No matter how much you spend, an investment in a new deck will pay dividends. According to Remodeling Magazine's 2010-2011 survey, homeowners who build a deck can get up to 73 percent of their investment back when they sell their home. - Photo courtesy of Lowe's

High-tech decks

The deck has gone high-tech.

Wood decks rapidly are being replaced by plastic, aluminum and other man-made decking materials that are prized for their easy maintenance. Builders are making decks into showpieces with multiple levels, custom railings and other perks.

No matter how much you spend, an investment in a new deck will pay dividends. According to Remodeling Magazine's 2010-2011 survey, homeowners who build decks can get up to 73 percent of their investments back when they sell their homes.

Here is a rundown of the various decking materials on the market, their advantages and disadvantages and how much they cost:

Most homeowners building decks still choose wood for its cost as well as its authentic look, according to Bill Fields, vice president of lumber sales at Lowe's, the home-improvement chain. It's also durable. The undersides of most decks, even plastic ones, are still made of pressure-treated lumber, although steel frames are starting to come into the market.

Pressure-treated pine is the least expensive material, priced as low as $10 per square foot including labor (or around $2 per square foot to buy and build yourself). Cedar and redwood are popular but more expensive options. At the top end are hardwoods like ipe, which is grown in South America and is closer to $30 per square foot.

There are downsides to wood. It tends to change color, crack and absorb stains. It also requires more maintenance, including cleaning and staining every year or two. And some hardwoods aren't harvested sustainably.

Composite decking is made of plastic and wood fiber. Trex was one of the first brands on the market 15 years ago; TimberTech and Fiberon are other brand names. Composite looks a lot like real wood, but it's less likely to rot or get infested with insects than real wood, and it's less slippery. It's also easier to maintain; it doesn't need staining, and it can be washed off occasionally with a deck cleaner.

Because it contains up to 50 percent wood, composite still is more susceptible to stains and mildew than plastic decking, according to Consumer Reports. It also will lose 10 to 15 percent of its color over time. It costs around $18 to $25 per square foot, including labor, to install composite decking.

Trex's Transcend version has a limited, 25-year, fade- and stain-resistance warranty.

Plastic, or PVC, decking is newer to the market and basically is composite without the wood fiber. AZEK is one of the major manufacturers. Plastic decking is less likely to stain and fade than composite, and it stays cooler in direct sunlight. It's also more expensive because it's petroleum-based.

When plastic decking first hit the market, it didn't look much like wood, but manufacturers have made a lot of improvements over the past decade.

AZEK has a limited lifetime warranty for residential customers, but a 20-year warranty for commercial ones.

Many companies, including Trex, also are making slightly less expensive "hybrid" decking, comprising a plastic coating over a composite shell.

Aluminum has long been used in deck railings but sometimes is used for the decks themselves. Aluminum decking is light but tough, slip-resistant and lasts a long time. LockDry is one of the major brands on the market. LockDry is built to be waterproof, so it's a good choice for a deck built over a living space. Another manufacturer, Versadeck, promises its decking won't have the "ping" sound that comes from walking across aluminum. Aluminum decks generally offer limited lifetime warranties.

But the bottom line: Aluminum won't be mistaken for wood. It comes in fewer colors than composite or PVC and doesn't have the warmth of wood. It's also the most expensive option, starting at about $1 to $2 more per square foot than plastic, according to Consumer Reports.

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