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Books by David Gerstel

Journal of Light Construction Review of NAIL YOUR NUMBERS


The typical progression of a building contractor is this: You work

as a carpenter, start doing work on your own, hire a helper, hire an

experienced carpenter, start doing more complicated work, and, before

you know it, you’re doing a half million in volume and realize

you don’t actually know if you’re making any money or not. At that

point, you start looking for resources that can help you move from

busy to profitable.

For more than a generation, one of the first books people turned

to was David Gerstel’s classic, Running a Successful Construction Company.

It helped countless contractors navigate the perilous path, and

we were lucky that Gerstel was not only so well organized but such a

good writer.

Now, Gerstel has come out with a book that, I think, will prove even

more essential. In Nail Your Numbers: A Path to Skilled Construction Estimating

and Bidding, Gerstel has put together a book that is as well-organized

and comprehensive as his estimating system. Getting through its almost

400 pages is a serious undertaking, but contractors at any phase

of their careers can profit from the book.

The book is divided in five parts comprising 19 chapters. Chapter 1

is titled, appropriately, “The Heart of Our Business” and is a full-throated

defense of why estimating is where a company is made or broken.

Gerstel has been a careful student of the subject and is generous in

acknowledging all the other contractors and writers whose work

has helped him along the way.

After this, he dives into the nitty gritty. Each chapter is a deep

dive into a subject, starting with such easy-to-overlook issues as

where are you actually working? Is it comfortable? Quiet? He also

takes the time to make sure the reader understands what a complete

set of plans includes, points out some common mistakes, danger

signs, or complications in plans, and even goes over some basic math

estimators need. In fact, he spends the first three chapters solely on

making sure the reader is ready to dive into an estimate.

Part 2 is really the heart of the book—creating your estimating

system. Over the course of five chapters and almost 100 pages, Gerstel

goes through, literally, the nuts and bolts of creating an efficient

but comprehensive estimating system—“if you have 100' of foundation

and are spacing bolts every two feet, you will need 50 AB’s

(100÷2=50), plus one more for the end of the run.”

In addition to valuable discussions on things like how to do a

comprehensive site visit, how to develop waste factors, and how

to create clear and well-organized take-off forms, there are innumerable

sidebars in which Gerstel illustrates his points with stories

drawn from his own or others’ careers. Topics range from how to say

no to a job and knowing the level of risk you are comfortable with

to various pitfalls he and others have encountered along the way.

As someone who is in mid-career, I found his chapter on General

Requirements particularly valuable. He argues convincingly that

this phase—comprising all the things that are part of, but don’t

become a permanent part of, a job—is where many contractors

lose untold thousands. Gerstel himself says he found that “General

Requirements consistently amounted to close to 10% of direct construction


What is included in this mysterious category? The book includes

a selected list with more than 100 items —everything from preconstruction

costs like permitting and plan check, to construction

costs like cleaning, getting materials, scaffolding, and snow removal,

through post construction service calls and project management

during the job. His compelling argument for why all these costs

belong together convinced me to adjust my own bid spreadsheet

and move where I entered certain costs. At a minimum, these adjustments

will allow me to track all these somewhat amorphous

costs as a percentage of job total with more accuracy in the future.

The rest of Part 2 consists of deep dives into various facets of

a successful estimate—specific phases like interior and exterior

finishes, how to get good estimates from subcontractors, how to

write scopes that accurately reflect the work proposed (and, just as

importantly, what is not included), and more. The sections can be

dauntingly detailed—this is a book that will require focus and return

trips to benefit from it. But anyone wanting to benefit from the

accumulated knowledge of a successful and systematic contractor

will be well advised to put in the time.

While many people have put together good estimating systems,

where Gerstel stands out is in the subject of Part 3—“Capture Your

Costs.” His focus is, rightly, on the area most of us struggle the hardest

with—our internal labor productivity rates. He takes us through

his steps for setting up, tracking, and using a well-organized, clear

set of assemblies based on carefully collected historical data. He also

gives examples of adjusting data to account for different conditions

(access, first vs. upper floors, fussy details, difficult client, and so

forth). His recommendations are a challenge to implement, but

will yield a treasure trove of essential info for the remainder of any

building contractor’s career.

Several times in the book, Gerstel makes the important point

that estimating is an administrative function, while pricing the job

is a management function. It is the job of the estimator to figure,

as accurately as possible, what it will cost to produce the job. What

to actually charge the client, however, is a different question and

should be considered separately. This is largely the subject of Part 4,

“Take Command.” This section of the book helps you consider questions

like how to recoup overhead and make a profit, then moves on

to other nettlesome issues like change orders, contract writing, and

charging for estimates.

