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Work in Progress (WIP) Accounting: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

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Last Updated Feb 22, 2024

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Work in progress (WIP) accounting is a method of accounting tailored specifically to construction that tracks costs and revenues throughout the lifecycle of construction projects. Rather than waiting for project completion, WIP accounting involves recording the direct labor, materials, subcontracting costs and allocated overhead associated with construction work as it is performed.

The WIP (work in progress) report — often referred to as the WIP schedule — serves as a fundamental financial document that offers an overview of the costs incurred and the revenues earned for a project during a specific period, providing a detailed snapshot of ongoing work against the budget.

The WIP schedule acts as a thread that weaves together two critical components in construction: financial data and project milestones. In this article, we delve into the intricacies of WIP reports, exploring their components, utilization, and the crucial role of WIP accounting in construction project management.

Table of contents

Understanding the Components of a Work in Progress (WIP) Report

While WIP accounting lays the foundation for financial transparency in construction, WIP reports offer a dynamic, real-time view of a project's financial pulse.

To navigate the complexities of construction accounting effectively, it's essential to understand the various components that make up a WIP report. In this section, we delve into the key elements that make up a WIP report, providing a detailed overview of each component's role and significance. 

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  • Contract Overview: This section includes basic project details, including job name and job number, total contract value including change orders, total estimated costs to complete contract including change orders, and estimated gross profit.
  • Actual job totals: This section provides a snapshot of the project's real-time performance and financial status including:
    • Completion percentage: This percentage indicates the extent to which the project has been completed as of the reporting date. It is often calculated using the percentage of completion method based on actual costs incurred relative to estimated total costs.
    • Actual costs: Represent the cumulative expenses incurred on the project up to the reporting date. These costs encompass direct costs (e.g., materials, labor, subcontractor expenses) and indirect costs (e.g., overhead, equipment, administration).
    • Earned revenue: Reflects the cumulative amount of revenue that the project has earned based on the work completed. This is a key component for revenue recognition.
    • Gross profit: Determined by subtracting the actual costs from the earned revenue. It offers insight into the project's financial performance.
    • Actual billings: Represent the total amount billed to the client for work completed up to the reporting date, including progress billings and retainage.
    • Over- and underbilling: Highlights any variances between actual billings and earned revenue. 

The contract overview section sets the stage by outlining the contract's foundational details, while the actual job totals offer real-time insights into the project's progress and financial health. By gaining a deeper understanding of these components, project managers, accountant staff, and stakeholders can monitor project financial performance, make informed decisions and ensure fiscal accuracy.

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Why is the WIP Report Important?

To navigate the intricacies of construction contracts, revenue recognition, and cost management effectively, the WIP report emerges as a cornerstone in construction management and accounting.

Ensures Financial Accuracy

WIP reports play a crucial role in maintaining financial accuracy within the construction industry. They provide a systematic approach to tracking project-related revenue and costs, ensuring that financial statements accurately reflect the true financial position of each project and the firm as a whole.

Effective Revenue Recognition

One of the primary benefits of WIP reports is their alignment with the percentage of completion method for revenue recognition. By tracking earned revenue based on project progress, companies can recognize revenue as work is completed, offering a more accurate representation of their financial performance.

Cost Management and Control

WIP reports offer insights into actual project costs, enabling effective cost management and control. By monitoring spending and identifying cost overruns early on, construction companies can take corrective actions to keep projects within budget. This is especially important in construction given the unpredictable nature of cost fluctuations in the industry and their potential to trigger ripple effects throughout a project,

Billing Accuracy and Contractual Compliance

Accurate billings are essential in the construction industry. WIP reports help ensure that when invoicing clients, billings align with the work completed, reducing the risk of billing disputes and ensuring compliance with contractual obligations.

Overbilling and Underbilling

Over- and underbilling identify disparities between the actual billings and the earned revenue. 

Overbilling is when a contractor invoices for labor and materials outlined in a contract before the corresponding work has been fully executed. Underbilling, on the other hand, occurs when the invoiced amount to date is lower than the earned revenue. These situations can occur for a variety of reasons including changes in project scope, unexpected delays, or discrepancies between progress and billing. 

