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Should You Charge for Website Project Estimates?

Creating project estimates can be difficult. Because no two websites are the same, web designers need to understand a client’s specific needs. That often requires a lot of digging.

It includes asking a lot of probing questions about what the client is hoping to accomplish. From there, it’s time to research competitors and the technologies that will power the website.

And time is the keyword, as the estimation process will take up a lot of it. That may not be a huge deal if you end up booking the project. But if not, it can feel like a massive waste.

That’s why some web designers have transitioned to charging potential clients for project estimates. In some ways, it goes against the grain of the industry norm. But it may also make a lot of sense in certain situations.

Should you start charging for estimates? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of doing so.

Websites Are Increasingly Complex; So Are Estimates

Building a modern website requires a lot of moving parts. And we’re not talking about animation (although that’s a nice touch). No, we’re talking about the various pieces that comprise a website.

Consider content management systems (CMS), static site generators, themes, and plugins. And that’s only scratching the surface. A website may also need to interface with various third-party APIs and cloud services.

Figuring out the logistics of how this all fits together is a challenge. That’s particularly difficult if you haven’t worked with a specific technology before.

Once that’s all squared away, you’ll have to think about the actual design and content portions. Taken together, these are no small tasks.

Harder still is determining an accurate price for these various components. There’s nothing simple about this process.

A spider web.

How Charging for Project Estimates Gives Designers More Freedom

The more project estimates you create over time, the more likely it is that you’ll sour on the practice. You can put in a lot of work, only to have a prospective client say “Thanks, but no thanks.” The feeling of giving away your precious time can be demoralizing.

Charging a fee for this work accomplishes a few things:

1. More Enthusiasm, Less Guilt

Part of the challenge in writing proposals is that they are time-consuming. Thus, you may start to feel a sense of guilt when it takes you away from your paid work. There’s a certain pressure to get back to the other projects on your plate.

Being paid a fee eliminates (or greatly reduces) this pressure. You can now give the task proper attention without worrying so much about the other things you need to get done.

This also affords you the freedom to dig deeper into the project requirements than you otherwise might. Theoretically, you’ll be less likely to miss those little details that can impact the overall cost. That’s better for both you and your client.

2. It Filters Out Less-Desirable Clients

Have you ever felt compelled to provide an estimate for a project you aren’t interested in? That may be the biggest of all time-wasters.

The mere fact that you’re charging for your time will act as a repellant to some clients (more on this in a moment). Particularly those with very low budgets and those who don’t value your expertise.

Meanwhile, clients who don’t mind paying for top-notch service likely won’t blink an eye at your fee.

A smiling woman.

Determining a Fair Price for Estimates

It’s important to find a balance between being fairly compensated and helping potential clients see the value. Price your project estimates too high and the value proposition is a hard sell.

There are many ways to calculate a price. For example, you could go with a standard hourly rate and charge based on the actual time spent researching, meeting, and discussing the project. But the drawback there is uncertainty.

A flat fee might be more desirable, as all parties will be on the same page from the start. The challenge is in determining a price that will cover you in most scenarios.

Here’s a potential solution: Take a look back at some recent proposals and think about the time you put into them. Try to find the median time spent and charge based on that.

Let’s say you charge $50 per hour, and it generally takes you around two hours to create a project estimate. Using this formula, the flat fee would be $100.

If that’s not the best fit for your business, then don’t be afraid to get creative in how you structure things. Just remember that simple is often better.

An antique cash register.

Potential Pitfalls

Depending on your situation, there can be some downsides to charging for website estimates. The biggest might be that you risk missing out on projects.

Some clients will undoubtedly be turned off by paying for an estimate. As we mentioned, this can help you weed out the undesirables. But there could be times when a legitimately interesting project slips through your fingers.

Much also depends on your typical clientele. If you focus on smaller projects, then a significant portion of a client’s budget could be spent on an estimate. While you could apply some or all of your fees towards the actual project, it’s still a risk.

In addition, this practice may not be well-suited for those who are just starting out in web design. When your business is at its most vulnerable, limiting your possibilities too much isn’t advisable. In general, waiting until you have an established presence in the market is a better bet. That’s when you can afford to be a bit choosier.

So, while this may seem like a no-brainer, there are some important considerations. Implementing a policy like this can have unintended consequences.

A "Wrong Way" traffic sign.

Regardless of the Task, Your Time Is Valuable

The promise of “free estimates” is common throughout a lot of industries. And while that can certainly draw in potential clients, it can also be abused. A long, arduous process means time taken away from other important tasks.

For freelancers, this can be draining – both financially and mentally. You might be thrilled that people are interested in hiring you. On the other hand, you’re sacrificing time for paying customers to serve those who haven’t paid you a thing.

Charging a fee for project estimates is one way to recoup some of the value you bring to the table. It means not being bothered by cheapskates or those who aren’t serious about their project. And it compensates you for the time you’ve put in.

Only you can determine whether or not it’s the right fit for your business. But it’s worth consideration.