After Ray Smith, vice president of marketing for NVHomes, was laid off in July, four area home-building companies approached him with possible job offers. But Smith chose to strike out on his own and founded Marketing Ventures Group, a one-person operation that advises home builders on marketing, training and land-development ventures.

"I saw a lot of opportunities and a lot of voids in the market that I thought ought to be filled," said Smith, 36, who worked for NVHomes for four years until the NVR L.P. subsidiary eliminated its marketing department. "A lot of things in the construction market have just gone so quickly that a lot has been left undone."

As the real estate market continues its slowdown, several of Smith's peers also are starting their own companies. Some, like Smith, were laid off, victims of recent real estate industry cutbacks. Others are escaping of their own volition, gambling that their experience in the industry be a marketable commodity to area companies.

These executives-turned-consultants said that corporate bloat that accrued during the growth years in the 1980s must now be trimmed. And, not surprisingly, they picture themselves as the perfect candidates to direct the corporate revamping from the outside.

"There are a lot of brokers out there who could use an objective third party who has seen just about everything," said James Peterson, 46, a former executive vice president with Coldwell Banker whose job was eliminated in May. Since opening Peterson Real Estate Consulting Services at his Fairfax home in July, Peterson has contracted with four area real estate firms. He is helping them with training and recruitment programs and plans to target their most likely customers during these slower times.

Even amid gloomy market predictions and reports of stagnant home sales, the newly self-employed experts said business is steady. They attribute initial successes to their reputations in the close-knit real estate community.

"I've got a marketing plan, but up to now I've been so busy following up on {unsolicited} leads, that I've been too busy to implement it," said Jeffrey Carpenter, 40, president of a new custom-home-building firm.

In April, Carpenter gave up his position as a senior vice president of Fairfield Homes, a Northern Virginia home builder, to open Monticello Homes, a solo operation run out of his Fairfax Station home. "Business was down substantially {at Fairfield}, and they were trying to shrink the firm," he said. "It didn't make sense to stay."

Although Carpenter will provide some consulting services to potential buyers and builders, his primary new venture is home building. He said he will contract out the labor to design and build custom-designed homes for his clients. He also has negotiated a franchise agreement with Fairfield Homes that allows him to duplicate Fairfield designs on individual lots. He has signed two contracts, one of which is under construction.

When the market begins to recover, some consultants said, they expect demand for their services to increase.

"Companies staffed up during the high volume time ... and business has dwindled," said George Middleton, 44, a former executive with Richmond American Homes who left that company to open a consulting firm in June. "When the volume returns, astute builders are not going to staff up again, they are going to go out and look for {consultants} to help them."

Converting from corporate heavy to independent consultant is a time-honored tradition in many industries, including the real estate business. George Fulton, president of Fairfax-based Fulton Research Inc., made the move in 1981, when the California real estate brokerage firm for which he worked felt the pinch of that era's real estate slowdown. He now employs five people and has annual revenues of $300,000 to $400,000.

"What often happens is, rather than become unemployed, {industry executives} become consultants," he said. "A consultant typically has a pretty broad knowledge of a specific subject ... and a local client wants that exposure."

Industry veterans with solid contacts in the field are well equipped to open their own firms, Fulton said.

Most consultants work out of their homes or negotiate office space agreements with their clients. They rely on word of mouth rather than advertising to generate business, so overhead expenses can amount to little more than the cost of office stationary, a personal computer and an answering machine.

Carpenter said this streamlined setup allows entrepreneurs to focus on clients. "I'm one of the few builders in town that's not carrying a bag of rocks on my shoulders," he said, referring to the debt incurred by firms that bought expensive land in the late 1980s. "I can concentrate on the future instead of thinking about the past."

As former colleagues and adversaries follow each other into the world of consulting, they are swapping contacts and pooling resources to succeed.

Former NVHomes's executive Smith, for example, is teaming up with Ryland Homes veteran Joe Keppler, 36, to publish a bimonthly newsletter for Washington-area construction workers. The newsletter will focus on such topics as construction techniques and job-hunting strategies. Last April, Keppler ended a 15-year stint at Ryland Group Inc., a Columbia, Md., home builder, to open the Construction Management Advisory Group. The Fort Washington-based firm teaches training and operation techniques to area construction companies.

Smith also has talked with Middleton about collaborating on some of his larger consulting projects. "George and I together, I think, know everyone in the industry," Smith said.

Middleton, in turn, has formed a loose association with a longtime mentor and former colleague from Richmond American, Frank Martin, who opened an Annapolis consulting firm in 1979. Another former Richmond executive, Charles Khoobyar, recruited Middleton for a land development venture earlier this year.

"There are people who are out there that are available," Middleton said. "They're there, and they're eager to get working."

But cooperation and collaboration have limits among these newly independent consultants. All of them, especially those who were forced out of their jobs at large companies, said they are determined to remain in control of their own shows.

"I've sold my soul to too many corporations," said Peterson. "In the end, I found out that it doesn't count for much -- you're just an expendable commodity. I'm not at all unhappy to be out of that environment."