathroom, and any other job that involves a simple multiplication of square footage by the known cost of the material. However, more complex jobs such as plumbing/HVAC upgrades are better estimated from lump sum quotes.

Use previous costs in estimating how much a rehab could cost

If you already have some house-flipping experience under your belt, you have valuable stats you can use for your next project. Namely, you can refer to the rehab costs of your previous investment properties to project your future costs. Of course, this method only works if you’re comparing like-for-like. So, properties that are the same in type, size, and location.

Factors That Affect A Rehab Cost Estimate

Of course, every estimate, however thoroughly made, is still just that, an estimate. There are several major factors that will affect your rehab cost estimate, depending on your goals.

The price of materials vs. quality 

This can seem obvious, but the more expensive the materials that you use, the more the rehab costs will go up. Having said that, going for the cheapest materials isn’t always the best option, especially if you are investing in long-term rental properties.

Labor costs and location

The costs of hiring contractors vary wildly between different areas. Housing hotspots with a lot of housing activity will inevitably have higher contractor costs because contractors will be in shorter supply. Urban areas also tend to have higher contractor costs than rural areas, although this doesn’t apply if the rural area you’re investing in is known for luxury housing.

Time frame

Finally, your desired time frame for the completion of the rehab will have an effect on your rehab cost. Some contractors will be able to offer time frames than others, but in general, if you want a job done faster, expect to pay more.

How Much Does It Cost Per Square Foot To Rehab A House?

As we’ve seen, there are many variables when it comes to estimating rehab costs, so working out a per-square-foot cost isn’t a very reliable method when budgeting for your rehab. Where you are located, the contractors available to you, and the specifics of the house you’re looking to rehab will all affect the numbers.

Having said that, as a very general estimate, the cost to rehab a house per square foot ranges between $20 and $80 per square foot. If you’re aiming for a mainly cosmetic rehab (repainting walls), then budget for the lower end of this scale. If you are planning a full-gut rehab involving major exterior repairs and/or structural changes to the property, expect to pay at the upper end of this scale, and likely more. 

Where to Get Help to Estimate Rehab Costs

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can do this in a few different ways:

  • Visit the BiggerPockets Forums and ask people what they are paying. This incredibly useful tool gives you an inside look at what other investors are spending. Have any rehab questions? Our members can answer.
  • Ask a local contractor for help. Although you may need to pay them for their time, the cost of an hour or two of in-house consulting would be a valuable investment. Many wholesalers actually include a detailed, line-by-line bid from a licensed contractor when they present to a cash buyer. I highly recommend doing that, even if you’re rehabbing for a flip or rental. The contractor will likely offer the bid for free because you (or the cash buyer) are likely to use them for the job.
  • Ask a local real estate investor to come with you. Estimating rehab costs quickly is an important skill to have, so consider working on your first deal or two with someone who has been around the block and can share their knowledge.

Whether this is your first rehab project or your one hundredth, following this strategy ensures you understand the scope of work and necessary budget – before swinging a single sledgehammer. Are you ready for your next renovation or investment deal? Get out there and start searching.

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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.