Mary Coale found the advertisement in a magazine. The sketch of a deck was just like the one she wanted, and the salesman who came to her house seemed knowledgeable and had handsome photos of other decks the company had built.
"I got references, but I didn't go look at any of their other work or talk to any of their other customers," she admits now. "I wanted to get started."
The carpenter who was supposed to order the lumber arrived a few days later. When the huge pile of wood was delivered, it was dumped in front of Ms. Coale's house. There it stayed. Days passed, and only after several calls to the contractor was the lumber moved to the back of the house. Nothing was done about actually building the deck. The first carpenter, who had ordered twice as much wood as was needed, decided he couldn't handle the job. The second carpenter the contractor sent was competent, but didn't have what Ms. Coale calls "architectural sensitivity." He built too high a deck railing, and she had to have him redo it.
Although the second carpenter removed the leftover wood, she hasn't yet gotten the money for it back from the contractor. She figures she spent about $2,500 more on lumber than she really needed to.
SO YOU WANT A DECK. BEFORE you ever pick up the phone, sit down and figure out why you want a deck. At its best, a deck is an extension of the house -- outdoor living space that should be planned as carefully as if you were adding another bedroom. How will it be used? For barbecuing? Sunning? Entertaining large numbers of people?
"It's the most overlooked part of getting a deck built," says Kip Humphrey of Deckcraft. "And then people end up with a deck that doesn't meet their needs. Budget considerations shouldn't be placed first. You're better off waiting if you can't afford what you need."
Depending on how you'll be using your deck, you should be thinking about what size and shape you want, whether it will be multilevel, what extras, like storage, benches and planters, you're interested in. The average size of decks being built today is 16 by 12 feet, says Rick Pirozzi, regional sales manager of Sears Craftmaster Decks. That's "a good, all-round size where you could entertain up to 10 or 15 people."
Books from the library or home improvement store will suggest designs you haven't considered, and you should also take the time to look at other decks in your neighborhood for ideas. As one homeowner -- who was totally uninterested in the research ** but did it anyway -- says, "I just wanted to know how to buy a deck without going broke."
How you plan to use your deck will help determine its location. If it's primarily for eating or entertaining outdoors, you'll want it near the kitchen. But you have options you may not have thought of. For instance, if there isn't a convenient place to attach a deck to your house, it could be free-standing structure.
Anticipate the future. Is there a possibility you'll want to build another addition on your house? Screen in part of the deck? Add a spa or build a pool? These could affect the location or style of your deck or the type of structural support. A deck is a major home improvement; you don't want to think short-term.
FIGURING OUT WHAT KIND OF deck you want is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out who's going to do the work for you. With the economy as bad as it is, you'll find plenty of people eager to build your deck -- some of them unscrupulous or at least incompetent. Your first step should be to call the Maryland Home Improvement Commission and ask for the free pamphlet, Tips for Choosing a Home Improvement Contractor. The numbers are (410) 333-6309 and (800) 492-7521. (Ask to be connected with the commission.)
If what you want is a basic, inexpensive deck and you have a builder you trust who specializes in small renovations, you could start with him. But deck building is becoming as much a specialty as kitchen designing. One contracting company in the area, Master Deck, is even opening a showroom for decks and accessories this spring: the Deck Factory in Bel Air. Deck designers have a range of training and experience; ask about both. Some may simply be home improvement contractors who specialize in outdoor additions. Some, like Kip Humphrey of Deckcraft, have architectural and landscape design training.
If the design of your dreams is more than a rectangular platform, you should at least consider hiring an architect. "If you have it designed well," says architect-builder Robert Kutner, "it will blend with your house, with its style. It'll be an extension of your house." The cost of the architectural design alone, he says, may be between $200 and $500. But if the architect offers a design-build service, the cost of the finished deck could be comparable to what a deck company would charge. You may also want to call in a landscape designer to integrate the deck with the rest of your property.