I’ve seen a lot of decks. I’ve stood on decks, designed decks, built decks; I’ve destroyed decks, refinished decks, partied on decks. You could very well say that I’m a deck expert; a deckspert if you will. I am frequently asked to come look at a decks and put together a design and/or estimate for a new one. Many of those decks I look at are in bad shape, some are in very bad shape, and there are even a few that are so bat that I declined to set foot on for fear of having to put my worker’s comp policy to the test. I get it. A deck is often not the first priority in terms of home projects. It’s easy to put off and think to yourself, “I’m sure it could last at least one more year before it really needs to be replaced.” Sometimes this is true, but other times something definitely needs to be done. Let me walk you through some of the main dangers we tend to come across in decks and give you some tools to help you decide whether you need a brand new deck, or maybe just need to fix a few issues to get you by for a few more years.
Your footings are the foundation of your deck. If they are too small or not deep enough, this can lead to shifting and settling of your whole deck. At minimum your footings need to go below frostline. Here in Nebraska that’s 42” deep, though that can very widely depending on where you live. Often there is no good way to actually see how big your footings are since they are, much like an iceberg, 90% underground. If you do notice shifting in your deck though, that’s a clue that you might want to do some investigative digging. In worse cases, there are no footings at all and the posts are just resting on the ground or a block of some sort, which is definitely cause for concern.
Posts will always be the key component supporting your deck and keeping it from crashing to the ground (until they invent the hover-deck, that is…). As such, it is essential that your posts are properly sized and attached properly. For anything above 6’-9” you should be using a 6×6 post at minimum. For decks closer to ground a 4×4 usually will suffice, but honestly, a beefier post never hurt anyone. Make sure your posts are actually attached to their footings and not just sitting on top. We like to use standoff plates so that there is no wood-to-concrete connection that might promote rot. Your beam should be either attached on top of the posts with a bracket or resting on notch of the posts with bolts through the whole thing. If the beam is just bolted to the side of the posts, this could definitely be cause for concern.
Your beam should be appropriately sized for the distance it’s spanning. If you look at a beam on your deck and think, “That poor beam looks like it’s working too hard,” it probably is too small. There are plenty of charts online (like this one) that you can consult to see what is called for in your situation, or feel free to ask your local planning department.
One of the most common points of failure for a deck is where the framing meets the house using what’s known as a ledger board. If water gets in between the framing and your house this can cause rot in your deck and house. The solution? Everybody’s favorite: flashing. Flashing slides behind your siding and over your ledger board to direct water away from that critical junction. Another frequent offender is how the ledger is attached to the house. Typically lag bolts are used every 12-18” though the exact requirements vary depending on the size of deck and type of fastener. If you see only a few bolts on your deck or basic woodscrews, you’ll want to put a few more in.
There are all sorts of railing options available for decks. When it comes down to it, if you feel concerned about your railings ability to keep you from falling do your doom, you probably need to make some updates. According to code, you should not be able to pass a 4” sphere through your railing at any point. Don’t let yourself be the guy who lets his little two-year-old nephew to stick his head through their balusters and get stuck. Trust me, it’s not a good look. You’ll also want to make sure your rail posts are sturdy. If you feel them wobble when you lean against them, they definitely needs to be addressed. If a few extra lag bolts in the base of the posts doesn’t help, you might need to consider a whole new railing.
If your deck is on its way out, chances are you’ll notice signs of decline in the stairs first. Your stringers (the parts which run from the deck to the ground and support the treads) can sometimes be prone to rot . Some steps are built with just two stringers on the outside and no support in the middle, which can also lead to failure. If the rest of your deck aren’t showing too many signs of wear and tear, consider just replacing your stairs for the time being.
There are a surprising amount of scary decks out there. For some reason, a lot of people seem to think they can’t mess things up too badly, even if they have little to no experience. Unfortunately, the amount of rotten, creaky, shaky, and downright frightening decks I see show how misguided many of those people are. So do yourself a favor and give your deck a good once over. Hopefully you can extend its life by a few years with a few well-placed fixes. And if you’re having your doubts, feel free to give us a call. Hopefully we can set your mind at ease—or at least get you on our schedule for a new deck!