Top Ten Questions Regarding Decks

Posted on November 11th, 2011

1. Do we want/need a deck?

A deck or porch adds living space that has a different feel than any other part of your home. Who does not like to eat outside in the warm weather, laze around with a beer or a book, or hang out on a sunny day? We all like decks, but there is a huge range of the materials and tastes for just what the deck looks like. For some a deck is a nice addition that makes a comfortable home evern more pleasnt. For others the replacement of a deck that is rotting or damaged by snow is an unavoidable necessity.
2. Can we afford a deck?

There is a huge range of what a deck costs to build and the price is effected not only by size and materials, but also but the site factors such as access from the ground, if there is a hill, if there is a dog present, etc. At the low end a small deck costs about $5000 to build, going up to $25,000 for a full mahogany structure.
3. Deck vs Patio?
It depends on the space you have the work, and the kind of activities you are planning for the back yards. Patios: you can go much bigger, plant them, cook on them, and have virtually no maintenance. But they cost twice at much per square foot to build and of course must be on the ground. Decks are smaller, but they are generally easier to keep clean and dry, and can be built to any height. Also decks are more private and less vulnerable to wildlife. Though they both provide outdoor living space, they are so different from each other that some families have both.

4. Should we make what we have bigger?

Any home with a back yard is likely to have at minimum steps and a landing to get down in the back. This is fine if access to the rear of the property is the main use of the back door, but most folks find this very limiting for extended outdoor activity and start to think about a deck that they can simply walk out on.
5. How big is big enough?

Bigger is not better and certainly not cheaper. Having said that, you need at least a 9 by 9 foot square to accommodate dining for four and still have room for chairs to get in and out. Also you should keep a pathway clear from the door to the stairs and not have to go around the furnishings. Don’t make you deck smaller to cut costs, because the bulk of the cost is labor, not materials. At the same time don’t make you deck so large that it becomes this hulking monster that takes over the yard. 12 by 14 is a good size for most people.
6. Should we tear down or repair what we have?

“Redecking” is a common hope of many homewowners who look under the deck and find the joists are still fine, but the decking itself is quite splitting, chipping etc. The problem with this kind of repair is that the amount of labor involved in taking up the decking, then removing all the old nails usually exceeds the amount of work in demoing both decking and joists. Also the joists may look fine from below where water has not penetrated, but be quite gone on top where the holes made by the nails over the years has allowed penetration. But there are exceptions: The replacement of joists on a second or third floor porch is a lot more work than ground level, so it may make sense in that case. Be sure you use screws and not nails if you are redecking. If there is rot on the structural members, it still may not require a full demo if the bad sections can be replaced or reinforced. A deck is made up of replaceable components, just like a bicycle.
7. The Myth of Maintenance: Wood vs. Plastic

People who have spent many hours scraping and painting decks are prime candidates for non-wood decking and railings. However there is no requirement to paint decks, and if color is what you want, I recommended staining instead of paint. If you stain, you can simply wash the deck every year and restain as needed to keep things fresh looking. If your decking is mahagony or ipe, you can get away with very little maintanance if you don’t mind the decking graying down naturally. Just a washing with soap or diluted bleach once a year. If your deck is made of pressure treated lumber, than you will probably need some kind of stain, but even then, PT is bound to split and check as it is intended as a waterproof structural lumber not as a cheap alternative to mahagony or plastic. You can use it and save money, but it will age quickly. I happen to like PT for railing provided the balusters are face nailed. You can save on the labor because it takes about half the time to do this vs. center nailed railings.
8. One word for the Graduate: Plastics. We have come a long way from the first non-wood decking choices, genericly referred to as Trex. Trex itself is really not that great: it scratches easily, fades, and can accumulate green algae as easily as wood. If you decide on non wood, go for full plastic. Timbertech is a nice product, but there are many many more. Know that the fancy end plastic decking with a wood grain look has a repeating pattern, so the one sample you hold that looks great may no longer be so attractive over the whole deck. Also plastic decking may look odd on a house with wood siding. Think about how the house works with the decking choice before committing. However, we do recommend the use of PVC trim for risers and trim. This is a very different product from plastic decking and when painted is indistinguishable from wood trim. Except it is mucm more stable and does not rot. Primed pine is still okay to use, provided there is no direct contact with water.
9. To paint or not paint?

Who likes to paint? I find in our efforts to make decks look like the house we create a maintanance obligation that few are willing or able to uphold. Solid stain is the way to go, or semi transparent stains that allow the wood to come through.
10. Special Decks

We recently built a three season porch out of second floor triple decker porch. This really expanded the usefulness of the porch for the owners, who also installed a new door off the back bedroom. The three season porch uses windows in the winter and fall and goes back to screens in the summer. The enclosure holds in the suns heat in the cold months, making a passive solar room, and the screens keep out not only bugs and critters in the summer, but also the rain.