What to Know: Building or Renovating an Outdoor Deck

Outdoor decks provide space for year-round gatherings and add revalue to a home

outdoor deck, outdoor patio, outdoor deck designs, outdoor patio designs (Above) Renovation by Sweeten general contractor Mike in Chicago

You don’t need to confine your living space to the inside of your home. Your backyard or side yard can offer a paradise of fresh air, natural light, plants, and flowers. Outdoor decks tie these two living spaces while also adding to the value of your home.

Think of a deck as the perfect connection from inside to outside. An outdoor deck elevates users from the ground and provides a unique view of your property and beyond. Decks also can be a centerpiece of outdoor social life, a gathering place for barbecues, parties, or even restful solitude.

“Decks are a great way to add space to your property,” said New Jersey-based Sweeten general contractor Chris. “By extending your outdoor living seasons, they basically make your home larger.” Sweeten, a free renovation platform that matches homeowners with licensed general contractors and tracks their projects, explains what you need to know about building or renovating an outdoor deck.

Types of outdoor decks

Freestanding outdoor decks

Freestanding decks, also called floating or ground-level decks, hug closer to grade than attached decks. You can build these decks alongside the house or anywhere within the yard.

Many municipalities don’t require building permits for outdoor deck designs less than a certain height above grade (often 30 inches) and not built over a basement or lower story. The deck area may not be part of an accessible route to either of these lower areas. The deck should still follow all applicable building codes.

Attached or fixed decks

Attached, or fixed, decks are more elaborate structures than freestanding decks. They may be taller, require special footings, use guards and handrails, and attach to the home with a ledger board. Because this deck design is complex, most homeowners will hire a contractor or other professional to build an attached deck.

Attached decks better integrate with the home, compared to freestanding decks. Maxx, a designer for this Sweeten general contractor in Chicago, said that his company aims to blur the line between inside and outside. “We allow the exterior to be an extension of the indoors,” he said, “and we like to have the indoor flow to the outside so that it doesn’t feel like an appendage. We like to take the whole-house approach.”

Fiberglass outdoor deck remodel by Sweeten contractor Chris(Above) Fiberglass deck remodel by Sweeten contractor Chris in New Jersey

How do you build an outdoor deck?

Building a new outdoor deck will require all of the following steps, while renovating a deck may involve only a subset. Building a new deck usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks.

  • The homeowner meets with the deck builder to discuss their vision for the deck. The builder may advise the homeowner on appropriate styles and designs.
  • Next, the team draws up detailed blueprints and prices out materials to create a solid cost estimate for the homeowner.
  • The builder submits deck plans to the building department. City technicians visit to mark the site so digging doesn’t damage underground services.
  • They prepare the site by staking out string around the outline of the deck, and removing any necessary sod.
  • After establishing the position of the piers and footers, the builders create the the deck: dig the holes; set the piers and footers; install the ledger board on the house; install the posts, followed by beams and joists.
  • After they establish the general structure, they attach and trim the decking boards.
  • They add additional features, such as stairs and railings. 
  • If needed, they stain the deck, and seal it for weather resistance.

deck, patio (Above) Outdoor kitchen on deck by Sweeten contractor John in Long Island, New York

What materials are used in outdoor decking?

Pressure-treated lumber is the most common material for the lower structural part of the deck. Although code requirements may determine lower decking materials, there are several options available for the top deck. One way to renovate a deck is to remove old deck materials from an existing deck and replace them. This method reduces costs since the entire outdoor decking structure does not need to be rebuilt.

  • Composites: Most composite material is made of recycled plastics and wood fibers. Wood composite is a popular material due to its softness underfoot and durability. Wood composite decks don’t ever need staining or sealing. However, colors can fade over time, especially in sunnier areas. While composites are low-maintenance, they are not maintenance-free. Like other outdoor decking materials, you must periodically clean composite wood of moss, mold, and mildew, especially if the deck is in shade.
  • Fiberglass: “Fiberglass deck material is very popular now,” said Chris. “It can be painted or stained and it lasts forever.” Slip-resistant fiberglass panels overlap to form a continuous solid surface, which is beneficial when decking over a lower area needs to stay dry. Fiberglass deck panels do not rot, rust, or harbor mildew; which makes this material ideal for high-moisture conditions.
  • Tropical hardwoods: Ipe and tigerwood are two common species of tropical hardwoods used for decking materials. These dense woods are difficult to cut and drill, but their density means that the deck’s longevity will beat that of pressure-treated wood, redwood, and cedar. Because of their natural fire resistance, building codes may allow some tropical hardwoods in situations where other woods aren’t an option. Tropical hardwoods are expensive—but they may help both the deck and the home maintain value over the years, even into resale.
  • Redwood and cedar: Redwood and cedar are softwoods mainly sourced from western states. These materials are a good compromise between expensive tropical hardwoods and pressure-treated wood. These kinds of wood are imbued with natural tannins and oils, and do not require chemical preservatives.
  • Pressure-treated wood: The most economical choice is pressure-treated wood. Southern yellow pine, which is pressure-injected with chemicals that help the wood resist rot and wood-boring insects, is popular. One disadvantage to pressure-treated wood decking is that the wood splinters easily and isn’t safe for walking on with bare feet. Be sure to always coat pressure-treated deck materials on top to extend their durability. Because of these issues, Sweeten contractor Chris says that pressure-treated wood has become less popular for upper deck materials, though it is always used for the lower structure.

What is the best time to build an outdoor deck?

Inclement weather will complicate any building project. Tarping the deck during rain or snow may improve conditions during construction, but it’s usually easier for crews to work without a cover. Frozen ground can slow digging. Late spring to mid-fall is the most comfortable and efficient time to build or renovate. Nevertheless, most deck builders work year-round. The trick to working through all seasons, said Chris, is to dig the holes for the footers in advance—before the ground freezes.

outdoor deck hamptons(Above) Renovation in Bridgehampton, NY by Sweeten general contractor John

How much does it cost to build an outdoor deck? 

The average national cost for a deck addition is $14,360, according to Remodeling’s Cost vs Value report. A composite deck returns 66.8% of its cost in added home value, while a wood deck returns 72.1%. Premium decks with full-service features, similar to all-purpose outdoor entertainment areas, can range up to 2,000 square feet in suburban areas. Deck sizes in downtown areas tend to be smaller (between 70 to 120 square feet), but the decks are often higher and with multiple levels. Costs can range from $40,000 to $60,000, increasing with extra features. For example, when a deck extends and includes larger amenities, like a swimming pool, costs can exceed $100,000.

According to Facini,  deck-building costs are highly variable. They depend on factors like decking materials, condition of the site, grade, number of decks and their height, plus special items like glass railings. Generally, you can expect decking material to cost around $20 to $30 per square foot for composites or tropical hardwoods like teak. Overall, total costs generally range from $25,000 to $30,000.

Beginning to build your ideal outdoor deck

Decks bring joy to so many homeowners by expanding their living and entertaining area, and by offering such practical access to the outdoors. Sweeten’s expert general contractors have helped homeowners envision, plan, and build outdoor decks. Post your project for free to get matched with a Sweeten expert decking contractor today.

Here are five tips on renovating your backyard from materials to what goes into planning your outdoor space.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

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