Any outdoor space is better than no outdoor space. Even the kind of deck that we call a “penalty box”—the type you’ve probably seen attached to one side of a house, sometimes on the second floor, with no sun protection and no way to get down to the ground—even that is better than no outdoor space at all.
Municipalities require permits for new deck construction, but not all contractors or homeowners file the appropriate paperwork, so many decks aren’t inspected or even built safely.
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If you’re buying a home with a deck, ask your home inspector for a thorough inspection. If you have a deck, annual inspections are your best bet to ensure that it’s structurally sound.
Split or decaying wood:
Check several areas of the deck to be sure the wood is still sound. This includes the ledger board (where the deck attaches to the house and a common source of deck failure), support posts and joists under the deck (if you can reach them), deck boards, railings and stairs. Pay special attention to any areas that tend to remain damp, are regularly exposed to water or are in contact with fasteners. Use a tool such as an ice pick or screwdriver to penetrate the wood surface. If you can easily penetrate one-fourth to one-half inch, break off a sliver of wood without splinters, or the wood is soft and spongy, decay may be present. If your deck coating has worn away, clean and waterproof it again to prevent decay. Look for small holes in the wood, which may indicate insects.
Railings and banisters:
These should be secure to be sure there is no give. Also, check to be sure they are high enough (most codes require a 36-inch-high railing and usually encourage 42-inch-high railings) with rails no more than 4 inches apart (measured from the inside of the rails) to keep small children and pets from squeezing through. This is more important the higher your desk is off the ground.
Check any railings or handrails to be sure they are firmly held in place. Also ensure that risers and stringers are securely attached and not decayed.If the area behind the stair treads is open, this opening should be no more than 4 inches high. Always keep stair pathways clear of planters, decor, toys and other items that can be tripping hazards.
This is a metal or plastic guard that directs water out and away from sensitive areas. It’s often installed where the deck and house come together, keeping moisture and debris from collecting between the house and the deck’s ledger board. Be certain the flashing is sound and firmly in place. Consider adding or replacing flashing if you notice areas that are obviously allowing water to collect.
Lighting and electrical:
Be sure all lighting is working. Clean light covers to allow maximum light, and trim plants or tree limbs that may be blocking the light. Be sure all electrical outlets, appliances and features are up to code, in good condition, and childproof if children are present. Watch that any electrical cords do not present a tripping hazard.
Cleaning and maintenance:
Clean away any leaves and debris, since these can be slippery and promote mildew. If mildew is present or the deck coating has worn away, clean and apply a new waterproof coating. It can help prevent split, decayed wood and loosened fasteners.
Loose or corroded fasteners:
Fasteners include nails, screws or anchors in the ledger board. Tighten any loose fasteners, and pound in any nails. (Note: The ledger should not be fastened with only nails.) If a fastener appears rusted or corroded, consider replacing it. A corroded fastener can cause deterioration in surrounding wood. The deck or stairs should appear even without sagging and should not sway or move when tested.
If you have trees overhanging your deck, make certain there is no danger of decaying limbs breaking free and falling on the deck.