About a year and a half ago, Archadeck of Central Arkansas did something that few deck builders would be prepared to. It asked prospects for a design retainer.

The retainer, typically $200 or more, covers the time it takes to prepare drawings for a deck. Those come with detailed specifications including materials options and pricing.

ASKING FOR IT Charging for design prior to signing a construction contract is a widespread practice in design/build remodeling. But few deck builders ask for design fees. Two years ago Archadeck, the corporate franchise, suggested that its franchise members do exactly that. Not all have. Terri Duncan, co-owner of Archadeck of Central Arkansas, says she was certain it would put her at a disadvantage. “If there are 20 people out there building decks and none are asking for retainers, why would homeowners pay me?”

Instead, Duncan and other Archadeck franchisees found little resistance. The retainer “separates those seriously interested from those who are dreaming or fishing,” says Archadeck's director of business development Dennis Schaefer. It also positions franchises toward the upper-end client. “We're not deck builders, we're project designers,” says Phil Brown, owner of Archadeck of Central Connecticut, who informs prospects that his first fact-finding visit to the house is free but for plans there will be a charge.

LARGER TREND Brian Altmann, who started his design/build DBS Remodel, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as a deck-building company, suggests that companies should stop being timid. “I can't come out there,” he says, “educate you for two and a half hours, consult on materials, come up with a design and alternative prices, and then have you never call me again.” Altmann says that in return for three-dimensional drawings and a detailed scope of work, he will charge clients anywhere from $75 to $100 per hour for a deck design that takes typically five hours or a porch design that might take 10 hours. Duncan says that her 3-D designs enable clients to subtract items to work the price down if they wish. “It lets them have control over their budget.”