Outdoor living is seeing a bit of an explosion lately: Adding a deck is one of the most requested home projects today, and demand is steadily rising.
New durable outdoor materials, furniture and accessories plus unique shade options and smart tech that lets us watch movies and have full kitchens have no doubt fueled the interest. So if you’re hoping to make the most of good weather in your area, a new deck has likely crossed your mind. Here’s what you’ll need to know about finally getting one.
Why: To extend living space and enjoy the outdoors with an area for dining, grilling or lounging.
First thing to consider: You’ll want to decide whether your property is good for a deck or patio — or a combination of both.
Deck. A deck is a platform with decking boards, usually made of either wood or a composite material. A deck is ideal for sloped yards where you want a flat area. It’s also good for homes that sit high above the ground or atop a basement, because they can be built as high as you need. If your home sits higher than about 14 inches off the ground, a platform deck is probably for you.
Patio. A patio is on flat ground and is usually made of concrete, pavers, flagstone, wood or another hardscaping material. Doing a patio on a sloped lot is costlier and much more difficult, because retaining walls must be built to create a level surface. If your door opens right at the ground level, then a patio is the option for you.
Many people choose to build a deck that steps down to a patio.
Figuring out what you want your deck to do will also help determine its size, safety measures and traffic flow. Do you host a lot of parties, or is it just you and a partner? Do you have a lot of kids? The last thing you want or need is a deck that’s too small or too large for your needs.
Also consider privacy on your deck. If you don’t want to feel like you’re on a stage performing for your neighbors, you’ll want to think about adding an arbor, a pergola, latticework or something else to create privacy.
If you’re using your deck for dining (which you should), you’ll want it located as close to your kitchen as possible. “You don’t want to have to climb a bunch of stairs just to go back in for some salt,” says Clemens Jellema, who runs Fine Decks and has been building decks for 20 years.
The two main options for decks are wood and composite boards. Historically, wood has dominated decks, but lately composite boards are more in demand. Jellema says there was a time when many homeowner’s associations didn’t allow composite decks, because they looked too plasticky and had other problems. Now it’s the complete opposite. “Many developments don’t allow wood decks,” Jellema says. “People don’t take care of them, and they can start to look ugly in five or six years when they start to weather.”
Composite boards. Composite boards, seen here, are engineered products that are a mixture of wood fibers and plastic; a lot of the material comes from recycled plastic grocery bags. Some companies use old shredded carpets for wood fillers. Newer composite boards are wrapped in a thin plastic layer so they won’t stain or fade. These are more expensive than wood boards but often come with a warranty of 20 to 25 years, are low maintenance and can be made to look almost identical to any species of wood out there. Plus, they stay the same color as the day you installed them.
“A lot of contractors have had problems with composites in the past, but they’re getting pretty good now,” Jellema says. Composite is about 40 to 50 percent more expensive than real wood, but because you don’t have to keep restaining it and paying for upkeep, the cost over time can be equal to or less than real wood.
To clean composite decking, just rub some detergent on it and hose it off.
If you go with a wood deck, it’s recommended that you power wash it and re-oil it after pollen and leaves have fallen, because they’re a food source for bacteria, Jellema says.
Keep in mind that the availability of certain woods varies across the country. Redwood and cedar are popular deck choices on the West Coast but are hard to come by on the East Coast. And, again, check with your HOA about any restrictions on using wood or composite decking.
Shade. If it’s too sunny or raining, you won’t be enticed to use your new outdoor space unless you have some shade or some sort of covering. There are endless options here, from large umbrellas and retractable awnings to pavilions, gazebos and screened-in porches. Of course, the more elaborate, the more expensive it will be. You can have a deck porch with finished ceilings, fans, TVs, heating and A/C, fireplaces and more. “Projects can get so elaborate that it’s almost like building a house,” Jellema says.
If your deck will be raised 8 or 9 feet off the ground, consider converting the space below into a dry area for entertaining or storage. To do this your deck builder will integrate panels beneath the decking so that water falls through, gets collected and is sent to a downspout. That way you have a dry, shaded extra patio spot.
A deck with varying elevations, a hot tub and a porch or pavilion can cost $50,000 to $60,000. Jellema once built a $120,000 deck. “But that was before the recession,” he says.
But keep in mind that deck additions are solid investments. Jellema says a deck addition often recoups 70 to 80 percent of its value when a home is sold.
A professional will also map everything out in 3D software and look at traffic flow and placement of furniture, to gauge whether the deck is too big or too small. “You want people to get drawn to the deck and really come out and enjoy it in the evening or weekend,” Jellema says. “That’s when the design is a success.”
What’s more, if you’re doing a deck, try to find someone who specializes in decks. If it’s a patio you’re looking for, look for someone with patio experience, as different approaches are required for each.
If you’re adding an outdoor kitchen, you’ll need someone to do the plumbing and gas lines. If you’re adding an entertainment system or lighting, you’ll need an electrician as well.
Permitting and codes: If your deck is more than 200 square feet, you’ll likely need a permit. If your deck is more than 30 inches off the ground, you’ll need a permit. If you’re doing retaining walls that are higher than 3 feet, you’ll need a permit. Higher than 5 or 6 feet and you’ll need an engineer.
Plus, every county has different building codes for decks. Some places allow cable railings; others prohibit them. If you’ve got a septic tank or well on your property, that can affect where your deck can go. Deck builders will be able to read your site plan, assess where the setback is and if there’s a well or septic tank, and create the drawings to submit for a permit. “It can be hard for a homeowner to pull a permit, draw up the construction plan and build it right according to all the codes,” Jellema says. “It’s not worth it.”