He also returns to a related subject he discussed in Running a

Successful Construction Company—Capacity Based Markup. He argues

that, since total volume may fluctuate significantly from year to

year based on how much material we use or how many subs we

hire, we should base our markup (and thus our coverage of overhead

and profit) on the constants—either the number of project leads we

have or the total number of billable hours we expect our crew to

produce annually. I have long found this argument compelling, and

find that the approach helps provide a more accurate sense of risk

and reward on both labor-light and -heavy jobs. His treatment of the

subject is, not surprisingly, thorough and well-reasoned.

The final section is a brief discussion of the pros and cons of various

software solutions. Not surprisingly for someone who clearly

excels (foreshadowing alert!) at creating his own systems, Gerstel

comes down firmly on the side of creating custom spreadsheets that

meet your needs, rather than signing up for integrated packages.

Fortunately for us business-challenged contractors, there are

an increasing number of valuable books to help with what is, ultimately,

a challenging way to make a living. Nail Your Numbers is,

I’m confident, destined to be a central work for contractors and is

one of a small number of those books that I would say are essential.

            Review written by Dan Kolbert, a General Contractor In Maine

Nail Your Numbers can be ordered from any bookstore. Please go to Amazon to take a "look inside."

Nail Your Numbers can be ordered from any bookstore. Please go to Amazon to take a "look inside."

A Bestseller for over a Quarter Century!

Running a Successful Construction Company is often referred to as an industry "bible." Nearly four dozen reviews can be found on Amazon along with a “look inside” that will allow you to sample the book before buying it.  

All of the reviews are genuine. You can take them at face value because David Gerstel does not solicit reviews with gimmicks such as give aways or raffles or by asking for endorsements from friends - all practices which are, unfortunately, common in the book industry and the reason many mediocre books are supported by a hundred or more four- and five-star reviews. 

If you think Running A Successful Construction Company might be helpful to you, as it has been to thousands of other builders, click here to go to Amazon and take a look for yourself. 

Click on the image to take a "look inside" at Amazon.

Click on the image to take a "look inside" at Amazon.

Green Simple Thinking, Value Engineering, and a Good Story

Crafting the Considerate House is a narrative about building a house that is affordable and environmentally considerate while also being livable and even lovable.  

Considerate House offers practical ideas for every phase of design and construction. Examples: 

  • A foundation design which reduced excavation by 90%, off hauling of soil to zero, and consumption of concrete and steel by 50% even while increasing durability. 
  • “Frugal framing” that reduced use of lumber and labor for framing by a third. 
  • A heating system coupled with cost-conscious insulating and air sealing that resulted in annual heating bills in the range of $60 to $80 (yes, that is per year, not per month). 

Since its publication, Considerate House has received an enthusiastic response from both homeowners and builders. Here’s a sampling: 

I really loved The Considerate House. The truth about "green building" in David Gerstel's book is so real and refreshing that everyone who wants to be a green builder or designer should read it. 

   Frank Squaglia, Builder

I bought this book to educate myself as I embarked on a feasibility study for a remodel of my home. It has been an invaluable guide. From page one, I was led by an experienced builder with an engaging voice. Yes, the book is a very good read, making it fun to hear about "grade beams" and "void forms," and to learn why "Finish work begins at the foundation." Today I appreciate the myriad considerations involved in building a home and have gained a better understanding of the structure in which I live. If you already own a home or are having one built, if you're embarking on remodeling or renovation, pick up and study this clear, concise, and information packed book. You will benefit from the years of hands-on experience of a man with an admirable building philosophy.  

   Jude, Homeowner reviewing Crafting the Considerate House on Amazon

I would much rather build projects that are necessary rather than extravagant, and I find David Gerstel's insight and ethics inspirational. 

   Michael McVey, Builder

A preview of what it's like on the front lines of building your dream green home, an in-the-flesh tour from foundation to finish with a kind guide at your side through the process of designing, building and working out the inevitable kinks that come up while building the "near-perfect house" at a perfect price.   

   Fine Homebuilding

For less than $20 Crafting the Considerate House will provide you with ideas that can save you tens of thousands of dollars even while enhancing quality in the construction of a home. To take a "look inside" at Amazon, click here.

Click on the image to take a "look Inside" at Amazon.

Click on the image to take a "look Inside" at Amazon.