Billing accuracy is essential for upholding financial integrity, nurturing client trust, and managing cash flow efficiently. Overbilling has the potential to undermine client trust and trigger disputes, potentially jeopardizing long-term relationships. Conversely, underbilling can impact cash flow and the ability to meet financial commitments. While overbilling can accelerate cash inflows, underbilling can delay receipt of payment. Adhering to accurate billing practices can help to maintain effective cash flow throughout the project lifecycle.

Learn more – Construction Cash Flow Projection: A Deep Dive into Financial Forecasting

Project Monitoring, Issue Identification and Informed Decision-Making

WIP reports serve as a valuable project monitoring tool, providing snapshots of project progress. They help project managers and stakeholders identify potential issues, delays, or bottlenecks that may require attention and facilitate proactive problem-solving.

WIP reports empower project managers and executives to make informed decisions about resource allocation, project prioritization, and strategic planning. Accurate financial data supports better decision-making at both the project and organizational level. By capturing both financial nuances and operational dynamics, WIP reports play a crucial role in steering projects towards successful completion and achieving the company’s larger strategic financial goals.

Risk Management

By regularly assessing and reporting on the financial status of construction projects, WIP reports enable proactive risk management. They help identify potential risks such as cost overruns, schedule delays, or scope changes that could impact a project's profitability. In essence, WIP reports act as early warning systems, allowing construction professionals to anticipate and address risks before they escalate into larger issues. 

Transparency and Accountability

WIP reports enhance transparency by providing clear breakdowns of project finances, including costs, billings, and revenue. This transparency benefits internal stakeholders and external parties such as auditors, banks, insurance companies, and investors. It plays a pivotal role in reinforcing financial accountability within construction firms, ensuring that financial operations are transparent and easily comprehensible to all stakeholders.

The WIP schedule helps construction professionals keep projects on track, make informed decisions, and uphold financial integrity.

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Common Mistakes in WIP Accounting

In the complex realm of construction accounting, the WIP report plays a pivotal role in project financial management, offering insights into project progress and financial health. However, avoiding common mistakes is essential to ensure the accuracy and reliability of these reports.

Incomplete or Inaccurate Data Entry

Failing to consistently and accurately record all project-related costs, billings, and progress can lead to incomplete and inaccurate WIP reports. This can distort financial statements and make it challenging to assess the true financial health of a project. When critical decisions and future actions are based on data that lacks precision and reliability, it can lead to misinformed choices that negatively impact future project outcomes. The importance of meticulous and accurate record-keeping in WIP accounting cannot be overstated, as it forms the foundation upon which sound financial and project decisions are made.

Inconsistent Reporting Periods

Using inconsistent reporting periods, such as irregular intervals for generating WIP reports, can make it difficult to track progress and trends accurately. Consistent and regular reporting intervals are crucial to analyze the project data effectively and derive actionable insights. 

Furthermore, when WIP reports are not synchronized with the project's billing cycles or accounting periods, it can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of the project's performance and financial health. When reporting periods are standardized, it becomes easier to spot anomalies, identify patterns, and diagnose potential issues early on.

Failure to Update Estimates

If the original cost estimates for a project are not updated to reflect changes in scope, costs, or schedules, the WIP report may not accurately represent the project's financial status. This is particularly true when change orders arise, as they often have significant impact on project finances. Updating estimates is critical to conduct precise revenue recognition and ensure that the WIP report provides an accurate reflection of the project's evolving financial landscape.

Not Addressing Overbilling or Underbilling

Neglecting to address overbilling or underbilling situations can have a substantial impact on the accurate portrayal of a project's financial standing. These discrepancies have the potential to distort the financial picture of a project, making it difficult to gauge its true financial health. When overbilling or underbilling situations are allowed to persist unchecked, they can lead to skewed financial data, which in turn can affect decision-making processes. To maintain financial accuracy and integrity, it is imperative that overbilling and underbilling issues are promptly identified, thoroughly investigated, and rectified. This ensures that billings align accurately with earned revenue to provide a clearer and more realistic representation of the project's financial position. 

