Here's why I charge a fee to do an initial consultation:
REASON 1: I provide valuable deliverables for your project that you will use even if you do not hire me. Prior to meeting with you, I spend around 4 hours preparing an approximate 100 page long feasibility for your specific project. I research your permit history. I determine your property's size and any environmental conditional impacting it. I analyse your neighborhood. I compare all of these factors to the applicable portions (of very complex) land use code considerations to determine the requirements impacting your upcoming project for things like setbacks from property lines, maximum lot coverage, and height limits to name a few. (These things are not really very enjoyable to do, by the way. Designing the actual building is the fun part!) This enables me to have a productive meeting with you where we can talk about factual data relating to your project (rather than speculating on it). This takes specialized knowledge and experience to prepare, time to collect/analyse/discuss, and is therefor worth something for you. Not just anyone can do this, successfully. My clients find great value in the professional services I offer. This meeting will leave you with valuable advice for how you could best spend thousands or millions of dollars on your upcoming project.
REASON 2: I work for a modest living and need to be paid for my efforts just like anyone else. In my line of work, I get paid by the hour as it directly relates to my time spent preparing professional advice on your behalf. If I'm not working for you or someone else, I am not earning an income. I get several inquiries for new projects daily (fortunately), and it would not be sustainable for a small business owner to drive around to several potential clients' properties every day without being compensated accordingly. This is similar to your expectation with a dentist or even a car salesman. You would not expect a potential dentist to come to your home to meet with you to see if he or she would be a good fit to clean your teeth. You also would not expect a car salesman or store clerk from Nordstroms to bring a car or shirt to your home for you to decide whether or not to buy it. Just as your time is limited and very precious, mine is equally just as valuable.
REASON 3: It would be unfair to my current clients if I gave free assistance to you but not to them. My hourly rates are set on the assumption that I can be a productive worker for a pre-determined amount of time each day, so I may earn enough money to support my family while covering the overhead expenses of running a professional service company subject to several regulatory agencies and insurance liabilities. If I spend time that does not relate to actual clients' projects, that time is just another overhead expense which only makes my hourly rate higher. I want my hourly rate to be as low as possible to provide a fair service to my paying clients. One could argue that doing "sales calls" is part of the "cost of doing business," but minimizing extraneous non-project related activities is prudent in minimizing hourly rates.
REASON 4: I used to do free consultations, and only 5% of those potential clients ever built a project at all. I have learned that folks unwilling to pay an architect for a consultation are not typically serious about doing their project and do not value the service anyway. Since I have started charging a fee for initial consultations, 100% of the potential clients I have met have actually proceeded with building their project (and every one of those clients, except for 3 instances in the past 10 years since writing this, have actually hired me to be their architect). One could clearly see how this dramatically reduces my overhead expenses since my time can be more focused on my current clients who do pay me for my time.
REASON 5: I'm generally pretty fun to be around, so why wouldn't you want to pay for that opportunity...just kidding.
In summary, everyone's time is very precious. If I'm not doing project related work during the day as a result of time spent on unpaid consultations, this means I have to work late in the evenings to catch up. At times that is necessary in any job, but it is important to balance work and life, so we may enjoy time with our family and friends when we are not working to support them. I have learned that working late directly causes me to hire a babysitter and see my kids less, so paid consultations are quite important for this work-life balance. There are likely architects out there that are willing to do free consultations in exchange for higher overhead expenses (and likely less information to present at the consultation), but I prefer to be more open and direct in my approach while offering a thorough and tangible service in every interaction on a project - including the initial consultation.