You may be correct, as you look around your neighborhood in the Washington area, and conclude that some type of consultant lives in every other house. Realtors, engineers, authors, housewives, scientists, investors - they and other persons are starting new firms every week.

In all big cities, but especially in Washington, the business of consulting is booming.

There are no exact figures on this cottage industry but Howard Shenson, of Encino, Calif., who has made a business for himself by conducting seminars for people who want into the consulting game, estimates that annual billings from such firms exceed $30 billion a year - and that does not include law, medicine or accounting.

The annual growth rate in contract billings is 22 percent, making consulting one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, he adds. Average income for individual consultants is about $40,000 a year.

There are consultants who help business meet equal opportunity hiring goals, test water pollution and solar devices, translate corporate legal language into English language reports that normal people can understand, address the negative impact of alcoholism, save costs on steel purchases and supervise construction of commercial buildings for owners who don't have the time or expertise.

Shenson, who conducted a seminar on consulting here earlier this year and has planned another presentation on Thursday, cited a number of reasons for the sudden boom in consulting.

"There's going to be a shortage of capital until 2010, at least, and as more competition for money develops in the public and private sectors, many people are seeking help," he said in a recent interview.

Other factors he mentioned were constant government scrutiny for compliance with rules, about which companies and non-profit groups need help in knowing in the first place as well as implemenation of changes; the proliferation of local and federal regulations; a "tougher" environment for marketing goods with small business often pitted against giant corporations; the possibility of trade with China and "rapid changes in society . . . with uncertainty building a climate for temporary attention to problems, not knowing if there is a need for a permanent company staff."

For small companies, in particular, there is no requirement for full-time help in many of these areas. Thus, consultants work for a variety of clients, providing the expertise and dividing the costs.

One of the biggest clients of consultants is the federal government itself. The General Services Administration lists some $2 billion a year in contracts to companies that are called consultants but Shenson said the total amount is much higher - more than $5 billion a year in direct payments to consultants of one variety or another plus indirect support to more consulting activity, through subcontracts.

At Shenson's recent Washington seminar, designed for people who want to build or maintain their own consulting businesses, 63 persons were in attendance. A large percentage were doing business with the federal government or seeking U.S. contracts. About 10 percent were retired military persons or officers about to retire. There was a higher percentage of women than in other cities where Shenson conducts seminars on a regular basis.

In contrast with the understandable interest in government consulting here, the seminars in San Jose, Calif., attract persons interested in computers and information sciences; in New York, there is more interest in financial institutions.

The flavour of the growing Washington consulting community is evident in a list of recently opened offices, such as those of:

Drake-Beam Associates Inc., consultants in human resource management and specialists in "applying professional psychological insights to solving organizational problems," with 15 of the Fortune 500's largest 25 firms among clients.

Survey Research Associates of Baltimore, owned and operated by women, and offering services to the research community in all phrases of surveys.

C.C. Johnson & Associates, a minority-owned environmental engineering and planning services firm, headed by former Assistant Surgeon General Charles Johnson Jr.

Patton, Harris, Rust & guy, engineers, surveyors, planners and landscape architects offering consulting services in Rockville, in addition to earlier offices in Fairfax and Bridgewater, Va.

Barfield Consulting Inc., a data processing consulting firm that is one of the few women-owned businesses of its type; chief executive Geraldine Barfield says her clients include federal agencies, trade associations and businesses and that she is planning a San Francisco branch in the near future.

Shenson, who has been in consulting for eight years, says these companies are typical of a new world.

Owners of established firms attend his seminars, as do persons thinking about their own business. He also publishes a monthly newsletter that deals with techniques for consulting firms. A lead article recently described how to start a professional association. Formerly, Shenson was chairman of the Management Department at California State University at Northridge.

The seminar itself emphasizes practical information and deals little with theory. Each session runs for five or six hours and provides guidance on getting a firm known, making subcontract arrangements, marketing of consulting services through lectures or newsletters, how to write a consulting contract and how to set prices. More than 7,000 persons have attended the Shenson seminars, for which he charges $95, including written material and cassette tapes.

One of the major causes of problems for fledgling consultants is the absence of contracts, which should be reviewed by a lawyer, Shenson added. He offers a 70-page booklet on contract preparation and strategies as part of his program.