The Over and Under of Contractor Billings


Large overbillings or underbillings could be an indication of problems that could jeopardize the stability of a construction contractor's bond program. The most accurate method of revenue recognition for most contractors to report earnings is the Percentage of Completion (POC Accounting) method of accounting, typically with the completion percentage determined by the costs incurred to date as a percentage of total estimated costs on the contract (cost-to-cost). This method ties together what the contractor actually earned, with what they actually billed, reflecting differences as either an asset or a liability on the balance sheet.

For example, if a contractor is 50% complete with the costs on a contract, but they have billed only 40% of the total contract price, the result would be an underbilling (a current asset on the balance sheet) in the amount of 10% of the contract price.  If instead of 40% having been billed, it was 60%, the result would be an overbilling (a current liability on the balance sheet) in the amount of 10% of the contract price.  Accordingly, the amount billed to date on a contract does not affect the amount of revenue recognized.  Revenue is determined based on the contract price and the percentage of completion.  Almost never does the amount billed match the revenue amount, and such differences are reflected in underbillings and overbillings on the balance sheet.

Effects On The Balance Sheet

Billing Concerns In The Eyes of An Underwriter:

  1. Large underbillings. This may be a sign of slow billing practices, unapproved change orders being included in the contract price, and/or profit fades on the contract that has not yet been recognized in the estimated costs to complete.
  2. Large overbillings. An underwriter will look to see that any large overbilling amounts are offset on the asset side of the balance sheet by a like or greater amount of cash and receivables. A strong positive working capital position (Current Assets minus Current Liabilities) is important as well.  A job that is billed heavily in the early stages (front-end loaded) or on which advance payments are made by the owner can show significant overbillings.

Job Borrow:

Most contractors try to overbill at least a little when possible. Sometimes a job is overbilled to the extent that the estimated costs to complete the job exceed the remaining unpaid contract balances.  This excess amount is known as “job borrow”. It is important for the contractor to realize that the cash flow for the remainder of the job will be negative, by the amount of the job borrow, and he/she must plan accordingly so that funds are available to cover remaining job expenses.

At Old Republic Surety Company, we can coach contractors and their trusted CPA advisers to understand what ramifications their billing practices could have on the analysis of their financial statements. We also consult on ways a contractor can improve their balance sheet which will enable them to be more competitive and grow their bonding program and their business. Contact your independent insurance agent for more information about bond programs with Old Republic Surety Company.

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Mike Sanders, AFSB

Since 1999, Mike Sanders, bond manager, has overseen the underwriting and operations of the Milwaukee Contract Branch office. From 1992 until 1999, Mike held responsibilities in another of our large branch offices, working with both contract surety and commercial bond business. Mike launched his surety career with Aetna Casualty and Surety Company, where he handled the marketing and underwriting of all lines of bond business. Mike holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Drake University and has an Associate in Fidelity and Surety Bonding (AFSB) designation.