If you’re planning a new deck or upgrading an old one, the decking material is the most important decision you’ll make. Not too long ago, redwood and cedar were just about the only options. Synthetics, such as composite and PVC decking, and tropical hardwoods, such as ipe and mahogany, offer ease of maintenance and longevity that put the traditional favorites in the shade.
These new contenders are pricier initially, but don’t have the annual maintenance costs of softwood decks. In some cases, the overall cost (initial costs plus annual maintenance) of a wood deck can exceed those of a composite or PVC deck after only a few years.
For example, the cost of cedar decking is approximately $1,700 for a 16x20-foot deck. The same deck covered with composite decking would cost $3,200—a hefty $1,500 more.
However, to keep the cedar looking good, it should be cleaned and resealed every year, at a cost of $90 to $100 if you do the job yourself. Add your valuable time to the out-of-pocket expense, and the price gap between wood and maintenance-free synthetic decking grows smaller with each passing year.
Made of fir permeated with anti-rot and insecticide agents, pressure-treated decking is a low-cost favorite. The anti-rot treatment once included arsenic, but since 2004 relies on less poisonous agents, such as copper, which poses a health hazard only if burned. The basic tan or brown color of pressure-treated decking can be enhanced with stain. Pressure-treated lumber can last for decades, but requires refinishing with a clear sealer or stain every other year.
Cost: About $2.35 per sq. ft. for material only, $3.80 per sq. ft. installed.
The natural beauty of real wood is unmatched. In addition, this perennial decking favorite is inexpensive and easy to work with—a good choice for the do-it-yourselfer. Buy the darker-colored heartwood—anything else is sapwood and can rot within a few years. Look for “heartwood common,” which has more heartwood than the cheaper “construction common.” Expect annual refinishing and a life of 15 to 20 years.
Cost: About $3.75 per sq. ft. for material only, $5.35 installed.
Once the very last word in decking, redwood is expensive and now available only on the West Coast. It’s lightweight, strong, and easy to work with. Select only high-grade decking lumber with little of the cream-colored sapwood, which can deteriorate rapidly when exposed to the elements. The darker-colored heartwood is naturally rot-resistant. With regular maintenance, redwood will last 15 to 20 years.
Cost: About $7.75 per sq. ft. for material only, $9 installed.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) decking is the new kid on the block and rapidly gaining favor as a material that is as close to maintenance-free as decking will ever be. PVC has no wood content. Premium varieties have a cellular core wrapped with an exterior layer of solid PVC and come with a 25-year warranty. Color options include white, gray, browns, and tans.
Cost: About $5.95 per sq. ft. for material only, $9.60 installed.
Made of wood fiber combined with recycled polyethylene, composite decking is a good-looking, low-maintenance material. Composites come in a broad range of colors and textures that closely approximate real wood. It also offers design versatility: Pros have apparatus for heating planks so they can be bent to make eye-catching in-laid designs.
Premium varieties come with a 25-year warranty. Although maintenance is low, the wood content can host mold if not cleaned with a deck wash every three to four years.
Cost: About $6.60 per sq. ft. for material only, $9.90 installed.
A popular South American hardwood, ipe is beautiful, naturally resistant to rot, and durable. It’s also extremely hard, making installation labor-intensive. To maintain its rich appearance, ipe must be sealed every year. It can last 25 years or more.
Because it’s imported, its price can fluctuate. Reliable lumber suppliers should offer assurance that these woods are seeded or naturally renewed. To confirm that the supplier engages in sustainable practices, check in with the Forest Stewardship Council.
Cost: About $12 per sq. ft. for material only, $22 installed.
Deck screws are the cheapest option, and are reflected in the installation prices above. Although non-corroding, strong, and easy to install, they leave pockmarks where water and debris can gather.
Clip-style hidden fasteners eliminate this problem, but add $2 to $3 per sq. ft. to the cost of professional installation. Saltwater conditions are tough on fasteners. Some builders err on the side of caution by using stainless-steel screws covered with a plug, a method that costs about $5 per sq. ft.
The Cost of Maintenance
Wood decking of any type requires annual refinishing to hold its original luster. If you do it yourself, plan on paying about $13 per 100 square feet for deck cleaner, $15 for sealer. If you’ve skipped a season, add $10 per 100 square feet for brightener.
In tough climates or when maintenance has been long deferred, a wood deck will need to be washed, stripped, sanded, and resealed, a process that can cost $2.50 per sq. ft. if you hire it out. Do that twice on a cedar deck and you would have been better off buying synthetic decking that needs only an occasional washing and has a life expectancy of 25 years.
New on the Market
The popularity of decking projects has led to new products appearing on the market. Although yet to stand the test of time, these varieties may be worth considering:
- Aluminum decking comes coated with polyurea to eliminate the “ping” sound of metal, aid traction, and keep the material cool.
- Wood decking infused with glass (via silica infusion and microwaving) offers greater strength and low maintenance.
- Thermally cured wood decking gets a non-toxic heating and sealing treatment that makes it resistant to insects, fungus, and mold.