Outdoor Decks: Everything You Need to Know

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When it comes to deck building, there are several crucial issues on the table. Given the considerable amount of money and the relatively big hassle, this is no small decision. All the same, there’s a reason why most homes have an outdoor decking. Here I am going to explore the main advantages but also the shortcomings – hence, the factors which influence your decision. If you plan to have a deck built, this is going to be a helpful guide for you. My effort is to pinpoint the reasons why a deck is a better option than a simple patio but also guide you into choosing a wooden deck that will meet your aesthetics and will last long.

Why are there considerations when it comes to deck building?

Because it’s not easy. It all starts by finding a deck contractor. Building the deck yourself is not recommended regardless of the thousands of DIY instructions online.

And here’s why: if the deck is not built right, it will raise safety concerns. If you don’t have a pro to advise you and suggest the best possible materials for your budget, you won’t get the results you want. Don’t forget that there local building codes in most regions and so you might need to obtain a permit. Another difficulty would be the location and design, especially if the landscape is not even. And don’t let me get started about the deck construction skills – I only assume that you want the job done right. Let me point out some difficulties you might face if you decide to build the deck alone.

  • How much do you know about wood? Can you cut boards and put them together? Can you use a saw?
  • Is this going to be a multi-level deck? Is it going to be a pool deck?
  • Is the deck going to be over unstable soil? Do you need to consider the drainage system?

Okay, so far we have established the importance of finding a professional deck company so that they will take over, provide solutions, make suggestions, and complete the project for you. That’s much easier – costlier but easier.

And here comes the next big question: how can you choose the right deck contractor? That’s serious.

How to choose the right deck contractor

This task might become time-consuming unless you get lucky and find a trusted deck contractor quickly or know someone who knows someone who built a safe deck. Here’s a list of questions you need to ask the contractor.

  • The local codes differ from region to region. You need to check with yours if the deck contractors must be bonded and licensed. Don’t forget that most companies use sub-contractors and so you need to know if they must be licensed too. The more you learn about the legal obligations in your area, the better. You don’t want surprises later. Then, ask all relevant questions to each contractor you talk to. Do they get permits for the deck you want? Are they licensed? Etc.
  • Ask them about the materials they use to build decks and details about the wood, quality, prices, etc. If you want an ipe deck and they don’t work on ipe, you’ll lose time.
  • Do they provide a warranty? Most deck companies offer a warranty for one year, but don’t forget to ask them about the materials they use for the project – they usually come with a longer warranty.
  • Ask how long it will take them to build the deck and how much it will cost. Don’t forget that the price depends on many variables (deck size, wood, whether or not you’ll add railings, etc.). To make a fair comparison among offers, ask contractors to give you an estimate about the same deck.

Why invest in a wooden deck in the first place (and not in a patio)

Both patios and decks are outdoor constructions – that’s what they have in common.

Which one is lovelier than the other is a matter of personal opinion, although wooden decks get more thumbs up.

So, if the patio vs. deck debate is raised at home, relax. More often than not, it’s the landscape that takes the final decision. How come? You’ll figure it out as soon as you read the main differences between decks and patios.

Decks are usually made of wood or composite wood and seldom of alternatives, like aluminum and plastic. Patios are constructed with stones, concrete, pavers, tiles, etc.

Though their main difference lies on the way they are installed and here’s where the landscape makes the difference.

You see, the main characteristic of decks is that they are floating. They are not attached on the terrain but have some supportive elements to keep them above the ground. This allows for all kinds of deck structures no matter how uneven the landscape might be whereas patios are set on the terrain. They are not floating and so if your backyard is not even, you cannot install a patio. In such cases, there is only a choice: decks.

Now, both decks and patios can be attached or detached to the house, but patios are distinguished for their open sides whereas decks usually have railings since they provide safety.

When it comes to choosing between the two, you need to check the landscape first. If it’s even, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics. If not, it’s a one-way street: deck.

Main advantages of wood decks

We all know the advantages of wood decks. The last thing I want is to insult your intelligence by listing benefits you already know. The thing is that we know (of) things until we are called to take action and then we get all confused and paralyzed. So, here I just want to refresh your memory and remind you why you wanted to have a deck built in the first place.

  • Boost home value
  • Expand livable space
  • Transform the backyard
  • Make space for parties and get-togethers

Let me take add one more advantage. The short version is that you have plenty to gain. The long version? Well, although the cost to build decks is rather high, the ROI is rather high too. If you sum up the benefits of having a deck installed, the price is totally worth it. Although decks need maintenance to last for long, the overall cost to have them constructed and maintained is not high if you consider that you change the looks of the house completely, fix the messy yard (finally), expand the space, increase the value, and get more (outdoor) room for all sorts of activities and in all sorts of designs. That’s a lot!

