Guide To Choosing and Working With A Deck Contractor

The best place to start your search for a deck contractor is online or a referral from a friend. Decks.com uses past customers' experiences to publicly rate contractors across the U.S. Most established deck contractors now have their own websites offering an overview of their qualifications and pictures of their work. This will give you a chance to evaluate their abilities before you give them a call.

Home Shows can be an excellent one-stop resource for making face-to-face contacts and collecting information from a number of contractors. It is a good idea to interview a minimum of three different deck contractors for any project you may be considering.

Deck construction has changed relatively dramatically from what it was a decade ago when few construction standards existed for decks. New product technologies coupled with an explosion of the outdoor living lifestyle has moved decks into a niche industry. In looking to hire for your new deck, we strongly encourage a deck-specific tradesman or business. A general contractor or carpenter, that does not specialize in deck construction, is likely behind the times and will not be able to offer you the full variety of the product market. They are also more likely to be unpleasantly surprised by new building code requirements unique to deck construction.

A huge benefit to hiring a professional is granting someone else the trust to get the job done timely and correctly. However, there is certainly some value in doing a little homework as to what you should expect from the professional. First and foremost, verify the contractor has all the legal requirements in your region to perform construction services. If licensing and bonding is required, expect them to have it. Always verify they have general liability insurance, or don’t be surprised when your homeowner’s insurance ends up paying a claim. If they have employees, verify that they are fully insured subcontractors, or legitimate employees covered under a workman’s compensation policy. As the homeowner, this is your business, as you are ultimately responsible for anyone you invite onto your property.

Call the local building authority on your own and verify if a permit is required for your work. Do not trust the contractor alone to determine this. Building permits and inspections are indeed a time consuming process and often not favored by contractors. Given opportunity, many of them would forego the process. This is not acceptable, and you should make it your responsibility to know when one is required and expect your contractor to abide. Work completed without a permit notoriously bites the owner years down the road, with no contractor nearby to take responsibility.

Credentials

Make certain that any contractor you consider hiring has a license for the work they are performing, liability insurance and workman’s compensation insurance. These are vital prerequisites for protecting yourself from any serious liability in the unfortunate case of an accident. Each state has its own requirements for licensing contractors. You may want to check with your local building inspection department or visit www.contractors-license.org to determine what is required where you live. A contractor must maintain liability insurance and workman’s compensation insurance to ensure you don’t get stuck with the bill if your house gets damaged, or end up in court if someone falls off a ladder and gets hurt. All legitimate contractors will be aware of the local laws and regulations and should be more than willing to put your concerns to ease. Most contractors advertise using their license number to eliminate any questions. These items should be clearly listed on the contract to provide you with a record of their credentials.

Experience

How long has this company been in business? The longer a deck contractor has been around, the more likely they know what they are doing and less likely they will disappear if things go wrong. Established deck builders have systems in place to manage jobs from beginning to completion. Veterans will be less likely to run into problems pulling permits, ordering materials, building the deck and making you happy at the end of the day. There is a learning curve for deck building just like anything else, and there is no substitute for experience. You may need to pay a premium if you choose to go with an extremely experienced contractor, but it may be worth it to put your mind at ease. If you are dealing with a salesperson representing the company, you will want to ask about the experience level of the actual carpenters that will be doing the construction. Once again, the more experience the better. The lead carpenter in charge of the project should have at least a couple years under their belt.

Design Presentation

Most deck contractors are very capable of building a sturdy and attractive deck. However, some are definitely more skilled at designing a deck than others. Deck design can be quite complicated. Each individual approaches design from a different background and using his or her own methods and techniques. A good design begins with a trip to the site and an interview with you to establish your needs and wants. Try to keep an open mind to their ideas and give them your full attention. Decks should never be designed over the phone or without a site visit. Once the contractor presents you with a deck design, it is your job to ask yourself a few simple questions. Does the design make sense to you? Will it meet your needs and expectations? How does it compare to your other designs? Having a couple of competing designs to compare should help make your decision easier. You will want to be completely comfortable with the design before moving forward. Bring up any concerns now. Making changes at a later date can mean added costs, delay to the project’s scheduling and can otherwise complicate matters.

References

Building a deck involves a substantial monetary investment. It can often be as expensive as buying a new or used car. You never want to buy a lemon. You should approach these major purchases with the same amount of caution and attention to detail. Don’t be afraid to test drive some decks before making your final decision on a contractor. Ask for some references in your area. Take a couple of hours out of your weekend to visit a few of their past customers. This will allow you to gain first-hand information of how things went and see what the final product looks like. Inspect the details of their craftsmanship. Find out when the deck was built and see how well it has held up with time. Ask if there were any problems dealing with the contractor, especially, how easy it was to communicate with them and if the project finished on time and on budget. You may also want to ask your contractors if they are members of the Better Business Bureau or listed as preferred contractors on Decks.com. These valuable sites offer published documentation of the level of customer satisfaction on their previous projects.

