A well-made deck is a strong feature for any home. Whether you want somewhere to relax on a sunny day, or a place to feed and entertain guests, few other areas can offer the utility and luxury of a deck.
If you decide that you would like a deck in your home, then there are two main avenues to consider. You may decide to build one yourself, or to hire a contractor to do it for you. The DIY approach has some benefits, such as being generally much cheaper and giving plenty of satisfaction that you have built an addition to your home. However, this approach should only be taken if you are confident that you have all the necessary skills to do it right, as the potential risks can be huge. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for people to attempt to build their own decks without the necessary knowledge or skills, only for it to result in an unsafe, expensive failure (there are even DIY shows, such as Disaster Decks, dedicated to fixing these backyard catastrophes). For those who have the proper training and experience, the DIY approach is a great way to cut costs. For everyone else, however, hiring a reputable contractor is certainly the right decision.
So how do you go about choosing a contractor and making sure they do a good job?
Hiring a contractor to build your deck is not risk-free, and for every honest individual, there is usually someone else without any such professional integrity who may be very happy to take your money, but will not give much expertise to the construction of your deck. The guidance and tips within this article should give you some better insight into the entire process of hiring a decking contractor, and which qualities you should look for or avoid.
Before you look for a deck contractor
Before you begin your search for a professional deck builder in Northern Virginia or Washington D.C., do your best to plan out the sort of deck you want. Don’t worry about the really nitty-gritty details for now as your contractor can help you to finalize these plans later. But have a basic concept which you can share with your contractor to speed along the design and planning process.
Some things to consider when planning your deck:
Size and Location
Depending on the layout of your house, finding a suitable location for your deck should be fairly straight forward. Try to measure out the size that you would like as this will allow for more accurate estimates for price, and may also influence the type of material used for your decking.
Options such as pressure-treated lumber are usually cost effective and more resistant to weather and water damage than normal lumber, but can warp or crack when used to construct larger decks. This material also requires a fair amount of maintenance to stay in pristine condition.
Wood such as cedar, or some types of foreign hardwood, offer a lot of natural beauty and rot-resistance. They are generally the most expensive option for decking material, and still require some annual maintenance to stay in prime condition, but offer a lot of style.
Lastly, composite decks are made from recycled plastics mixed with natural wood fibres (although entirely plastic lumber is available too), and offer a large improvement on some wooden alternatives as they are highly weather-resistant and unlikely to warp or split. The idea of a plastic deck might not be what some people are looking for, and despite the hardiness, they still require a little maintenance to avoid mildew.
Features such as handrails, staircases and steps, and special features such as pergolas or built-in planters should be roughly planned in advance so that you can discuss the expense and expected time to complete the project. If given free-reign on design, a contractor may make decisions along the path of least resistance to minimize risk and hassle and get the job completed quickly (although this might be what you’re looking for if on a tight budget). It’s your deck after all, so let the contractor how you want it.
Be sure to ask your local building authority if you need a permit for this project, and if possible take the initiative to organize it yourself. Some contractors may offer to do this for you, or try to give you an answer without checking, but it is you who will have to take responsibility for the aftermath should they get it wrong. Minimize risk before you even begin searching for a contractor.
Finding a deck contractor
When looking for a deck contractor (or any type of contractor) always consider and compare several individuals or companies for the project. Five is a good number to aim for, but the bigger the job, the more contractors you should consider. It is usually better to pick a contractor who specializes in deck construction, rather than a general builder, as they are more likely to be up-to-date on the relevant building code requirements to make a safe and legal deck.
There are several different ways to find deck contractors. Searching online has many benefits as you can usually find a customer rating which will indicate the quality and experience of the contractor. Just keep in mind that not every online review is a genuine one, so still exercise regular caution when considering a contractor who is highly reviewed, and don’t forego deeper checks based on a good online rating. You can also mix up this process and post on social media looking for recommendations, and let the contractors come to you.
Another resource is referrals from friends who have had a deck built. This often has the added advantage of allowing you to go and visit friends to see the final deck and how it has fared since construction ended. As with contractors you have found online, be sure to thoroughly check that everything is in order before agreeing to any work. Just because your friend had a good outcome, this does not guarantee that they are the right contractor for you.
Interviewing a contractor
Ask lots of questions during the interview stage, and gather as much information about each contractor as you can.
Quotes and estimates
As part of the process for choosing a contractor, you should ask for estimates and quotes for the cost of project and deadline for completion. Be wary that an estimate is a rough guess which is not legally binding in any way, but they are a good start in understanding the market and finding out which prices are fair, and which are suspicious. Quotes are an exact price for the project which are legally binding and form part of the contract. Always get estimates and quotes in print before choosing a contractor, and ensure detailed breakdowns for materials, labour, etc. But do not form your decision based just on price, as there are other aspects to consider. Prepare to pay a little extra should a contractor encounter problems outside of the scope of the quote, which is sometimes the case.
Double check which type of licenses or insurance a contractor must have in your area (it can differ from state to state) and ensure that anyone you consider can give you proof that they have this paperwork. It is also prudent to check for complaints against a contractor, or previous legal problems they may have had.
Experience and References. Ask how long each contractor has been in business and try to get between three and five references from each contractor you consider. Follow up on each and every one, and if you have time, ask the referees if they would mind sending some photos of the completed projects, or arranging a visit, so can see the kind of work they do. Putting in some time to do your homework will pay dividends when you come to making a decision on who to hire.
As with the price, try to get an estimate of the timeline, and make sure that a completion deadline is included within the contract. Ask your contractor when they can begin construction, and be vigilant if they say they can begin right away – the best contractors are usually the busiest ones.
Red Flags to Avoid
- Bad communication – Check that your contractor’s contact details are correct and that they respond in a reasonable amount of time.
- No paperwork or references – Don’t even consider someone who can’t provide evidence that they can do the job, or are legally covered to do so.
- Nothing in writing – never be in a position where its your word against a contractor’s. Get everything in writing in as much detail as possible.
- Unprofessional attitude – use your gut with this one, if they don’t act professionally then don’t expect a professional standard of work.
- Eager for cash – never pay a large installment before work has begun, and always save at least 15% until completion. Be skeptical if they insist on a cash payment.
If any part of the process sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.