Comparing one quote to another often comes down to comparing one company to another. Yes, the numbers in the quote matter, so we certainly need to start there. But then, once you have more than one quote for the exact same scope of work, you will need to look at the companies to see what value you are getting for the money.
Part 1: The Quote Itself
When getting bids from more than one company, be sure to tell them each the same things as far as what you are wanting: what size, what shape, how many levels, what features & options. If you don't tell ALL the contractors bidding the same information, they will be bidding on different things and there's no way you will be able to compare apples to apples. If you told one guy you wanted a pergola over half the deck but you didn't tell the others, then don't be surprised if that contractor's bid is higher than the others. And please don't try to piece things together and ask any of them to itemize each and every little thing so you can "deduct the pergola from the one so you can compare apples to apples". Things don't really work that simply. Sometimes adding or subtracting something from a larger project has an effect on other parts of the project and you can cause the guy you've asked to itemize or deduct things to end up cutting himself short on the project.
Keep everything simple by telling every contractor every aspect of your dream deck, get the quotes back from them all, then tell them ALL what adjustments you'd like to see to the design, get the revised quotes back from all of them, and so on. At each stage of that things will reveal themselves to you that will help you tremendously in picking a contractor!
Since we do Turn-Key projects, our quotes are essentially one number - the total. For anyone who doesn't already know, Turn-Key means that WE handle every aspect of the project. It means we calculate everything needed and order it, manage it, manage the workers, get the job done and turn over a completed project to you. If you try to help the contractor with part of the project, it will likely cost you more. If you want to be the one to buy the lumber thinking it will save you money, it will not. If a contractor lets you get the material, he either doesn't understand just how much more work this is going to cause him or he's gouging you so bad that he doesn't care. We talk more about this in another article. But the bottom line here is that if we are giving you a Turn-Key quote and another guy is giving you a labor-only quote, you will not be able to compare apples to apples. And do not come to us asking us to break down our quote for you into materials and labor because we will not do it.*
We figure our quotes on a "rate per sf". And that rate is determined by the current lumber costs, current labor costs, and several other factors that are involved in being able to get a deck built for you. To ask us at any random moment to ferret out what amount of your quote is labor or what amount is materials is just not fair and not as easy as you think - since, again, those two items are not the only things that make up a quote when a professional is providing the quote. If, like some folks, you are worried all contractors are crooks and so you want to figure out if they are adding more on to the material costs, then if a guy quickly tells you or shows you then, yes, you might have "caught him". But what are you catching? He could work the numbers in tons of ways. We, on the other hand, are running a real company and, as I said, base our quotes on complex rates - which, btw, don't have a line item for "Add some on to the lumber costs" because we aren't cavemen.
*The reason we will not do it (break down our quote) is NOT because we have something to hide. We don't. But it's because we have worked like that before (letting the client get the lumber) and proven that it is actually an extra burden on BOTH parties that makes it hard to work well together. Professional contractors do Turn-Key work. Contractors that aren't professional and can get you involved in some drama - legal or otherwise - will give you a labor-only quote. So, moving on and assuming you are getting bids from companies that are at least that professional.......
To sum up this first part of how you compare apples to apples: If you have given each contractor the exact same scope of the project, they are all using the same materials, then the only thing that matters is their total. Again, don't try to do their work for them and tell them how the quote should be broken up. Just give each the same info and compare totals. If you notice one hasn't included something that you requested - either because he doesn't know how to do it or where to get it, give him a chance to amend his quote and come up to speed with the rest or don't use him. But please don't ask the other contractors to dumb themselves down and belittle their efforts by asking them to hack their quote up to flatten the curve for the one that can't produce. Take it as a sign: If he can't quote you on what you wanted for your deck, then he just proved he can't be your contractor.
Furthermore, if you know how much of each guys quote is his labor and how much is materials, what does that do for you? Nothing. That's not even how you would ensure someone isn't using substandard materials. When I got quotes for a new HVAC unit, I didn't ask them each how much they were paying for the unit itself. It didn't matter since I wasn't going to buy it myself. All that mattered was that they were each going to use a quality unit, their total, and then the characteristics of their company.
Part 2: Comparing The Companies Themselves.
Once you have some bids you can then start to think about why they are different. If everyone is building the same thing and using the same materials, then what could possibly make their quotes different?
Tons of things. And all are things that are worth your attention. As we've learned, you get what you pay for. Or as Benjamin Franklin said, "The bitterness of Low Quality remains long after the sweetness of Low Price is forgotten." Let's just do a bulleted list to make it quicker:
The bottom line is this: Instead of wondering how much money a good contractor might make on you, just focus on making sure you're getting a company that is worth making a little money on you - one that actually cares enough about you to make sure you get the absolute best value for whatever money you're spending.
So you may be able to get several quotes based on the exact same scope of the work as mentioned in the first part of this article. But then the second part of this article shows that it's actually impossible to compare apples to apples - because the character of the contractors and their respect for you will vary so much. How much is it worth to you for a contractor to spend vast amounts of time making sure you have all the information you could ever want when seeking to build a deck? And making sure that information is at your fingertips 24/7? If you find another local deck builder that has taken the kind of time FOR YOU that you see spent here on this website (not to mention the emails you get from me) then please let me know. I'd love to meet him/her!