Admit it: You've been lusting after the neighbors' spacious new deck ever since they completed it, and scheming how to create such a backyard escape for your own home. Now, you're finally ready to take the plunge.
But with new designs and materials on the market, and—if you're not building it yourself—the challenge of finding a competent contractor at a fair price, you're wise to do your homework. A little research will give you the look you want with minimal upkeep and no structural problems.
Here's a primer on pitfalls to consider, as well as the pros and cons of modern deck materials—some of which may last longer than the house they're bolted to.
Cost and Design
Decks were rated the number-one home improvement project nationally in 2003 and number three in 2005, according to remodeling.hw.net, which reported that decks provided a 104 percent return on investment in 2003 and close to 80 percent in 2005.
"It's an all around good investment, especially for your home resale value," says Mark Harari of Joppa-based Island Decks.
Prices vary widely depending on the square footage involved and the materials, but expect to spend approximately $24 a square foot for a basic 10-by-12-foot pine deck or $28 a square foot for a deck built from composite materials such as Trex. Island Decks, which charges $21 a square foot, would build a 10-by-12 pine deck without benches, pergolas, stairs, or planters for a total of $2,520, says Harari.
Pergolas would up the price by an extra $1,000. "People like to hang planters from them or grow vines over them," he says.
As far as design is concerned, he says that builders have to take into account the grade or elevation of the rear yard, whether the house has a walk-out basement and whether the customer needs the deck for family use or for entertaining purposes.
"If the customer wants the deck for frequent parties, we have to take into account seating space, which might include built-in benches, and an 8- or 10-foot-wide stairwell that drops down to the yard so that people can sit and relax on the stairs during a party," he says.
Wanted: Honesty and Competence
Unless you're really qualified to do the job yourself, the next step is tracking down a skilled and reliable contractor.
Some neighborhood community associations keep a log of service contractors who've done work in the area. They can often tell you which neighbor used a particular contractor and that feedback can be valuable. You can also try logging onto contractor.com, a website that's helpful if you have no recommendations from friends or neighbors. You simply type in your location and a list of several contractors appears on the site. Then click on "read testimonials" to find out what others have to say about a given contractor.
According to Baltimore City Permits Director Didi El-Menshawy, if you hire a contractor who is licensed and certified, you have the right to file a complaint with the state if you have a problem. The law does not require deck builders to be licensed, which is why homeowners can build their own decks without certification. And of course, she reminds us to get a building permit.
Finding a contractor with insurance coverage will prevent you from being liable if someone gets hurt on the job site, says Ed Chmar of Towson-based Allied Remodeling, which has been in business for 10 years. If you are required to pay a deposit, keep in mind that 33 percent is the legal limit in the state. Signing a contract that provides you with labor warranties is standard practice. While a one-year labor warranty is the norm, some companies will provide you with a lifetime warranty. Perhaps most importantly, you must trust the person you hire because there's a lot of money at stake, sticking to a timeline is important to your sanity, and the workers will be on your property for some time, posing potential security issues.
Pine vs. Composites
The next consideration is the materials you're going to use: Of course, you want it to look like real wood, last a very long time, be impervious to sunlight and water, and be affordable.
The most frequently used materials for decks today include pressure-treated southern pine and composite decking materials—made from plastic resin and wood chips. Both are sold in lumber and home improvement outlets.
"About 90 percent of our customers use southern pine," says Zack Wallace, a manager in training at 84 Lumber. "Pressure-treated pine costs 75 cents a linear foot and composite costs $2.25."
That's a big cost difference when you're talking hundreds of linear feet. But the composites, which come in a wide variety of colors and finishes, should be seriously considered because they're virtually maintenance-free. Most homeowners identify composite decking products with the brand name "Trex," says Wallace, but Trex is only one of roughly seven different manufacturers of composite products.
And then there are the Cadillacs of deck woods: teak and ipe. The latter, (pronounced EE-pay), is a super-dense Brazilian hardwood that usually has to be special-ordered, but which is becoming almost a status symbol among owners of high-end homes.
The Anonymity of Ipe
Although ipe has been available in this country for the past 10 years, builders say it has not been widely used due to the relative high cost of the wood ($3.84 per linear foot) and a lack of advertising.
Craig O'Donnell, co-owner of John S. Wilson Lumber Company in Catonsville, says the price of ipe became more reasonable when composites made their entry on the market in the late 1980s and created a more competitive environment for long-lasting materials.
But even with the price reduction, O'Donnell says only 5 to 10 percent of his customers purchase ipe for decking projects.
"If people were aware of its existence, it would be flying off the shelf," says Kent Darrell of ILEX Construction & Woodworking, who has built a few decks with it in the Baltimore area.
Because of its dense cell structure, ipe naturally resists rot, insects, and mold, all without the use of toxic chemicals typically applied to other products. And it has a Class A fire rating, the same rating given to concrete and steel. Ipe is harvested from naturally sustainable forests and lasts more than 25 years.
Jeff Goodwin, president of commercial builder Harbor View Contractors, recently installed an ipe deck at his Ocean Pines beach house because of its resistance to splintering and the fact that the harsher seaside weather has little to no effect on the integrity of the wood. Ipe's gradual change in color is another reason he selected it for his deck. "It changes from its original reddish-brown color into a beautiful silver patina and it is quite spectacular," he says.
Goodwin adds that one of the benefits of ipe is that it does not require a sealer to prevent decay. A perfect example of the wood's lasting integrity is the boardwalk in Atlantic City, which was built from ipe and to this day is in great condition.
Builders who swear by ipe claim the material and labor costs involved in building ipe decks are in line with lesser-quality decks when the entire life cycle of the deck is considered.
Darrell says his firm just finished building an ipe deck off the master bedroom of an ultra-modern glass and concrete house in Monkton. He then built another, larger 20-by-10-foot deck, accessible from the kitchen of the same house.
Darrell says the materials for the second deck, which cost $6,000, would run approximately $1,500 to $2,000 if southern pine were used for the same project. "Although you save in up-front costs with the pine, the cost difference in using ipe balances out in the long run," he says.
Before building a deck, homeowners should also understand how each of the various materials differ in ease of cutting, drilling, nailing, and fastening.
Because of ipe's dense cell structure, for instance, high-quality carbide-tipped blades are recommended for cutting. The wood's extreme hardness (it's 290 percent harder than red oak) requires pre-drilling when fastening the boards to the joists.
Although some homeowners shy away from ipe because it is very labor-intensive, Joe Pomykala of Towson, who built a deck with it, says the end result is worth the extra prep time.
"The wood is so hard that you can't bang nails into it," Pomykala adds. "You have to drill holes first and that takes quite a bit of time." But he adds that a specialized ipe fastener system, which hides exposed screws, gives you a blemish-free surface. "The final result is a much nicer quality deck," he says.