The architect will see you now

It’s a good time to be in the market for an architect.

The housing slump has freed up residential architects who wouldn’t even return phone calls during the boom. Many say they are hungry for business, seeking projects ranging from designing houses from scratch to taking on small renovations they would have turned down a year or two ago.

The newfound availability of architects — combined with lower construction costs — means some consumers can finally build the house they’ve long dreamed of.

Kevin and Rachelle Samborn have wanted to tear down their 1,800-square-foot ranch house in Swampscott, Mass., since they bought the property outside Boston in 1997. Kevin Samborn, a 39-year-old software executive, says the couple wants to replace the 1955 structure with a 2,600-square-foot, timber-frame house. They made a few calls four years ago for price estimates but held off because it was too expensive.

Shrinking backlogs

The Samborns say their four-year wait to build a house cut the cost about 25%, including lower architectural fees.

Since then, the costs of labor, materials and mortgages have tumbled as the housing market cratered. When contractors’ estimates fell to $225 a square foot last spring from $300 four years ago, the Samborns decided to move forward. This time around, the architects they contacted had a much more aggressive attitude toward winning their business, Kevin Samborn says. The couple hired Boston architect Jeremiah Eck to design their house, and the couple is considering a $750,000 construction bid from a contractor. Kevin Samborn estimates the house will cost 25% less overall than a few years ago — including savings on architectural fees, since Eck, like many architects, charged a percentage of the construction cost. Four years ago, Kevin Samborn says, “I wouldn’t have gotten as much house as I wanted.”

Residential architects across the country report shrinking job backlogs, according to the American Institute of Architects. Of 500 residential architecture firms surveyed by the trade group during the 2007 third quarter, 42% reported a backlog of less than three months, compared with 31% during the same period two years earlier. That mirrors the overall home market; the Commerce Department said in January that December housing starts fell 14.2% to a 16-year low.

While spending on remodeling has declined only modestly over the past year, many home improvements these days are likely to be the kind that don’t require an architect, such as roof replacements or new windows, says Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist. “A lot of projects are happening, but they’re not the upper-end renovations we saw three to four years ago,” he says. There are fewer $150,000 renovations and more $40,000 jobs, and “at that price point, there’s less architect involvement,” Baker adds. A quarter of U.S. homes built each year involve significant work by an architect — in many cases to modify a stock home plan — but only about 5% of U.S. homes are designed from scratch by an architect, he says.