Scheduling

It should come as no surprise that deck building is an extremely seasonal industry. In the spring and summer months, there is always a high volume of work to keep deck contractors busy. This creates a situation where homeowners will have to wait in line for their project to start. Planning your schedule around construction can be inconvenient. How soon can your contractor start? When will they finish? A legal contract for a deck requires a stated start and finish date. Poor planning, nasty weather and/or labor problems can slow work down to a crawl. Beware of a salesperson trying to sneak you into a busy schedule. This could leave you frustrated down the line. Construction is an imperfect science. You must try to be patient and cooperate with your deck contractor, but it is ultimately their professional responsibility to provide you with a realistic time frame for your project. You may want to ask if there is a penalty for delays. Will there be a discount or a back out clause in the case of a significant delay?

Range of Offerings

Some deck contractors specialize in designing and building with a specific material such as cedar. Others are much more versatile and offer a diverse range of choices. Unless you already know exactly what you want, it can be very helpful to have a variety of options. Each material offers a set of unique characteristics to a project. Some are advantageous, others are problematic. A good contractor will be able to explain the differences and share his knowledge to assist you in making an educated decision. Look for contractors that offer a variety of extras like low voltage lights, custom planters and benches that can help set your deck apart from the crowd. Trying something different can make your deck special. Most contractors are always up for a challenge in order to make a deck interesting. However, going outside a contractor’s comfort zone, such as selecting a material that is unfamiliar to them, will likely increase the cost of the project.

Organization

Who exactly are you dealing with and what is their relationship with the company? Companies are organized in different ways. You will want to know if you are talking to a salesperson, the owner of the company or the guys who will actually be building the deck. Each position offers a unique perspective on how they deal with customers. It will be important that you are able to maintain responsive communication with this person throughout the different phases of the project. You will want to find out the name and phone number of the lead carpenter assigned to your project. Also, you will want to know if your project will be subcontracted out to another builder. Subcontracting is not necessarily a bad practice as it can speed up production, but it can result in employing less-trained carpenters and increase the risk of miscommunication. Most deck building companies are relatively small, the more you know about how the company is organized, the easier it will be for you to effectively communicate with the right people throughout your project.

Integrity

Most deck contractors are good hardworking people trying to make an honest buck. However, just like any segment of society there are some crooks out there to avoid. You can never be 100% sure of the character of a stranger, but a little homework on your part can reduce the chance of putting yourself at risk. Trust your intuition. What is your impression of them? Do you think they will be good people to work with? If you sense they are not being honest with you or are trying to hide something, you should consider looking elsewhere. Beware of contractors that are new to the area or with out-of-state license plates. If someone has an established business in your community, it should be easy to check out their references. Examine the contract carefully for any information that is missing or that seems odd or out of place. You want to make sure that they will honor their promises and stand behind their work. It shouldn’t be a scary experience to hire a contractor, most people are very happy with the outcomes of their projects, but it can never hurt to be cautious when working with people that you don’t know.

Who do you contact if something goes wrong?

If something goes wrong during your project, we recommend staying calm and following the established chain of command. For instance, if the wrong color decking shows up at the job site, first talk to the construction crew to get it straightened out. Usually, this kind of problem is just a matter of miscommunication that can be easily resolved. If a problem persists, you may need to talk to whoever drafted the contract or the owner of the company. Your contract should be clear specifying what the exact terms of the project are. In rare circumstances, if the company refuses to offer a solution, you may need to pursue the matter with an outside party. Do not make idle threats. Use extreme caution and only use this action as a last resort, as you will likely stir up some bad feelings and things can turn ugly fast. There are a number of courses of action you can employ if it comes to this. Start by filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. This is usually enough to get the contractor's attention and resolve the issue. You can also file a complaint with the State Attorney General or appropriate agency in your state to apply pressure on the contractor to reconsider your issue, or you may want to hire a lawyer to file a lawsuit. These processes can be expensive, time consuming and do not always produce the results. A lower-cost alternative may be to use the Conciliation Court to act as a mediator.

What are your responsibilities?

Your responsibilities as the homeowner and customer will be laid out straightforwardly in your deck builder’s contract. You will be required to pay the full agreed upon amount on time and maintain homeowner’s insurance during the project. Your homeowner’s insurance policy is necessary to recover any costs of damage caused to your property or to replace materials that are damaged or stolen from the site. Other responsibilities will include making appropriate arrangements to accommodate the construction process. If you need to do anything to prepare the site for construction, like removing a concrete patio, you may need to do this before construction can begin. You will probably be asked to provide access to electricity for the carpenter’s power tools or be charged additionally for the use of generators. You will need to offer a safe and convenient storage space for the building materials. In some cases, you may be asked to allow access to bathrooms. Any other requests should be clearly understood and arranged for. You will also be responsible for marking or relocating private lines like sprinklers or cable television that might interfere with the project.

