For more living space without paying for the cost of an addition or just to add some outdoor living, consider a deck.
But before contacting a contractor, do your homework.
"Make sure that you know what you want (as to) color, material, style and size," says John Tatarelli of JT Decks and Improvements in Elmwood Park, N.J. "Once the job is complete it (may) be too late to make changes, and if changes can be made they will be costly."
Along with cedar and pressure-treated lumber, there are a number of synthetic and composite materials that can look like wood but offer pluses (they do not splinter, warp or rot) and minuses (problems with color consistency, rot and recalls). There also are steel products to consider.
"If (homeowners) plan on meeting with more than one contractor, it is extremely important that they ask for identical scopes of work to compare apples to apples," to set a standard for comparison, says Greg DiBernardo of Bergen Decks in Waldwick, N.J.
Make sure the contractor is professional, returns calls promptly and is a deck specialist with thorough knowledge of products, techniques, codes and best practices. Also, ask for recent references and be wary of a contractor whose past three projects are not deck related.
Always keep in mind the three R's of hiring: references, reputation and reliability. Also, make sure to get proof of insurance.
Anyone who wants to build a deck will need a permit — along with strong carpentry and masonry skills. It's no weekend warrior project.
"A homeowner would need to be extremely skilled, knowledgeable and be fully equipped with specialty tools to construct a safe deck from the ground up," DiBernardo says.
Having a helper is important, as two people are needed at key times to place and fasten boards. Among the tools needed are a circular saw, a 4-foot level, work table, drill, shovel to dig for footings, mixing tub for cement and mason's tools. A 12-inch radial-arm saw instead of the circular saw makes things a lot easier.
For a 12- by 16-foot basic deck, these are minimum costs:
• Pressure-treated lumber, $4,000.
• Cedar, $5,500.
• Composite, $7,500.
• Synthetic (premium PVC decking and premium railings), $15,000.
For demolition of an existing deck, expect to pay $750 to $1,000, including removal.
Some existing decks may get by with a repair instead of replacement.
"The homeowner should always look at the frame and supports to see if they are in good condition," says Tatarelli. "If the frame and/or supports are rotting, then it is time to replace the deck. If the problem is a question of a few bad boards, broken rails or steps, then a deck could be repaired."
What's in the reach of less-skilled homeowners are repairs.
Time and weather can damage wood, and it often shows most on the floor planks, top rails and where steps meet the ground.
The easiest fix is if the wood is screwed in — not nailed — and the boards are straight runs (no angles). Use a drill with appropriate bit to take out screws and remove boards.
To remove nails, use a hammer to drive the blunt end of a pry tool (claw bar) under nail heads. This will expose the heads, allowing for a claw hammer to pull them out. For top rails that are nailed, strike from below with a hammer to loosen.
For boards with no angle cuts, measure the length needed, cut new wood and install with 2 ½-inch deck screws.
For angle cuts — almost always at 45 degrees — cut one end of new wood at a 45, put into open space on deck and mark the other end to fit. Cut another 45 at the marking, then install board.
The same steps apply for top rails.
For stringboard — the angled, vertical pieces that hold up the steps — carefully remove the damaged wood. New stringboard can be bought precut; buy a piece that can accommodate the same number of steps.
Before fastening stringer to the side board in the same fashion the previous one was, place patio block or similar underneath it so the wood does not come into contact with the ground. Lay a level from one stringboard to the other to check for levelness. Cut new treads to length and fasten with screws.