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Personal Finance > Five Tips
Enjoying summer on a new deck
5 Tips: Building a deck.
July 6, 2004: 3:41 PM EDT
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Summer's here and it's time to get that deck into shape -- or better yet, build a new one. While figures vary regionally, decks offer the highest payback of any upgrade to your home, returning 104 percent of the cost on average, according to Remodeling Online.

A recent study, interestingly, found that more Americans are building decks on their own instead of hiring a professional.

So what do you need to know before you put hammer to nail? Here are today's five tips.

1. Safety comes first.

Decks are among the most popular do-it-yourself construction projects.

In fact, a 2000 and 2001 survey from the Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 837,000 homeowners hired a professional to build their deck or porch while 1.1 million took the task on themselves. If you are among the do-it-yourselfers you'll want to make sure you take all the precautions to make for a safe deck.

First and foremost, you'll most likely be responsible for obtaining the permit to build a deck from your local municipality. This is the case whether you are hiring a professional or doing it on your own, according to Eric Stalemark, founder and President of (

Stalemark also says the local building department is a valuable resource that will help make sure your project is being built properly and that the contractor does a good job meeting the local codes.

If you start the job without a permit you may find yourself tearing down the deck before you even have a chance to enjoy it. You may also get stuck with a fine that can reach a couple of hundred dollars depending on where you live, while building permits for a deck cost about $50 on average.

A good building plan is also key before tackling the project. If your ability doesn't go beyond putting pen to paper but you are still determined to build the deck on your own then you may consider hiring a contractor or architect to help you come up with a plan.

Research plans at are geared toward the do-it-yourselfer. Here you can find printable plans to help you build safely, as well as a list of the materials you'll need and cost estimates. In addition, will be offering free pre-designed deck plans later this summer.

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If you're thinking of building a new deck, CNNfn's Gerri Willis has five tips for getting the best value and safest construction for your money.

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The two critical safety issues to consider when building a deck are how the deck is attached to the house and whether it is properly waterproofed, according to Sal Alfano, editor of Remodeling Magazine.

You may recall several news stories about decks collapsing with people on them. If the side of the deck attached to the house is simply nailed or screwed in the connection may not be strong enough and you risk it pulling away from the house. Instead you want to make sure to bolt the deck to the house so it doesn't pull out over time.

Furthermore, if the deck doesn't have proper drainage and water is able to leak into the side attached to the house, the material will start to decay and the support structure will be weakened. Sometimes the best way to prevent water damage is to avoid attaching the deck to the house in the first place and build a freestanding deck on posts that allow water to drain.

Another key issue is load, or just how much weight the deck can hold. Home improvement expert Lynda Lyday suggests one should get an engineer to approve the building plans and the load the deck can handle.

The general rule of thumb is 40 pounds per square foot plus the weight of the deck. Lyday also says it is important to know where the frost line is in your area. The holes supporting the posts need to be dug below the frost line; the depth in which soil freezes. This is necessary because when the ground freezes it will raise the deck and possibly hurt the structure.

2. Take advantage of new materials.

These days there are more and more materials available out of which to construct your deck.

Many homeowners are moving beyond traditional wood towards more unconventional materials such as aluminum, plastic, vinyl or even something called composite. When you think of synthetic you may think of Trex. Trex was among the first synthetics to hit the market, opening the door for others.

The appeal of these materials is that they are "low-maintenance" compared to wood. Still, Stalemark wants consumers to be aware that you do have to clean and maintain these products to some extent. The big difference is that while wood needs to be treated every couple of years to maintain its looks, the alternatives do not.

In the July issue of Consumer Reports, the magazine takes a look at the synthetic materials. After several years of testing it found that the products, when exposed to the elements, held up relatively well and maintained their strength. In fact, 12 of the 16 products tested were judged "excellent."

Consumer Reports "Best Buys"
Cost per 100 sq. ft.
Eon Deckboard$440
Veranda Composite$320
ChoiceDek Plus$300
WeatherBest Premium SP$440
Geodeck Tongue and Groove$430

The new materials have other advantages over solid wood. Besides being low-maintenance, they hold on to their looks, accumulating less mildew and few cracks. They offer a range of design options available in a number of colors, including white, gray and several shades of brown. They also have unusual textures: ridged, crosshatched and smooth, to name a few. And finally, though often more expensive than wood they are competitively priced.

