Although it seems to be common sense, the first step to successful and accurate bidding is planning ahead. Without planning, you're likely to miss the mark on your next estimate by more than you think.

Before you estimate any job, you must understand the scope of work. This means thoroughly reviewing the contract and specifications. But understanding the customer's expectations is the key to successful estimates every time. How do you start the bidding process off on the right foot? First, sit down with your customer for a few minutes and find out what is expected from you. Clearly articulating this basic information upfront is important, because a job that starts with problems ends with problems. What are the basic elements you need for preparing solid estimates? Follow these guidelines for more successful bids.

Working drawings. Before you offer a bid, make sure you have a complete, unmarked and current set of blueprints and specifications. Make sure you include every page of the blueprints - including the architectural elevations, mechanical plans and structural plans. After you receive the blueprints, your first objective should be to make sure they are readable and clear. Quickly scan them to learn the project's requirements. When supplying a bid, be sure your proposal includes the dates of the plans, revision numbers and blueprint page numbers. This will help you avoid future problems or confusion.

Specifications. Specifications help the customer clarify the intent of the blueprints and tell you what's expected. A typical table of contents would include:

Job folder and estimate record work sheet. Before starting your estimate, you need to do some paperwork. First, create a job folder to house your bid notes, job information sheet, take-off work sheets, bill of material work sheets, quote sheets, summary sheet and other paperwork. You should also create an estimate record work sheet, which should contain pertinent information about the job, such as name and address, as well as important telephone numbers for the owner, general contractor, architect and engineer. You should also record information about the telephone and electric utility companies, such as contact names, addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

Once you have completed the estimate record work sheet, hang it on the wall over your take-off desk for handy reference. This information will be useful during the estimating phase and when you're creating a bid proposal.

Plan and specification review. Before you begin the estimate, take some time to carefully read the specifications and all notes on the blueprints. Take a close look at the blueprint legends, the details, notations and symbols. Watch for the electrical requirements for control wiring, communication systems, grounding systems, underground wiring, area lighting, signs and outdoor equipment.

Become familiar with the installation and check for any special or unusual features, such as unusual ceiling heights. Look to see if the design provides proper working space for the electrical equipment, and note the location of incoming power and communication utilities. Here are a few examples of what can happen if you don't take this phase seriously:

Case Study No. 1 - A friend of mine, who was just getting started in business, didn't take time to carefully read notes on a blueprint. One note he missed was the requirement to "replace 180 feet of No. 4/0 service conductors with 500kcmil." The result? He underbid a $28,000 job by $2,100 and got it!

Case Study No. 2 - The blueprints indicated the electrical contractor needed to install three of the owner's fixtures. The contractor estimated three hours installation time for each fixture without knowing the fixtures' weight. The result? The fixtures weighed more than 500 pounds each. The installation required three men and took three days to install. This example shows how unusual or unexpected items can affect the estimate. To avoid a situation like this one, determine who is to be responsible for completing tasks such as painting exposed conduit, trenching, backfill, concrete work, patching, cleanup and temporary power. Will you need to use special equipment or require employees to work overtime?

Case Study No. 3 - I know an electrical contractor who misinterpreted the specifications about gross receipt taxes for a job on an Indian reservation in Arizona. He did not figure the 3.5% tax on a $12,000,000 job (i.e. $420,000). The result? He got the job.

Case Study No. 4 - On another project, the specifications required a contractor to provide a video projector. He was too busy at the time of the estimate to check out pricing and just figured $5,000 should cover the cost. The result? The projector actually cost $18,000.

Hitting the mark on your next bid. To help you hit the mark on your next big bid, it's good practice to keep a note pad handy. Then, when you run across an item in the blueprints or specifications that confuses you, make a note. If you don't make a note at the time of the question, you might forget it and your bid might not reflect the cost of this item. Or worse yet, you might put the estimate aside and make a proposal at the last moment without confidence.

Over the past few years, quality blueprints and specifications have deteriorated because owners of many projects aren't willing to invest in proper design. Inadequate plans and specifications often result in confusion and conflicts between you and other trades. These conflicts increase bidding time, leading to rework. What can you do to avoid this problem? Keep track of bid and specification inconsistencies and qualify these issues in your bid proposal.