What to Consider Before Building or Renovating an Outdoor Deck

by Lee Wallender

Build a deck that fits your budget and extends your outdoor life throughout the seasons

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 offers a paradise of fresh air, natural light, plants, and flowers. An outdoor deck ties 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. A 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 decks

  • Freestanding decks

Freestanding decks, also called floating or ground-level decks, hug closer to grade than do attached decks. It’s best to build these outdoor 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, though, should follow all applicable building codes.

  • Attached or fixed decks 

Attached, or fixed, decks are more elaborate structures than freestanding decks. They rise over a minimum height, 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

The steps to building or renovating a deck

Building a new outdoor deck will involve all of the following steps, while renovating a deck may require only part of the process. Usually, it takes between one and three weeks to build a new deck, though preliminary steps (such as digging holes for the footers) may have occurred earlier.

  1. The homeowner meets with the deck builder to discuss their vision for the deck. The builder will advise the homeowner on appropriate styles and designs.
  2. Next, the team draws up detailed blueprints and prices out materials to create a solid cost estimate for the homeowner.
  3. The builder submits deck plans to the building department. Technicians visit to mark the site for underground services.
  4. Site preparation starts by staking out string around the outline of the deck. This is the time to remove any necessary sod.
  5. After you establish the position of the piers and footers, you then dig the holes. After that, you set the piers and footers. Then, install the ledger board on the house. Support posts are installed, followed by beams and joists.
  6. After you establish the general structure, nail (and then trim) the decking boards.
  7. Add additional features such as stairs and railings. 
  8. If needed, stain and seal the deck for durability.

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

Decking materials

Pressure-treated lumber is the most common material for the lower structural part of the deck. Although code requirements may be a factor in lower deck 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 deck structure does not need to be rebuilt.

  1. Composites: Most composite material is made of recycled plastics and wood fibers. Wood composite is a favorable material due to its softness underfoot and durability. Wood composite decks do not need staining or sealing, either initially or at any point in their lifespan. Composites’ colors can fade over time, especially in sunnier areas. While composites are low-maintenance, they are not maintenance-free. Like other decking materials, you must periodically clean composite wood of moss, mold, and mildew, especially if the deck is in shade.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. Although they’re expensive, tropical hardwoods help both the deck and the home maintain value over the years, even into resale.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The best time to build or renovate a deck

Inclement weather will complicate any type of building project. Tarping the deck during precipitation may improve conditions during construction, but crews usually work without a cover. Additionally, frozen ground can slow digging of the holes for the footers. Although late spring to mid-fall is the most comfortable time to build or renovate, 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

Average sizes and costs of decks

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 the cost, while a wood deck brings a resale value of 72.1%, according to the report. Premium decks with full-service features, similar to all-purpose outdoor entertainment areas, can range up to 2,000 square feet in suburban areas north of downtown Chicago. However, they generally remain between 200 and 400 square feet. Deck sizes in downtown Chicago tend to be smaller, but are higher and have multiple levels. Decks in this area average between 70 to 120 square feet. Costs can range from $40,000 to $60,000 but can increase with extra features. For example, when the deck extends and includes larger amenities, like a swimming pool, costs range between $100,000 to $150,000

For general contractor Chris, an average deck size is in the range of 25 feet by 14 feet, with a total square footage of 250 square feet. Deck-building costs are highly variable, said Facini. 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 tp 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.

It’s undeniable that a deck brings the joy of expanding your living and entertaining area. Understand the costs, timing, and material choices, and you’ll be one step closer to your own patch of nature.

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.

Explore other stories