The shortcomings

If you are on a tight family budget, the rather high cost of deck building will be a consideration. Now, the main downside is maintenance. If you want maintenance-free decks, you need to get composite ones. Not that they won’t need some care but you won’t face the same problems as with real wood. BUT…composite lacks the beauty of authentic wood. Now, if you want real wood, it might become damaged (rot, warp, break, etc.). Some expensive hardwoods require less maintenance and stand better the test of time, but you’ll have to pay more (and they’ll still need some maintenance). This is food for thought before you make up your mind whether or not to invest in outdoor decks.

How to get started: the location

 

Decks are not built only at backyards, but also at front yards, around the pool, and on rooftops. Of course, these are possibilities only when you have the pool (or plan to build one), the roof, or enough room in the front garden. The truth is that most decks are installed at the backyard because this is where there’s often more space, closer to the living room & kitchen, and the part of the landscape we all want to spend our time.

Sometimes, the location is dictated by the property limitations. If you only have so much yard, that’s where you’ll build the deck. Period.

Other times, the decision on the location is dictated by the direction of your home and your personal preferences. You might want the deck looking west to watch the sunset or you might want the deck at a spot where it won’t be affected too much by the rain. Consider your privacy too (if you are not keen on spending most summer talking to the neighbor) or the view, if there’s a part in your landscape where you enjoy the sea or mountain (I am just saying).

And while you are here wondering about the location, find an answer to this question:

What’s your reason for investing in an outdoor deck?

I mean, if you fancy family dinners or dream of endless parties with friends, it would be convenient if the deck was attached to the house and as close as possible to the kitchen – who wants to go back and forth?

If it gets too hot in your location and would love a deck to enjoy the summer night breeze, perhaps you’d prefer a detached deck.

And don’t forget that decks can be built high above the ground and thus you can use the space underneath them for storage.

If the front yard is sloped, a multi-leveled deck will create fascinating steps that will increase the aesthetics dramatically.

  • When you think of the reasons why you want a deck, your landscape will shape your decision but don’t forget the following:

If you want enough space for a dining table or parties, the deck must be rather big. In other words, you have to crisscross what you want with what you can do based on how much space you’ve got.

Deck materials (and their significance)

Here’s the interesting thing. Although you are given several choices among deck materials, it’s function which shapes your decision – not aesthetics. Why? Because each material reacts differently to the weather and the elements while not all materials have the same strengths. Now, in case you haven’t noticed, we are lucky to live in a time of plenty of choices.

Although the first and only choice (up until recently) was wood, today we are given more choices among outdoor decking materials. In spite of its shortcomings though, wood is still the king. It is still the dominant option among deck materials and that’s why I’ll talk about them first.

Ipe – the glamorous option

Ipe belongs to the family of tropical hardwoods and when it comes to this category, the options range from mahogany and red tauari to cumaru and other exotic names of wood species.

One common characteristic of all hardwoods is density. That’s what makes them an ideal choice for deck building if you find the right company. Ipe (and its tropical hardwood cousins) is so dense and hard that’s very difficult to cut and work on. You need someone experienced for the job.

The hardness of ipe defines its durability but also the difficulty to stain it – if you choose to do so, you need to choose oil-based stains designed for hardwood decks. Ipe must weather for at least two months before it’s built into a deck so that it can leach out excessive oils and be finished easier.

Tropical hardwoods are expensive, especially if you compare them with more economical solutions like pressure-treated lumber. But the good news is that they last long and are very resistant to insects and rot. As for the aesthetical part, they are simply gorgeous and as time passes by, their deep red-brownish color turns into a silvery gray which gives them a great patina look.

Cedar & Redwood – the popular options

Although not all cedar and redwood options are the same, they are still popular choices for deck building. The difference mainly lies on which part of the tree is used for deck construction. Heartwood is the part closer to the center while the sapwood is the outer part. The more heartwood contained, the better. The proportions actually define the resistance of the deck. And both cedar and redwood can be pretty resistant when it comes to insects and rotting, but not when they contain substantial amounts of sapwood which is softer and thus prone to decay.

The price here is lower than ipe but considerably higher than pressure-treated lumber although the cost differs from one region to the next.

These wood species are popular choices due to their rich and beautiful color and durability – both sustained with maintenance. They both need to be finished with a water-repellent wood preservative so that the surface will be protected from splits, damage, weather, etc.

