Is Your Deck Safe?
If a deck is included with the home you're considering purchasing (or your home currently has one), this feature has so many opportunities for use! Maybe you're the neighborhood pitmaster and this is where you gather with family and friends to showcase your BBQ skills. Perhaps you have a beautiful view from your deck, and this is where you enjoy the sunset and fresh air after that BBQ. Some of you may have a green thumb and your deck is where you grow all sorts of plants...next to your BBQ (can you tell I'm into grilling?). Aside from the utility of a deck (or patio, balcony, porch, etc.), the structure oftentimes comes with a good ROI, or return on investment. Many home improvement experts say a well-designed deck can return at least 70% what it costs to build - some even citing 80%+ depending on quality of materials and layout. It's safe to say that a good deck will likely increase the value of your home while providing ample opportunities for use. It's no wonder that many newly constructed homes include this feature:
Now that we've covered many of the benefits from having a deck, we need to discuss the most important aspect: is your deck safe for you and your family?
As with any structure, a deck's quality of construction can vary by age, region, and builder. Since a deck is constantly exposed to the elements, you can expect its materials to degrade over time. Most deck experts agree that a well built and properly maintained wooden deck only has a lifespan of 10-20 years. Since deck building practices have evolved, many construction methods that are now considered outdated or even unsafe were commonly used to build millions of decks that are still in use today! In fact, the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) estimates that of the 60 million decks in existence across the US, half of them (30 million!) are past their useful service life and should be repaired or replaced accordingly. You can read more about that here.
Since decks are elevated structures (sometimes multiple stories tall), collapses or component failures (deteriorated railings or stairs, as an example) can lead to serious injury or even death. A quick internet search will show plenty of news reports or studies that show just how dangerous decks can be, to include a collapse in Chicago in 2003 that tragically killed 13 people and injured another 57. A deeper dive into the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) database shows that collapses or component failures account for upwards of 15% of all deck and patio related injuries.
As with any structure, system, or component I inspect, my #1 focus is to report on Safety followed by Functionality. While most home inspectors' standards of practice require the inspector to visually inspect the deck, they do not specify as to what level of detail (or which governing document) to reference. This is why I chose to become a NADRA Certified Deck Inspector. As an industry leader in all aspects of decks, NADRA places emphasis on deck safety through routine inspections by qualified professionals. Their Consumer Checklist can be found here which is a great reference intended for homeowners, but this does not constitute a code-compliant deck inspection.
If your deck is a bit older, you may want to consider a specialized inspection by a qualified professional. The analysis goes deep into the details of the entire structure (ledger attached or free standing) and its various components (footings, posts, joists, beams, decking, guardrails, balusters, stringers, risers, treads, flashings) while confirming that the proper fasteners, hangers, and other hardware are installed correctly. All of this is to ensure that the deck's critical load paths function as designed and ultimately keep you safe.
It's difficult to estimate how many decks have been improperly constructed either due to a lack of skill by the builder or because they used now-outdated methods. Some decks have been poorly repaired - sometimes to intentionally hide serious defects while other decks were "thrown together" without a permit or after a couple too many beers as a weekend DIY project. Based on my own observations from the field, you may be surprised by the number of code violations that are present on your deck! Below are a few photos of some of my favorite finds so far:
The next photo is from a particularly bad cover-up attempt. While I believe most people have the best intentions in mind, this is definitely not a proper repair. The seller filled the rotten post with putty and... a handful of screws (?) … before sculpting the mass to resemble the post's original shape. Then, the entire deck was painted to hide this "repair" and a few more like it. This real estate listing included "newer deck" in the home's details...when in reality, the deck was in awful condition with severely deteriorated wooden components among a handful of other structural issues we identified.
It's important to understand that when a deck is beyond saving, it should be removed and replaced. While building a new deck can be expensive, safety is always paramount. If you do plan to construct a new deck, make sure to interview the builder before any contracts are signed. You should understand their background and qualifications and verify their references. Consider finding a contractor who specializes in outdoor living spaces and is a member of a professional organization like NADRA. Many qualified builders construct decks in accordance with current code and make sure even the smallest details are correct, but human error is a factor that cannot be ignored.
Serious code violations wouldn't be present on a brand new deck, right? Especially one that was built with a permit? Check out this great article from Zac of Rigid Inspections that depicts that exact scenario. Not only did this inspector identify serious structural defects on a brand new deck, but he also added illustrations that show what these critical connections should have looked like if built in accordance with code. How this deck passed its municipal checks is beyond comprehension. After this inspector identified all the issues, four different engineers evaluated the deck and came to the same conclusion - some of them even recommended the deck be torn down and replaced! Like with anything in construction, just because it's new does not mean it's right... If you're considering purchasing a house with a deck, regardless of age, it may be worth adding on a deck safety-specific inspection. This ancillary service takes more time and goes into much greater detail than what's typically found in a standard home inspection. Many aspects of a home inspection are subjective and based on the inspector's knowledge and professional opinion...but a NADRA Deck Inspection removes any subjectivity. It's right or wrong, yes or no - all in accordance with the most recent governing documents. Make sure your inspector is qualified to analyze and report on your deck to this level of detail!
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*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.