By Matt Menke

An outdoor deck is the classic do it yourself (DIY) project. Your deck is an extension of your home and so often the centerpiece of outdoor entertaining: grilling, fire pits, kids and popsicles. Building one would seem easy — a quick reward for hauling lumber and swinging a hammer. How hard could it be?

DIYers without much experience are often tempted to go for easier and prettier, and that can lead to taking shortcuts — shortcuts that could compromise safety and durability. The hassles of permitting can push homeowners to skip the very process that could help them learn the rules and even master best practices.

Being an educated consumer will serve you well, whether you’re checking an existing deck or tackling a new build. You’ll also be better off, over time, if you’re aware of critical elements that mean the difference between safety or failure.

Railings matter! Guests lean against them, we put drinks on them, and children boost themselves up on them (but only when you’re not looking). Railings are held up by posts, and how those posts attach to the deck determines if they’re secure and safe or ready to give way. 

Deck posts are usually 4x4s, sometimes clad with vinyl. If a post isn’t one continuous 4×4, or has been cut with a notch to fit around the deck floor, it should be replaced. Posts should be held on by hex-head bolts (two of them) that go all the way through the post and also through the board anchoring the post. Nails and screws aren’t sufficient for the job, and carriage bolts often tear loose, particularly when they’re re-tightened after the wood dries. And the spindles (or balusters) should be less than 4 inches apart. Kids can’t resist sticking their heads through wider gaps.

How is your deck attached to the house? It anchors to the house with a horizontal board called a ledger, and the ledger must be affixed to the house correctly in order to safely support all that weight. An even safer approach is to support the deck’s weight with a set of posts near the house rather than having a ledger do all the work. 

Either way, that ledger needs a piece of flashing over the top and tucked up behind the siding to protect the wood. An unprotected ledger will be the wettest board on your entire deck and the first to rot out. Make sure to install this pesky but essential shielding, especially if you’re adding a deck to an existing home. Be sure to use the right hardware in the right place; there are best practices — rules, in fact — for attaching ledgers. Not a place to take shortcuts.

How you place decking board can make a big difference. If you’re using wood, your boards will naturally have a degree of warp; good to pick your boards to avoid the worst of that.. Using composite boards avoids that problem, but manufactured boards cost more and get blazing hot in the summer sunlight. And when you secure your decking boards, be sure to allow a small gap between them for water to pass through. A scant ¼ inch will do it; any less and the boards can swell together and hold water not for seconds but for days.

Pressure treated lumber matters, too! Lumber that’s rated for ground contact says so on the tag. Even then, pressure-treated wood that is in contact with the ground will wick moisture into the entire structure and shorten your deck’s life. Grading the soil under the deck so it doesn’t contact the deck is a good move; this is especially important at stair footings — you don’t want those steps to slowly rot into the ground. A concrete or stone landing at the bottom of the steps goes a long way toward keeping the wood dry.

There are other details to consider, of course, but these are the most important elements of deck construction. Anyone patient enough to do some research and plan can build a deck. And the planning — seeing all those new possibilities — can be so much fun! Discovering design ideas online, scoping out your neighbors’ decks and remembering decks at those dreamy vacation spots can all combine to inspire you to buy some lumber. Oh, and don’t forget: You’ll need some new tools, too! 

Prince George’s County has lots of information for DIYers, but you have to know what to look for and where. For a downloadable document with information about guidelines and regulations for decks, ramps and stairs in Prince George’s County go to