Deck & Patio Additions

So, you're considering adding a deck on to your house. Good move. Not only will a deck add significant value to your house in the event you choose to sell or reassess a mortgage, but it provides tremendous aesthetic benefits and improves quality of life, something that can't easily be quantified but is just as important.

Deck vs. Patio

It's important to know just what it is you want to add on to your house – many people often use the terms "deck" and "patio" interchangeably. Understanding the differences between the two will help when shopping for materials, drawing up blueprints, and even simply speaking with home improvement store staff or negotiating with contractors.

  • Deck: The term deck originally referred to the upper weight-supporting structures found on a ship, but has been adapted to mean any elevated outdoor structure found on the back or side of a house.
  • Patio: A patio, on the other hand, is not elevated—it's a ground-level structure that can be made out of a material as simple as concrete, or as complex as tilework or brick.

Common Deck Materials

Traditionally, residential decks in the United States are made out of wood. However, another option is to purchase deck materials made of composite materials, a blend of different substances often incorporating recycled plastic, sawdust and other scrap wood. Composite deck materials come in their own varieties, generally hollow or solid. Hollow decking is weaker before installation, and can be more exposed to fungal rot, but is less expensive; solid composite decking is heavier and looks more like real wood, but is more expensive and can expand and contract due to temperature and atmospheric humidity.

So which deck material is best? Some people prefer the traditional look of wood, and are familiar with its upkeep. Wood will need regular resealing to protect it from the elements and prevent any peeling, cracking or warping. Composite material, on the other hand, is a low-maintenance option that will reduce eventual maintenance costs, but it comes with a larger up-front investment. For example, the materials necessary for treated lumber decks can cost between $7 and $9 on average per square foot, while composite deck materials average between $14 and $15 per square foot. The choice comes down to budget, aesthetics, and commitment to future maintenance. Here's what it costs to build the different types. 

Researching Local Building Codes

Adding a brand new deck or extending an existing one involves more than simply creating a new aesthetic feature for a home. Because it's a reinforced structure that will have to bear the load of people, your city and county may have specific codes to follow and permits to obtain; check with local offices. Another good resource for to help manage paperwork and avoid red tape is a homeowner's association or neighborhood board, where you'll find experienced homeowners who've navigated the process before you.

Preparing the Site

One easy way to visualize where you'll place a deck is to purchase mason string attached to wooden stakes. This will allow you to outline the footprint of the proposed deck and will help you create a more accurate estimate of how much material you'll need.

Once plans are drawn up for a deck, it's important to check your property for buried power lines, gas transfer systems, utility cables, sewer pipes and other underground infrastructure that could inhibit the construction – or that you could inadvertently damage. Most cities and counties have specific hotlines homeowners can call to have such features identified and marked; consult your own local government offices. It's important to clear the area of any debris that can impede the construction.

Deck Terminology

It's important to understand the different phrases and terms involved in decking so that you can communicate with an experienced contractor, if you decide to hire one.

  • Beams/Girders: The horizontal beams that create the base and surface of the deck
  • Posts: The vertical beams set deep into the ground, often fixed with gravel and concrete
  • Ledger: The special board used to fix the deck's main structure to the side of the house
  • Joist: The additional horizontal boards you can see in a deck's underframe, providing additional support
  • Balusters: These are support pillars placed between posts
  • Rise/Run: These are the terms builders of decks use to describe the height and depth of steps, if you decide to add a staircase (or steps to a lawn, for a lower deck)

Expanding an Existing Deck

If your house already has a deck, you may want to consider expanding it. This is a terrific way to take advantage of the natural contours of your property to create a more dramatic outdoor space. You could consider widening a deck or lengthening a deck, though depending on what sort of railings you have on your existing deck, this could mean scrapping a good amount of decking.

One popular option is to add a different level to the deck. Not only will this create new spaces and allow for multiple intimate areas, it makes the transition between the new and the old deck less noticeable – no matter the circumstance, it will be virtually impossible to exactly match brand new decking to existing decking that's been exposed to the sun, rain and snow. Regardless of which option you pursue, it's essential to verify that an existing deck is structurally sound before adding new construction – otherwise you'll jeopardize your new investment as well as your safety.

Deck Maintenance

As with most aspects of homeownership, good maintenance prevents future damage. The biggest threats to a deck are the Three W's: water, weight and wear. Water can affect the structural integrity of both wood and composite decking alike. Exceeding a weight capacity is the primary reason for deck collapse, and regulations should be strictly followed. Finally wear involves the regular use of a deck, from the minor movements caused by people walking on top of it to the weather – keep an eye out for small problems before they become large ones.

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