Misinterpreting Percentage of Completion (POC)

Misapplying the percentage of completion method can lead to errors in revenue recognition. Construction companies that use the POC method in their WIP reporting must ensure that their practices align with the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) standards and guidelines. This includes accurately tracking costs, estimating project completion percentages, and recognizing revenue in accordance with FASB principles. Failure to adhere to FASB standards can result in financial reporting discrepancies and potential compliance issues.

Lack of Detailed Notes

A WIP report lacking detailed explanatory notes may fall short in providing a clear understanding of the project's financial trajectory. Without a record of the assumptions used for cost and revenue projections, the methodologies applied for progress measurement, leaves stakeholders with an incomplete understanding. Similarly, not capturing adjustments in project scope or shifts in accounting practices can obscure the report’s reliability and lead to misunderstandings about the project's actual status and expected outcomes.

Case Study: Effective Use of the WIP Accounting in Construction

Let’s explore a case study that exemplifies the interconnection between WIP accounting practices and the utilization of a WIP schedule in construction. 

Concrete Crew, a concrete subcontractor, implements WIP accounting as an integral component of their financial management system. The firm generates a WIP schedule monthly, which aligns with their payment application cycle, a practice that reflects industry-standard WIP accounting principles. 

Using WIP accounting standards, Concrete Crew meticulously records and tracks the direct costs of materials, labor, and overhead attributable to their projects, Job A and Job B. They recognize these costs as they are incurred, consistent with the accrual basis of accounting, which is also fundamental to WIP accounting. This approach allows for matching the revenue earned with the expenses incurred during the same period, providing a more accurate picture of project profitability.

Concrete Crew’s WIP schedule offers a detailed view of project-specific financials, reporting on the status of their construction contracts (Job A and Job B) and the percentage of completion. 

Job A: As per the WIP report, Job A has a revised budget of $100 and a revised contract amount of $150. With a job-to-date (JTD) cost of $80 and a completion percentage of 80%, the earned revenue is $120. However, billing to date is only $75, resulting in an underbilling of $45. This discrepancy indicates that, while the work has been nearly completed, the billing has lagged. The schedule notes a forthcoming change order, which stalls further billing until November, affecting cash flow management. The inability to bill until then can strain the company's liquidity, emphasizing the need to navigate through this period without compromising the firm’s financial stability.

Job B: Similar to Job A, Job B also shows a revised budget and contract amount of $100 and $150. The job is also 80% complete, with an earned revenue of $120. The billed amount to date is $125, indicating an overbilling of $5. In the WIP report, Concrete Crew notes that the project is on hold until Spring 2024, and the billing status will remain as is for the time being.

Concrete Crew's application of WIP accounting, reflected in their monthly WIP schedule, serves as a vital instrument for fiscal oversight and strategic financial planning. It helps the firm to identify and adjust to underbilling and overbilling situations, thereby securing cash flow and preserving client relationships.

For Job A, the impending change order necessitates a careful reassessment of the project budget and timeline. For Job B, managing the overbilling requires communication and transparency with the client to ensure that when the project restarts, the financial reconciliation aligns with the client's expectations and the contract stipulations.

This example underscores the importance of an effective and accurate WIP schedule in providing transparency, fostering client trust, and ensuring the financial agility of construction firms. It also highlights the significance of proactive financial management in dealing with the ebbs and flows of project lifecycles, ultimately ensuring that companies maintain a steady cash flow, adhere to contractual obligations, and sustain long-term client relationships.

Categories:

Financial Management

Written by

Kelsie Keleher

Kelsie is a Senior Strategic Product Consultant for general contractors at Procore; working closely with civil and infrastructure clients. Kelsie holds a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) and has close to a decade of experience in construction accounting and finance.

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Taylor Riso

32 articles

Taylor Riso is a marketing professional with more than 10 years of experience in the construction industry. Skilled in content development and marketing strategies, she leverages her diverse experience to help professionals in the built environment. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

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