A Story About When To Replace A Deck
Are you wondering if your deck just needs a minor repair or is it time to be replaced?
If so, this deck story will help. It walks you through the process of discovering what to look for to determine when a deck can be repaired versus needs to be replaced. And you will learn how and where most decks start to rot.
The Story Begins With ...
I received a call one evening with a request to come take a look at a deck. The homeowner had recently noticed some problems and wanted an estimate for what it would cost to fix it. Of course, the only way to tell is to closely inspect the deck and find out not only what the problems are, but what is causing them.
An Aside About What To Look For ...
Determining the cause is very important. In about 80% of the cases I see, the deck substructure has reached the end of its life span because of rot and termites. Typically, the first small signs of problems indicate the beginning of wide spread substructure failures -- unless the damage is caused by a specific factor and localized.
Local Damage Usually Means Repair
Localized damage factors are usually pretty easy to spot and repair. One example is a plant container sitting on top of the deck boards that has overflowed so often that wet rot has started to decay the deck boards. In that case, the deck boards are discolored, damp and mushy only under the container. Another example is when termite damage is caught early and only one small area is effected.
If I find only local damage, all that is needed is a quick repair. And for these I recommend the homeowner hire a handyman or someone who does small repair jobs -- since they are the most cost effective.
There usually are clear signs when a deck is at the end of its life span. The deck frame begins to sag as rot makes the wood susceptible to termites. Termites eat their way through the wood, creating channels that allow water to seep in and accelerate the rotting process. This makes the wood even more vulnerable to termites, and starts an accelerating decay process that usually occurs throughout the entire substructure.
Common signs you can look for that indicate the deck is at the end of its life span include:
However, the best way to tell is to have a professional come and assess the status of your deck. Which is exactly what this homeowner did. And since the symptoms sounded like the damage was structural, we set up a convenient time to meet so I could inspect her deck and give her a good idea of her options.
Back To The Story ...
Once I arrived, the first clue was obvious from 20 feet away. What I saw was the entire structure was sagging in the middle. Close up, I could see that all five of the main support beams showed signs of rot. I also noticed right away that all of the vertical support posts were rotting as well. When I walked over and gave the railings a wiggle, they were all either loose or falling away.
Normally, I would next take a peek at the substructure to see how it looked. However, since this deck was built close to the ground and bricked in at the base -- I instead did a "walk over" test to see how strong and stable it was. In several places, the frame was giving way and the deck boards were sinking under my weight. Most of the deck boards were loose and pulling away from the frame -- and many of the ends of the boards were showing signs of rot.
The second story was in even worse condition -- and I was careful to step only on the deck boards that were directly supported by the beams. Given the condition of the deck, this was a clear case of needing to be replaced.
Sometimes, when the damage is less severe, homeowners wonder about the tradeoffs of repair versus replacement. In those cases, I try to present their options and the tradeoffs, so the homeowner can make an informed decision.
When a deck has started to decay in one area, usually it is only a matter of time before other areas start to show signs of decay too. So, investments made to repair the problem area do buy you time. But only until the next area decays to the point where it needs to be fixed. Each time you invest in buying more time, you need to weigh the cost of the short term extension of use versus the cost of a new deck averaged over its lifetime to see when it makes sense to replace the entire deck.
Since repair was not an option with this deck, the homeowner asked me to give her an estimate for an exact replacement. We talked about decking materials and their pros and cons, as well as the features she wanted duplicated. We spent about 20 minutes hammering out the design details and material choices so I could prepare an accurate estimate for a new deck.
I worked up an estimate and a detailed explanation of the job process -- and e-mailed a copy to her a week later for her review. About 5 days later, she called me to approve the estimate and book the project. A couple of days before starting, I dropped by to discuss construction details, like where to stack the new materials and tools, as well as arranging for access to electrical power and a bathroom.
And Here Is When The Fun Begins ...
When I demolished the old deck, I took a closer look at where the substructure had failed and why. I found that the original concrete patio had been bricked around -- causing a drainage problem when it rained. It did drain slowly, but the extra drainage time meant the frame would be subjected to a lot of moisture. This explained why the bottom of the original support posts were completely rotted from the ground up -- and the reason why the whole deck sagged.
My solution was to use all pressure treated wood for the frame and to raise the vertical posts off the ground with a "pad" of Trex ™ composite material -- which is impervious to water and will help the posts withstand the moisture. I also did a double treatment of copper based preservative to help all the pressure treated wood resist moisture damage.
I try to be a good steward of the property when I am on site, and this job was no exception.
My first encounter with Blue (my nickname for the owner's independent tomcat who lived under the house) involved snarling, hissing and a fast retreat on his part. But, by the end of the project, you can see that Blue had decided I need close-up supervision -- a service he was willing to provide in exchange for lots of petting and scratching behind the ears.
Below are some dramatic side by side comparison photos. For more information about this project, see the Los Angeles Double Decker Craftsman Wood Deck in my portfolio.
From the side, you can see the complexity and "homey" front porch feel the owner wanted to keep.
I also redesigned the second story deck to make more aesthetically pleasing and safer by railing off access to the roof.
Please do not copy photos and text
Last Updated: Jul 26 2012