Wood decks are rapidly being replaced by plastic, aluminum and other man-made decking materials, which are prized for their easy maintenance. Builders are making decks into showpieces, with multiple levels, custom railing and other perks.
Even wood is getting an upgrade, with some buyers seeking out rare, tropical hardwoods for their durability.
When Ron Spillers first began building decks in the Seattle area 20 years ago, the average deck was made of cedar and cost less than $5,000. Now, Spillers’ company, West Coast Decks, charges closer to $20,000.
That’s partly because 90 percent of his customers choose man-made decking materials, which are 40 percent more expensive.
Spillers, who builds 140 decks a year, says business is booming again after a two-year slump.
“There’s a lot of pent-up desire to fix up homes instead of buying new ones,” he says. “People aren’t afraid to take a risk on a $20,000 to $30,000 deck project.”
You don’t have to spend that much to have a great deck. A simple cedar deck with no railings or benches can cost around $15 per square foot, including labor and materials, Spillers says.
Man-made materials tack on cost, but you can pay that back over time because you will spend less on sealants and cleaning products. Railings cost around $35 per foot.
No matter how much you spend, an investment in a new deck will pay dividends. According to Remodeling Magazine’s 2010-2011 survey, homeowners who build a deck can get up to 73 percent of their investment back when they sell their home.
Here is a rundown of the various decking materials on the market, their advantages and disadvantages, and how much they cost:
Wood: Most homeowners still choose wood when they build a deck, for its cost as well as its authentic look, according to Bill Fields, vice president of lumber sales at Lowe’s, the home improvement chain.
It’s also durable. The undersides of most decks, even plastic ones, are still made of pressure-treated lumber, although steel frames are starting to come into the market.
Pressure-treated pine is the least expensive material, and costs as little as $10 per square foot including labor (or around $2 per square foot to buy and build yourself).
Cedar and redwood are popular but more expensive options. At the top end are hardwoods like ipe, which is grown in South America and is closer to $30 per square foot.
There are downsides to wood. It tends to change color, crack and absorb stains. It also requires more maintenance, including cleaning and staining every year or two. And some hardwoods aren’t harvested sustainably.
Composite: Composite decking is made of plastic and wood fiber. Trex was one of the first brands on the market 15 years ago; TimberTech and Fiburon are other brand names.
Composite looks a lot like real wood, but it’s less likely to rot or get infested with insects than real wood, and it’s less slippery. It’s also easier to maintain; it doesn’t need staining and it can be washed off occasionally with a deck cleaner.
Because it contains up to 50 percent wood, composite is still more susceptible to stains and mildew than plastic decking, according to Consumer Reports. It will also lose 10 percent to 15 percent of its color over time.
Trex’s Transcend brand has a limited 25-year fade and stain-resistance warranty.
It costs around $18 to $25 per square foot, including labor, to install composite decking.
Plastic: Plastic, or PVC, decking is newer to the market and is basically composite without the wood fiber. Azek is one of the major manufacturers.
Plastic decking is less likely to stain and fade than composite, and it stays cooler in direct sunlight. It’s also more expensive, since it’s petroleum-based.
Get Decked, a Philadelphia-area deck building company, installs Azek for $34 per square foot.
When plastic decking first hit the market, it didn’t look much like wood, but manufacturers have made a lot of improvements over the last decade, Spillers says.
Azek has a limited lifetime warranty for residential customers, and a 20-year warranty for commercial users.
Many companies, including Trex, are also making slightly less expensive “hybrid” decking, with a plastic coating over a composite shell.
Aluminum: Aluminum has long been used in deck railings, but is sometimes used for the decks themselves. Aluminum decking is light but tough, slip resistant and lasts a long time.
LockDry is one of the major brands on the market. It’s built to be waterproof, so it’s a good choice for a deck built over a living space.
Another manufacturer, Versadeck, promises that its decking won’t have the “ping” sound that comes from walking across aluminum. Aluminum decks generally offer limited lifetime warranties.
The bottom line: Aluminum won’t be mistaken for wood. It comes in fewer colors than composite or PVC and doesn’t have the warmth of wood.
It’s also the most expensive option, starting around $1 to $2 more per square foot than plastic, according to Consumer Reports.