Decks: How to Decide Which Way to Go — Wood or Composite

Wooden deck of family home at summer.

Adding on or remodeling a deck—maybe, enlarging it to fit more people and furniture—ranks high on most homeowner’s wish lists. It provides a way to expand living space in good weather as well as increase a homeowner’s connection with nature. Spending time outdoors has been proved to boost serotonin levels and our happiness quotient. Even looking at nature or images is said to have a positive effect on a person’s body and brain, according to a 2015 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

 

In fact, the latest 2018 annual “Cost vs. Value” report from Remodeling magazine, puts a mid-priced deck remodel near the top of the list of strong homeowner paybacks—with an 82.8 percent return on investment for a wood deck and a lower but still good 63.6 percent return when a deck is constructed from composite materials. Composite surfaces are fabricated from bits of wood along with plastic, although the exact contents each manufacturer uses varies.

 

Today there’s lots of debate about which material to go with because of the differences in aesthetics, durability, price, and maintenance. In general, the wood deck not only offers a bigger return on investment, but also a less expensive initial price outlay—an average of $10,950 nationwide, according to the Remodeling survey, versus $17,668 for the composite material. And many homeowners today want to lower any upfront costs they can.

 

A very real downside of wooden decking is its vulnerability to the elements.

However, the downside of most wood used for decks reflects another challenge homeowners face with many improvement projects—what will do the job and not make maintenance a nightmare? After a few years of hard wear and tear from people, pets, Mother Nature, insects, and fungal decay, a homeowner will have to sand, restain, and repaint the typical wood deck to keep it looking as good as when it was installed. If the aforementioned threats are severe enough in their treatment of the deck, you may be forced to replace worn out boards as well. Besides the price tag for any work, sometimes finding a competent contractor to tackle it and know which type of paint or stain to use can be a challenge, too. Of course, if the homeowner is handy, that’s one less headache they face.

 

The alternative is to pay more for at the onset for composite boards and gain the advantage of a longer lasting surface that will look good over time even with wear and inclement weather. This can be especially important if you rent out your property as an investment and post pictures on social media to attract tenants. People today do shop with their eyes in addition to their wallets.

 

Repair and replacement of an old wooden deck or patio with modern composite plastic material.

Since every choice has its pros and cons, here’s another downside to weigh if you decide to go with a composite. There are more manufacturers producing variations—some even with graining to more closely resemble wood’s texture and in many more palettes than just browns and grays. The downside here is that many don’t resemble wood exactly, just to a degree. And sometimes that may make a big difference to a buyer or renter, especially when the house is old, and a more authentic look is desired.

 

 

Here’s more to weigh as you decide which way to go, according to flipper and DIYer Paul Kazanofski, owner of Revision Homes, LLC in Nashville, Tenn: Consider taking a walk or drive around your neighborhood and seeing firsthand the options and comparing them rather than just studying them online.

 

Typically, pressure treated wood is used for installing a wooden deck.

Wood. The first consideration should be the type of wood you may want to select—pressure treated or exotic. The differences are significant. Treated is usually purchased in 2-foot-by-4-foot, 6-foot or 8-foot lengths. The boards are dipped in chemicals to keep them from rotting due to weather, wear, fungal decay and being eaten by termites, so they last longer. These days the chemicals are safer to be around than some were in the past.  However, because of the treatment, they can’t be stained or painted immediately but need six to eight weeks or more to dry. Once completed, the protection usually will keep them in good shape for anywhere from three to five years, though severe weather on a regular basis and heavy foot traffic may mean they need maintenance sooner. Your eyes will help you decide. One essential is for a homeowner, investor or contractor to buy the right products at their local paint or hardware store by sharing with the store employee that the paint or stain is to be used for a deck rather than interior application.  In general, most nontreated 2-by-4-foot boards average $2 versus the pressure treated ones that run $3, or 1 ½ times that cost.

 

Exotic and higher-end woods that include species such as ipe, mahogany and teak will last longer but are also more expensive, sometimes as much as $30 for the same size 2-by-4-foot board. They also may take longer to locate at a store or lumber yard because they’re rarer, and they require a sealant afterward, too.

 

Composite Decking Example from TREX SELECT® in Saddle and Winchester Grey.
Railing: Trex Select in Classic White. Photo courtesy of Trex.

Composite. This alternative has gained in popularity because it lasts longer than most similarly sized pressure treated wood decks. The materials that the boards are fabricated from have a greater ability to withstand rain, snow, sleet and bugs from entering pores and causing rotting or mildew damage, says Kazanofski. In addition, they don’t require a sealant to be applied. Though Trex® may be the best-known example in the same way that Kleenex® is the most celebrated of all tissue makers, there are other lesser known types that can be equally effective and attractive and sometimes less costly. Generally, expect to pay about double or more what you would for the pressure treated lumber, though your choice may last three to four times longer.  

 

 

Trex Transcend Decking photo courtesy of Trex.

When all is said and done, decide what you want to pay initially, how much maintenance you’re willing to undertake, how much additional cost you will be ready to pay to maintain the look of your deck, and which style you prefer both for your house, as well as to fit it into your landscape and neighborhood. Kazanofski, a home-buying investor, prefers to go with a treated wood deck in almost all cases since the initial outlay is less than for a composite surface and he has found it still looks “nice enough over time, even if it needs some periodic sprucing up. It’s also half the cost,” he says.

 

At the same time, he acknowledges that a homeowner adding a deck or remodeling one already part of the house may have a different agenda. “If they plan to stay in the house for years to come, they may be willing to spend more initially, then sit back and relax that they will have less work and cost over time,” he says.

 

Maybe, Concrete? Before you make your decision, you may also want to consider concrete, which can look quite industrial and hip as a deck surface and last for 5 to 10 years, depending on the paint or stain applied on top of it. The initial cost, however, can be twice as much as pressure treated wood, though a bit less than composite decks.

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