What are the contractor's responsibilities?

Your builder will have to fulfill a different set of responsibilities to uphold their side of the contract. First, your contractor must possess the necessary licenses to perform the work you are hiring them for. Each state operates somewhat differently, but in most cases, this requires them to pass a proficiency exam and maintain a certain level of continuing education credits each year. They must also keep a clean record and work within the guidelines of the law or risk the suspension or termination of their contractor’s license. Contractors are also legally required to maintain liability insurance and workman’s compensation insurance. These types of insurance are very important as they will protect you from assuming liability if your home is damaged or a worker is injured during your project. Your contractor will be required to obtain a building permit and pass all necessary inspections to verify compliance with IRC codes and assume the responsibility for having utility lines located before excavating frost footings. In addition to these prerequisite responsibilities, your contractor will agree to complete the project in a professional manner for the agreed upon price and within the stated time frame.

Start and Completion Dates

Any legal deck contract must set specific dates for the project to start and finish. This date will be given to you by the contractor to fit into the company’s schedule and should represent a realistic time frame for your project. In construction, the weather and other unforeseen conditions can often slow down a contractor’s schedule. You will want to find out what will happen if the project is significantly delayed. Will you be given a discount or be able to back out of the contract without a penalty? If you need your deck by a specific date, like a graduation party, this may be a crucial detail for your agreement. You will want to try to be understanding and patient, but the stated dates are listed on the contract for good reason. It is ultimately the contractor’s responsibility to ensure your deck finishes on time. Your contract will offer you some assurance that your deck will be built in a timely manner.

Payment Schedules

This section will establish the total amount, including sales tax, that you are agreeing to pay for the work to be completed. Most contracts break the total amount into smaller progressive payments to be made at specific times during the project. This system usually works well in translating the proportion of work completed to payments applied. The balance of the payments you are holding will provide the incentive for the contractor to fulfill their contractual obligations. In some cases, a third party may be introduced to hold the money in escrow pending the fulfillment of the contract. Many contractors prefer that you pay using a credit card to accepting checks. This method of payment offers immediate results eliminating their need to deal with collections agencies to follow up on bad checks. It also will allow you to accumulate a large number of promotional points with your credit card company for perks like vacations. You should always be careful when you share sensitive financial information like credit card numbers. How can you be sure that it won’t fall into the wrong hands or be used without your authorization? Check into this. You may also need to call your credit card company to bypass any account limits for large purchases.

Terms and Conditions

This section will represent a collection of resolutions to common disputes that the contractor feels the need to be mutually established. Many of these conditions come from the contractor’s experience in dealing with past customers and could be considered common sense. In this way, contracts are designed to spell out as many potential issues as possible. It will probably be stated that the contractor is not responsible for any yard damage that may occur during construction. There may be a line that discourages change orders, requiring an added cost and requiring that they be expressed in writing. Every contractor will want to cover their bases and protect themselves from unrealistic expectations. You should review each item, but do not be intimidated by them. These terms and conditions usually cover worst case scenarios and help contractors deal with difficult customers. In practice, a detailed terms and conditions section usually suggests that a lot of thought has been dedicated to details and making sure your project goes smoothly.

Why do you need to use a contract?

When you hire a deck builder, what will guarantee that all goes according to plan? The answer is that you will possess a legal contract that can be used as proof of the agreement. If drafted properly, this piece of paper will validate your agreement as legitimate and binding under the laws of the land.

In most cases, this is as simple as evidence that one party makes an offer and the other accepts it. The contract will further act as a written explanation of the detailed responsibilities of both parties participating in the project. This leaves little to interpretation and should prevent most disputes from ever occurring. Both sides must understand and sign the document to execute the contract.

You will want to make sure that all the necessary information is included in one completed document. Using a collection of sketches and notes in place of a formal contract is disorganized and unprofessional. It can also be confusing, contradictory and ineffective.

Defining the Scope of Work / Project Specifications

This section will clearly outline the exact nature of the work your contractor is going to do for you. The more specific you make the details, the better. You will want it to include a scale drawing complete with dimensions to define the size and shape of the deck being built. This must be very accurate. Include the number of total square feet, the elevation, the direction of decking and any other essential information. You will also need to establish the specific materials that are going to be used. Leave nothing to interpretation. Make sure the type, size, color, style, grade, name brand, etc. are listed to guarantee you get exactly what you are expecting and paying for. Your contractor will also need this document to refresh their memory when it comes time to ordering materials. This written information vastly outweighs any verbal agreement of what is going to be done. Make sure it is accurate, clearly written and leaves nothing out.

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