Construction Estimators: What Do They Do & Key Skills

Estimating tools, such as contractor software, are handy. However, they are only one tool in the entire kit. Estimators still need basic skills to be successful. Obviously, skills will be honed over time, but there are some skills that a person needs to bring to the table to start with. 

What we cover:

What is a construction estimator?

Cost estimators in construction collect and analyze data in order to determine the time, money, materials, and labor required to manufacture a product, construct a building, or provide a service. They generally specialize in a particular product or industry. Additionally, most cost estimators need a bachelor’s degree, although some workers with several years of experience in construction may qualify without a bachelor’s degree.

How are cost estimators hired?

Construction cost estimators may be contractually hired in several different ways: they may be employed by the owner’s representative/project manager, employed by the construction manager, employed as a member of a professional design team, or separately hired by the owner.

What does a construction estimator do?

Their responsibilities include estimating building costs through all the stages of design and construction. On large projects, estimators typically specialize in disciplines that parallel design discipline specialization. Furthermore, it is essential to have the cost estimator involved at the onset of every project to ensure that the project budget reflects the decisions made by the rest of the project team throughout the integrated design process.

When it comes to project costs, there is nothing like “one size fits all.” Every project is unique regarding size, materials, cost, functions, and project deadlines. This, therefore, makes an estimator’s role crucial in any project. 

The estimator’s role includes but is not limited to the following:

  • The estimator prepares cost estimates of probable project costs on materials, equipment, and labor. Estimators base the calculations on quotations, schematic drawings, contract bids, and specifications.
  • As earlier mentioned, construction estimators need good communication skills to set up cost monitoring systems and reporting procedures.
  • Estimators also advise on tendering procedures. They assess tenders, conduct negotiations, and recommend awards.
  • They also need to make a directory of contractors, subcontractors, and chiefly suppliers.
  • They also work hand in hand with project owners, engineers, contractors, and architects when conducting feasibility studies on adjusting cost estimates.
  • During the project’s lifecycle, they prepare expenditure statements regularly to assess whether the project is on course.

Cost estimator benefits

Whether you’re a subcontractor, a general contractor, owner, or professional design team member, the services of a commercial cost estimator can be a game-changer for anyone managing a commercial or industrial construction project. Due to the financial impact of cost overruns and failing to complete a project, both builders and clients are prone to worry about the outcome of the construction project at hand.

Therefore, it’s always wise in business to invest time and careful research to estimate the costs of a commercial construction project before moving ahead with any project. More specifically, clients who are considering large projects will often seek several cost estimates, including those prepared by contractors – as well as those calculated by independent cost estimators.

Types of estimators

There are different types of cost estimators depending on a project’s size. Estimators may hold different positions throughout various construction projects. 

Primarily, we classify cost estimators according to their employers. The different types of cost estimators are as discussed below:

1. The client's cost estimator

The client’s cost estimator makes investment decisions at the conceptual stage of a project. They negotiate and finalize a contract then implement cost control measures.

2. The contractor's cost estimator

The contractor’s cost estimator has a detailed task of determining approximate project costs needed for bidding. They also have a database of company data that shows records of the company’s equipment and labor. This cost estimator also knows the best construction methods for the company. The contractor’s cost estimator also must know the material suppliers needed in a project and the likely discount prices.

3. The engineer's cost estimator

The engineer’s cost estimator, in most cases, works as the client’s cost estimator. His purpose is to determine approximate costs and present them to the client. The engineer’s cost estimator also evaluates alternative construction methods that will be budget-friendly for the project.

How the role of estimators is changing

The role of an estimator has evolved. New skills for analyzing data with the latest technologies will make estimating more predictable, more sustainable, and more accurate. The data generated in the estimating process is the beginning and should feed the entire project life cycle. 

According to Juan Sanchez, Preconstruction Team at DPR, this means an explosion of new 3D workflows and environments. "Estimators are now expected to also live outside of the numbers and within the design. With general contractors incorporating more design management into our workflows, estimators are now empowered to leverage design tools to perform job tasks."

This means more team-wide collaboration at the start of a project. "Estimators are now incorporating BIM design managers into the workflow to leverage design model data in a way that can be used for quantification at a fraction of the time of traditional 2D takeoff. Furthermore, the ability to visualize the project in a 3D environment allows estimators to gain a better understanding of the scope and ability to relay this information to trade partners and team members," Juan adds.