Consumer Reports also came up with their "Best Buys" for the synthetics based on materials to cover 100 square feet of deck. On the list: Eon Deckboard for $440, Veranda Composite for $320, ChoiceDek Plus for $300, WeatherBest Premium SP for $440 and Geodeck Tongue and Groove has a price tag of $430.

Keep in mind that these prices do not include labor costs, which can easily exceed the cost of the materials. The price also doesn't include the cost of railings, stairs and the supporting structure. And, no matter which material you want to use on the surface, the supporting structure (posts, beams and joists) for the deck will almost always be made out of wood.

When working with synthetic materials, Jim Nanni, Manager of Testing at Consumer Reports, says you should always follow the manufacturer's instructions word for word.

You also want to make sure you use galvanized or stainless steel screws that won't leave rust streaks over time. There are also ceramic-coated screws available that come in several colors enabling them to blend in. If neatness is your thing then you may want to consider invisible fasteners that go beneath the deck so you don't see anything holding the boards in place. It gives your deck a smooth, uniform appearance.

3. Wood has its admirers.

If wood is your thing, there is no reason you should not stick with it. Many homeowners still prefer wood for its feel and smell. However, wood also means more maintenance.

Lyday suggests finding out the recommended treatment for wood from the lumber store or manufacturer. All wood needs to be cleaned regularly and have a water-repellant coating or sealant applied every couple of years to keep it from splintering and breaking down. You'll want to always use a treatment with a UV protection.

As far as staining the wood, the Consumer Reports tests show that the longest lasting and most economical treatments are opaque. These hide the wood grain much like a coat of paint. The next best are the semi-transparent treatments, which contain a small amount of pigment. The clear treatments were the least effective. Consumer Reports found that the Cabot opaque stains were among the best treatments. These will cost you less than $30 per gallon.

Amy Johnston, author of "What the Experts May Not Tell You About Building or Renovating Your Home," says choosing a product with some pigment will act like a sun block for your deck and will help slow down the weathering. But there is a big difference between staining a deck and painting it. You never want to paint it.

Nanni explains that a stain generally doesn't form a film on the surface, it rather penetrates it. Paint on the other hand is more like a film that you can scrape or peel off.

Other things you should avoid: Stalemark says you should never shovel snow off your deck. It will just scratch it up. And if you are planning on barbecuing on your deck this 4th of July weekend, be careful not to drop hot coals. Stalemark says too many times he has seen burn spots on the deck and the boards have had to be replaced.

4. The lowdown on carcinogens.

For nearly 70 years decks and several other outdoor structures were made of pressure-treated wood, which was infused with something called chromated copper arsenate, better known as CCA. CCA made the wood both insect and rot resistant.

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At the beginning of the year, the lumber industry voluntarily stopped production of CCA for residential use. The reason: CCA contains carcinogens that are believed to cause cancer.

However, if you already have a deck made out of CCA lumber, the Environmental Protection Agency says there is no need to tear it down. In fact, the agency has not concluded that the wood even poses a reasonable risk but rather acknowledges that people should reduce their exposure to the carcinogens.

The EPA does say, however, that you should always wash your hands when you come into contact with the wood and make sure food does not come into direct contact with it. And never burn CCA treated wood because the toxic chemicals could be released into the air.

There are now a number of non-arsenic containing preservatives used in pressure-treated wood taking the place of CCA. ACQ is a pinewood and is among the most popular. In fact, Consumer Reports recommends ACQ if you want solid wood for your deck. It found it deteriorated less compared to others and is reasonable, costing about $190 per 100 square feet.

However, while not a danger, ACQ has a high concentration of copper. As a result it can be quite corrosive to certain screws or fasteners. This is currently a concern among professionals.

5. Think outside the box.

Stalemark says that over the past 10 years there have been a growing number of professional deck builders getting more and more creative with their designs.

Personal finance
Home Improvements
Real Estate
Gerri Willis

Many homeowners no longer want the simple wood deck and railing. They are looking to create more of an environment then just a deck. Arbors, outdoor kitchens, screened enclosures, seating, even hot tubs and spas can all be customized while taking into consideration the size of your home and your budget.

Log onto and click on the Deck Photos section for some unique ideas. Johnston also points out that most of the home design computer programs such as Punch software have a deck design section. Johnston says they are user friendly and relatively inexpensive; around $69.

These programs will help you come up with a finished plan as well as a shopping list of the materials needed. You can even create images of how landscaping will grow around it over time.

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also is co-host of CNNfn's The FlipSide, weekdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to  Top of page

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