You're a free-lance writer or consultant and you need some place to work. So you try to work at home. If you're lucky, you have your own office, away from the kids and other distractions.

If you're not so lucky, you're stuck working on the dining-room table for the few minutes a day when no one's around, the phone isn't ringing and you can forget about the household chores you should be doing.

But if you've found it impossible to work at home, there are some alternatives:

You can rent an office, with or without secretarial services. But for a prime downtown location, that can cost from $500 to more than $1,500 a month.

You can try to find extra office space, in a law office, for instance, or share a friend's office space.

You can apply for a study desk at the Library of Congress. There are 245 of them, mostly on the third floor of the main building in the stacks off the reading rooms. They're free, but there's a five-month waiting list.

You can try renting a room, basement or attic in a private home, or a garage, or arrange to work in someone's house or apartment during the day while that person is away at work.

You can try to find a small store that has extra space to lease, upstairs or in a storage area in the back.

Four years ago, Jean Levin was finding it difficult to do her education consulting work at home.

"Every time I made a call, my little boy would disconnect the telephone," she recalls. "I needed a place to work, and I thought a lot of other people out there needed what I needed."

She talked the idea over with friend Beverly Nadel and the two decided to establish a new kind of work place. They put up some money, secured a handful of investors, incorporated, did a lot of planning and hard work, and a year later opened The WorkPlace.

Located in a building at 18th and N Streets, near the Dupont Circle Metro and overlooking Connecticut Avenue, the WorkPlace is a large, cheerful office -- divided into 10 work spaces by colorful and flexible partitions -- that provides the full range of office services, including telephone answering, copying, secretarial and tape transcription.

The current group of 20 free-lance professionals leasing office space full- or part-time includes writers, lawyers, media specialists, researchers, consultants and a psychologist.

"Many of our clients could work at home if they wanted to," says Levin, who was formerly with the Brookings Institution and the National Academy of Public Administration. "But home can be either too noisy or too quiet. There's no interaction, no stimulation from other people, no feedback.

"It enchances your sense of professionalism to have your own office, your own place, and to have to pay for it is a good motivating factor."

"The centralized services we provide are harder to find if you open your own office," says Nadel. "Meeting people with similar interests is another benefit. Two writers who met here have collaborated on an article. We have several clients working in the field of education and there is a definite interchange, a passage of information."

Levin and the third WorkPlace director, Janet Steiger, are research associates for the National Academy of Public Administration project on Three Mile Island and share an office at The WorkPlace. Nadel is in charge of managing the business.

Monthly rates range basically (depending on services) from $140 for half-time use of semi-private space, to $370 for a full-time private office.

Currently, most of the spaces are rented part-time, while five clients rent their spaces full-time. In the last year, The WorkPlace -- 1302 18th St. NW (223-6274) -- has started making a profit and will be issuing dividends for the first time to its 10 investors.