The Best Body Shops’ Tips: Effective Estimating Can Help with Scheduling, Reducing Supplements, and Improving Bottom Line

The Best Body Shops’ Tips: Effective Estimating Can Help with Scheduling, Reducing Supplements, and Improving Bottom Line

Estimating is often said to be one of the most important components of running a successful body shop.

According to John Shoemaker, business development manager for BASF Automotive Refinish Coatings, effective estimating can help with scheduling vehicles, reducing supplements and improving a business’ overall bottom line.

“I teach shops the importance of documenting the repair process so everyone understands it,” said Shoemaker, who regularly meets with shops to help them grow and maximize their opportunities. “It’s a communications device. You’re communicating not only to the customer, but to the insurance company, parts suppliers, technicians and various other people throughout the repair process.”

Shoemaker said that proper documentation ensures all parties are on the same page and allows employees to perform at an optimal level.

“The goal is to capture as much up front as possible before the repair process begins,” said Shoemaker. “By being thorough, it will help prevent complications later on.”

It all starts with a proper vehicle inspection with the customer. Shoemaker advises shops to develop a mutual understanding of the vehicle condition, the areas being repaired and the pre-existing damage.

“You want to make sure that you’re writing an estimate based on what the customer’s perception is, because that’s going to follow through when you return that vehicle after the repair,” he said. “Overall, be thorough, itemize all repairs, be descriptive, make line notes, take photos and label them.”

Shoemaker’s tips on how to be effective during the estimating process:

Visual Assessment: Check for panel misalignment or deformity; loose joint and seam sealers; and chipped paint.

Verify the Vehicle Information: This includes the make, model, trim level decoding, mileage, production date, exterior color, interior trim color and other options.

Take Preliminary Photos: In addition to the four corners and the license plate, Shoemaker said to photograph the instrument cluster, VIN plate and production date. The Collision Industry Conference Insurer-Insurance Relations Committee offers a set of best practice guidelines for digital imaging at

Review the Repair Process: When becoming familiar with the damaged areas, be sure to check the P-pages, the H-Notes and review the Society of Collision Repair Experts (SCRS) Guide to Complete Repair Planning listed on the SCRS homepage.

Pre-Scan Diagnostics: A pre-scan of the vehicle is required by most vehicle manufacturers and allows the technician to find fault codes and verify the need for system recalibration.

Initial Damage Verification: While reviewing the damage on the vehicle, Shoemaker recommended starting at the end with the most damage, then working panel by panel to the opposite end of the vehicle.

Initial Structure Measurement: You must document the need for torque box and select point measurements. This will communicate the need for additional alignments based on damage and severity.

Evaluate Structural Damage: Shoemaker said to pay particular attention to crush zones when visually inspecting the vehicle. When reviewing the structure composition, he recommended checking OE, AllData and I-CAR to determine the steel type and reparability. Then, shops should itemize and document the repair by using line notes to describe individual structural repairs.

Identify Associated Damage: Determine the damage to the adjacent panels, which can include damage to flanges and inner panels. This damage is often repaired without compensation because of the lack of documentation.

Document Access Labor: Documenting the additional labor to access damage can be added as a line item on the estimate. Shoemaker said to show the labor within an area being repaired and create a line note explaining the addition.

Inspect Lighting and Wiring: After inspecting all light bulbs and harnesses, document the wiring repair, including the number of wires broken.

Identify Mechanical Repairs: Identifying mechanical components separately is important when defining the repairs required.

Interior Repairs: Document the damage from secondary impact and those related to restraint system activation.

Identify Paint Type and Refinish Processes: After locating the body plate, Shoemaker said to determine the color formulation using a website such as This helps shops verify and document the refinish process.

Identify and Document R&I Process: Determine R&Is for repair access such as headlamps, mounting brackets and windows, as well as R&Is for paint access, including door handles, weather strips and fender liners. Then itemize the R&Is and use line notes for details.

Identify Stripe Requirements: Shoemaker said to first find out if the stripe is OEM or aftermarket, then document it on the estimate to ensure proper billing.

Fluid and Tire Requirements: Any fluids removed from the vehicle should be measured for proper billing, and reusable fluids can be stored in a sealed container. Note the tire manufacturer, size and tread depth in the line note.

Take Final Photos: The estimate can be used as a checklist. Use photos to clarify repairs, taking them in order of the estimate and then labeling them for clarification.

Validate Estimate: Make sure to validate all “Incl” labor. When in doubt, Shoemaker said to consult DEG. Then add miscellaneous charges, such as a car cover and hazardous waste.

“Determining the vehicle value is the last step in estimating and is important to prevent starting repairs on a vehicle that might be close to being non-economical to repair,” said Shoemaker. He recommended researching the NADA website and indicating the exact make, model and trim of the car, as well as the current mileage.

After determining the value, shops can then decide on the reparability of the vehicle. Shoemaker said that estimating systems often don’t accurately calculate the value of the vehicle. In many states, the total loss threshold is between 70--75 percent of the value on newer cars, and he has found that estimates can be 8--10 percent off.

He recommended that shops manually calculate the value before beginning the repair to help determine if the vehicle is a total loss. He used the example of a vehicle that was calculated using an estimating system that generated a threshold of 50 percent.

“We used NADA figures and came up with 58 percent,” said Shoemaker. “If this vehicle was in a state where the total loss threshold was 70 percent, you’re a lot closer [to that] than you should be if you’ve already started the repairs.”

On average, Shoemaker said a writer will create eight to 10 estimates per day. He said that by adding just a one-tenth increase in body labor per estimate, a shop can increase its sales by $3,660.80 per year based on writing eight estimates a day. A one-tenth increase in paint labor with an average of eight estimates per day will increase sales by $6,156.80 per year.

“We have to keep in mind that we are not finding ‘new’ labor,” explained Shoemaker. “In most cases, technicians are already performing these tasks, but since the tasks are not identified, neither the technician nor the shop is being paid.”

Shoemaker said that nothing happens without an estimate.

“Being thorough and effective at the beginning allows you to be proactive throughout the repair process,” he said. “Identifying as much as possible up front helps you schedule properly, reduce secondary parts orders and properly determine the repair completion date.”

He said shops struggle with all of these things daily.

“Improve your estimate process and you will improve the quality of life in your facility,” said Shoemaker. “Test yourself. Pick a vehicle that is running late in your shop today. Then ask, ‘Why is it running late?’ to find the root cause."

In most cases, he said you’ll find the part or repair process on which you are waiting for approval could have been identified during the estimating process.

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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