Newly built homes come with a lot of pluses (like brand-new everything!), but one thing most of them don’t come with is a deck. As a result, one of the first large home improvements that many new homeowners make is to add a deck.
As you research building a deck, you’ll find that wood and composite are the two main choices in decking materials today. They are both terrific products with strong advocates on both sides. If you ask a decking contractor which product is best, you’re likely to get all sorts of different answers, most of them highly dependent on which products the contractor in question installs. As Tom Edger, general manager of Great Day Improvements in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, explained, “(Which material you use) depends on the budget and the client.”
Wood has a long history in decking and can last for decades with proper care. The most common wood choices are pressure-treated pine, cedar and redwood, though some homeowners opt for tropical hardwoods like tiger wood, ipe and mahogany. You can’t go wrong with wood, says Edger. “It’s been proven that high-quality, natural wood can stand the test of time, and it’s always the best choice when it comes to building a long lasting deck.”
Composite decking is a newer option — it came on the scene in the 1980s, promising less maintenance and just as much or even greater longevity than wood. Composite decking is more accurately referred to as wood-composite since it is made from wood waste fibers and plastic (often recycled). It resembles real wood and is available in different textures, colors and wood-grain patterns. Early complaints about composite decking included that it was heavy and expensive, or that it warped and faded. Composite products have improved greatly in the last 10 years or so, eliminating many of those complaints.
Even though composite quality has improved over the years, most new decks are made of wood because it costs less up-front than composite decking. It’s an economical, traditional choice. According to Angie’s List, a $6,000 pressure-treated wood deck would cost about $11,000 in composite materials. Those who choose composite are willing to pay a higher initial price, knowing that they will have fewer maintenance costs over the life of the deck.
Regardless of which decking material you choose, the deck framing or structure is made of pressure-treated lumber, so your product choice is really only reflected in the deck surface and railings.
As you begin your search for the perfect decking product, think about which factors are most important to you in a deck. Let’s look at some of the common evaluation points:
If the initial investment cost is your primary driver, then pressure-treated lumber can’t be beat. There simply isn’t a decent composite alternative that is similar in price. However, if you examine the lifetime cost of wood vs. composite, you may find the costs to be comparable or for composite to be even lower in cost than wood. Costs are highly dependent on the products selected and whether you maintain the deck yourself or hire someone to do it for you.
Wood decks can last anywhere from 10 to 30 years, depending on the quality of the materials used, wear and tear, and how well the deck is maintained. Composite decks can last much longer; it’s not uncommon to find 25-year warranties on composite decking materials.
Wood decks perform best when they are stained and sealed. You’ll need to do this every year or so. In addition to regular sealing, you may need to strip and sand splinters and rough spots, replace broken or rotted boards, hammer in popped nails and clean off mold and mildew. Composite decks do require some maintenance but not nearly the amount wood decks require. Edger explained that composite decks are low-maintenance but not no maintenance, and are still susceptible to the elements and may harbor mold or mildew. “(Composites) are not indestructible,” he says. “They do get scratched, they do fade, and they can warp, just like wood.”
Although composites do resemble real wood and can be found in textured and non-textured varieties, they don’t have the same look and feel of wood, which is a turn-off for some people. Still, it’s worth looking at composites because of the sheer variety available nowadays. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find. Some even have built-in UV protection to help prevent fading.
Composite decks can get very hot in warm weather and in direct sunlight. The materials can get so warm that many manufacturers have started to add cooling technology to their products to reduce the surface temperature. Wood decks do not have this same problem, which can make them a better choice if you have kids or tend to go barefoot on the deck.
There’s still a lot of confusion about composite products and many people opt for tried-and-true wood decking to avoid surprises and uncertainty surrounding composite.
Without regular sealing, wood decks can absorb moisture. This leads to warping, cracking, splintering, rot and mold and mildew buildup. Composite decks won’t absorb moisture, and some products boast moisture resistance all the way down to the core so you don’t have to worry about those same issues. If you live in a humid or rainy climate, a composite deck may be the better choice.
Wood and composite are both easy to cut and secure. The one area where composite comes out ahead is flexibility. When heated, boards can be bent into curved shapes, giving a homeowner more design options.
Making Your Choice
To choose between wood and composite decking, you’ll need to take an honest look at your budget, your interest in and ability to maintain the deck, and product selection. Like everything else, decking products come in low, mid and high quality. You’ll never get a close cost comparison if you compare low-end wood with top-end composite so make sure you’re looking at similar quality levels. If cost isn’t an issue, your best approach may be to just see which products look the best to you and then compare from there. Once you narrow down your choices, it’ll be easier to settle on a product. In the end, you want a deck that is well constructed and safe, looks great and complements your home’s exterior.
Liyya Hassanali is a Project Manager and Content Strategist for Kinship Design Marketing, a boutique agency that provides marketing strategies and content for architects, interior designers, and landscape designers. She is a 15+ year veteran of the marketing and advertising industry, working closely with her clients to provide written content that meets their marketing goals and gets results.
Liyya is passionate about home design and décor and is a confessed HGTV and Pinterest addict. When not providing content writing services for her clients, she can be found browsing home décor sites or spending time with her family.