Pressure treated – the frugal option

It’s cheap and thus popular. It’s as simple as that. What’s the catch? It’s treated with chemicals. The ones used nowadays are considered safe but the ones used up until recently were considered harmful. Apart from this consideration, pressure-treated wood is more susceptible to damage, splitting, warping, and cracking than its counterparts and so demands greater care.

There’s a bright side to pressure-treated lumber though. The wood is chemically treated to remain resistant to insects, fungus, and rot. Since it’s popular, it’s easy to find everywhere and apart from its low price, it’s easy to cut. Why should you care about the latter? For two reasons:

  1. if you care to build the deck alone, and
  2. it won’t increase the price if you turn to a deck company (woods hard to cut might cost you more just for that: they are hard to cut).

Composite – the smart option

Composite decks grow in popularity and for a good reason too. They are resistant to the weather, stains, and rot and they won’t split, crack, or warp. Why? Because they are made of recycled plastic and some wood fibers.

Now, you can also find plastic lumber with no wood fibers at all on the market. They share the same qualities with their composite counterparts and are usually more expensive.

All in all, these are manmade materials and so too durable and too hard to become damaged, but are stripped from the elegance and warmth of the natural wood. But the fact that they don’t need staining, maintenance, and sanding makes them an attractive solution.

When it comes to composite decks, it’s good to know that they may still decay if they are not properly installed or cleaned since they still consist of wood fibers.

Aluminum – the alternative decks

I don’t know how outdoor decks will look in the future, but today aluminum decks are scarce – yet not shiny and cold as you may imagine them. Although I’ve only seen pictures of them, you cannot tell (but might feel) that this is aluminum. In this material’s defense, I must say that it sums up all the good stuff together:

It doesn’t rot, splinter, warp, crack, rust, or become damaged. It’s resistant to all weather conditions, stays cool under the sun, is not slippery, and won’t catch fire.

Insects hate it and you will love it, especially if you want second-story decks for undisturbed rainwater flow – given that you clean the debris. What you won’t like is the price. It’s the most expensive material these days.

Deck designs and shapes (and which factors affect your decision)

There are enough deck designs for all tastes and properties. Before you start thinking about designs, think about the size. This is subject to the size of the landscape (or the space you want to use for the deck). For instance, if you only have very limited space, avoid too many stairs and weird shapes that will make the small deck even smaller. And then consider the landscape. Is it uneven? Is the house built in a cliff? Are there steeped slopes? Such factors will also shape your decision on the shape and design of the deck.

And that’s not all. Your decision is also subject to your budget (the more intricate the design, the more it will cost you) and often the style of your home. It’s preferable to match the style (and color) of the house and the deck.

The deck design options are actually infinite and driven by the above factors. If the landscape has slopes, there will most likely be stairs. If the deck is high, installing railings will be a necessity for safety purposes alone but will affect the style. And there are options among wood, aluminum, and glass systems too.

One thing to consider is that the final deck design will be affected by other factors too. Are you planning to add a wood pergola too? Are there plants or trees all around? Wouldn’t you need outdoor lighting either to create ambiance or see what you eat? Deck decorations (with benches, garden furniture, planters etc.) will add a new character to the design. And don’t forget that most of that stuff occupies space. So think of all the things you want to do after before you make up your mind about the deck size and design.

And since we reached the point of talking about the after-the-deck-building period, let’s stretch out one main thing. Keep reading, please.

What comes after deck building (in one word: maintenance)

Even if you build a plastic, aluminum, or composite decking, pay attention. Know the maintenance requirements right from the start to avoid nasty surprises later. Naturally, when it comes to wood decks, the need for maintenance will never really end. But don’t give up on your deck maintenance so that your deck won’t give up on you. The least you can do is inspect it each spring for damage and have any required repairs done. And wash it. Keep it clean. Depending on the material, the deck might need staining from time to time. It’s the easy way to keep the color bright and the material durable.

All in all, decks need some maintenance but totally worth the extra efforts you put on them year after year. My only advice is this: choose the right material and design from the start and make sure it is built correctly so that it won’t become a safety concern. I really hope this is more or less what you expected to learn before you get started with a deck project. I keep my fingers crossed for you.

Alexia

Alexia studied sociology at Essex University and did postgraduate studies at Sussex University in the media field. In Greece she worked for many years in printed and electronic media. She has written and illustrated the children's book "Little Bobby Steps Into the World", which is available on Amazon. Today she is spending endless hours with homedearest.com, regularly writes articles for websites in America and Europe, and is a top rated content writer on Upwork. Alexia has always been interested in interior design and has written relative content over the years.

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