At the helm of these advancements is new software transforming traditional workflows. Juan continues, "Additionally, new estimating software is available that allows estimators to produce conceptual estimates using historical data and basic project parameters for use from establishing target costs through buyout. These tools have been great contributions in enabling estimators to explain costs, options, sequencing, and general understanding of the project. It is a great time to be an estimator!"

Key skills for construction cost estimators

With the estimating process evolving in construction, these are the core skills estimators will need to have to stay successful today and tomorrow.


Math is a fundamental skill today’s estimators need. Estimating, by nature, requires a lot of work with numbers. If working with numbers and doing complex calculations are anathema to someone, professional estimating probably isn’t a good career prospect for them. 


All those numbers and calculations must be kept in order, which means having stellar organizational skills. The numbers can fly fast and furiously and change in the blink of an eye, so keeping track of them all is a necessary skill for an estimator. 

Data analysis 

You have to know what you’re looking at. All those numbers and data that you’ll be looking at will need to be evaluated and interpreted within the context of making a competitive and accurate bid. Cost estimating software can help estimators be more proficient, achieving the required balance of speed and accuracy. 

Critical thinking 

Knowing strengths and weaknesses throughout the estimating process can mean the difference between winning a lucrative contract and losing it to a competitor. Experience and access to time-saving and error-reducing tools will greatly improve one's ability to identify ways to build things at the minimum cost. 

Detail oriented 

Attention to detail is essential to ensure cost estimators achieve accurate results. They need to identify cost drivers quickly and ensure that when one cost changes, they know how it will affect other costs related to the project. 

According to Juan, "Estimators need to have the ability to validate the constructability of project scope and provide supplementary input to ensure project costs capture design intent and client needs. When estimators are able to clearly identify what is not shown within design documents, but absolutely necessary for construction, that estimator not only increases their value to the project team, but also establishes a level of trust with the client by providing them reliable cost data, enabling clients to make crucial decisions early in the project life cycle. This not only helps the contractor maintain milestone deliverables, but is a crucial factor in developing predictable results."

Effective communication 

Giving an engaging presentation will help estimators support and defend their reasoning, if necessary, and convey alternative and more cost-effective options. 

Juan adds, "A vast majority of our process involves presenting our analysis in front of clients. Estimators also need to continuously develop our communication skillset to not only effectively relay cost impacts, but also to explain solutions that show our understanding of the design and program intent."

Technical skills 

Having the requisite knowledge about the construction industry will help estimators improve their accuracy. This knowledge includes processes, materials, and how the various construction-related industries are changing. Moderately advanced computer skills will also enable them to develop more elaborate equations and manipulate the data for better estimates. 

Time management 

Deadlines are a part of almost every job and paramount to the fast-paced world of estimating. Estimators need to be able to plan their time wisely. The right construction estimating software can help with time management. 

Writing skills 

Written communication to present complex details clearly and succinctly is another essential part of estimators’ jobs, and having this basic skill will help a lot. 

Frequently asked questions

What is the salary of a construction cost estimator?

According to ZipRecruiter, as of June 2024, the average salary of a cost estimator in the US is $80,002 per year. The pay ranges from as low as $35,500 for entry-level to as high as $135,000 for experienced cost estimators. This range is based on the level of skill, education, location, and years of experience.

Do you need a degree to be a cost estimator?

To be a construction cost estimator, you will typically need a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering, Quantity Survey, Construction Management, or any other related building science. Some employers may, however, want someone with a background in finance, economics, or business

How long does it take to be an estimator?

It takes an average of a combined eight years of education and experience to become a licensed cost estimator.

Get on the leading edge of estimation 

Anyone looking to become an estimator should have some combination of these essential skills. While they will all be developed over time, using the right construction estimate software will significantly help. 

Estimators' jobs are evolving. If you want to be on the leading edge of estimation, it’s time you level up your game. Check out our guide: 4 Habits of Highly-Effective Estimators.

Jeff Gerardi

Jeff Gerardi is the general manager of preconstruction technology at Autodesk. In his role at Autodesk, Jeff oversees the vision and strategy of Autodesk’s preconstruction portfolio of products. He is involved in the development, marketing and driving the success of these products. Prior to Autodesk, Jeff founded ProEst Estimating which was acquired by Autodesk in late 2021. Under Jeff’s leadership, ProEst grew into a thriving, cutting edge SAAS technology firm that served thousands of contractors across the globe. Born into a family of business owners, Jeff has long had an entrepreneurial spirit which helped this company’s growth and success. Jeff is based in San Diego with his wife and three children. They are all avid athletes always looking for life’s next adventure.