Brian Altmann, owner of Dutchess Building Specialists in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., never used to leave deck plans with prospects, who might turn them over to another, less expensive, builder.

Today, Altmann's company charges anywhere from $400 to $1,500, depending on the complexity, for the design. That's not only so that the company is compensated for the design work, but also so that the plans can be left behind to stimulate interest and a contract. In three out of four cases, it does. When it doesn't, “we part friends, and they paid me.”

What It's Worth Many deck builders are wary of sharing design ideas, let alone plans, without a commitment to build. Archadeck of Central Arkansas, for instance, develops its design after a fact-finding call, then comes back on a second call to sell the plan, developed at no cost to the client. Co-owner Terri Duncan says that the design might take an entire weekend to develop. “In this market,” she points out, “if I said: ‘We'll charge you $400 to design this thing,' they'd say: ‘We'll get back to you.'”

Gary Marsh, owner of All Decked Out in Novato, Calif., sells only design, though one of the services his company offers is a contractor recommendation. Marsh says that the conceptual drawings he brings to clients —aesthetics, layout, materials choices — might take a week to develop. If clients wish to proceed, he commissions a soil and a structural engineer. (“We're in earthquake country.”) Engineering plans might take another week. The cost of all design work for a Gary Marsh deck ranges from $10,000 to $20,000, charged at an hourly rate. (See his work at

Incentive To Build Keith Neumann, owner of KN Construction in San Jose, Calif., says he doesn't charge for the design “if we have the project already. If they call and want a design and a price, we'll charge them for the design and apply it to the project. If you're going to knock $2,000 or $3,000 off the cost, that's a pretty good incentive to build.”

A flat deck in a San Jose backyard could run $40,000 to $60,000, in which case the design fee (“if we have to complete a full set of plans for the city”), could run between $1,500 and $2,000. Design costs are determined on a fixed-fee basis, and depend on project price. Neumann says he gives clients a ballpark on the phone before discussing the project, “so they're serious.”