So just this week, my husband and I embarked on a new adventure in our ongoing pursuit (more like evolution, actually) of our dream home: we broke ground for our deck. About three years ago, we decided to build the house in which we now live, and we went through the process of finding the perfect neighborhood, the “right” lot, a good builder, house plans – the whole nine yards. Since making so many decisions during the home-building process was at times overwhelming, we decided to put off building a deck until we were settled in the house and knew more of how we’d like it to be constructed (coupled with the ever-present budgetary considerations).
So while we were still bracing for late winter snow and ice, we were constantly perusing websites like Pinterest and Houzz, watching shows like HGTV and DIY and driving through nearby neighborhoods for inspiration and ideas. We wanted to make sure this deck was going to not just fit our needs, but also be spectacular. When we finally had a high-level understanding of our basic requirements, we started interviewing contractors. This is where it got interesting – not only from a budgetary perspective, but just the many, many more complexities we’d go through and decisions we’d have to make.
We knew what we wanted, but weren’t completely sure of the options or what would best fit our needs, so some education of building materials and techniques plus a solid understanding of our requirements were key components. Our deck is going to be 2-stories, as it’s on the back of our house and we have a basement, so stairs to the ground level, especially where they will be placed are important. We knew we wanted composite decking to avoid ongoing maintenance needs, iron balusters, a doorway from our screened porch, etc. These requirements were all fairly high–level initially, but when we began interviewing contractors, we refined them quite a bit to ensure what we ended up with was what we really wanted. Gathering ideas and becoming educated about options from external “experts” was pretty important during this phase.
We “didn’t know what we didn’t know” – we are big DIY people, and during the early part of this process, my husband (who is actually very handy and will typically research and educate himself on how to build or fix just about anything) was convinced that we could build this project ourselves for much less. Possibly true, but the thought of spending every weekend throughout the summer on this project, countless trips to home improvement stores, renting or buying equipment (and then figuring out how to use it without risking body parts), being our own contractor, etc. was daunting. And with a project this big there are neighborhood architectural review approvals, County permits, inspections and other code requirements to deal with. There are times when you really do have to let the experts step in – this was one of those times.
Identifying and interviewing several contractors and a solid understanding of each vendor’s approach, background, past projects, history, pricing, and references is critical. We initially asked some of our neighbors and local friends who had decks built about whom they would use; we got several recommendations and some contractors to steer clear from, so we narrowed our list to three viable contractors.
Don’t let the “bright and shiny” steer you away from your defined requirements and budget. One of the contractors we interviewed took our roughly sketched plans, and then showed us glossy brochures of decks built with their “premier” composite decking materials. He gave us samples of the product and told us really all we had to do was chose the colors. It all looked wonderful, but once we received the pricing, we realized that much of what he was trying to sell us was way more than what we’d wanted or intended with this project. Low voltage lighting? Sounds great, and the glossy brochures sold us conceptually on the idea, but with advances in solar-powered LED lighting, and again, not wanting to commit to an expense when we weren’t entirely sure how we wanted it to fit into the plan, we declined this option – and others not on our requirements list.
Determine the desired architecture and understand how the vendor delivers against it. Since my husband has a strong knowledge of both residential and commercial construction, when we interviewed the contractors, he discussed with them in detail what the underlying supporting architecture would be – things like joists, beams, footers that I have only a high–level understanding of – he wanted to ensure it all met his approval. He questioned some of the contractors’ decisions, and this was all factored into our final vendor selection.
Include design best practices to enhance the transformation. This is where our decision really came into play. The vendor we ended up selecting took our sketches and requirements and came back to us a few days later with his interpretation of what our deck should look like – and by doing so completely transformed what our new deck would ultimately look like. He added some design elements that we hadn’t even considered, such as bump-outs and angles (our initial drawing was more or less a big rectangle). He suggested a layout of the stairs that made much more sense from practicality and usability perspectives (once he explained it). We made some minor modifications to his drawings, but for the most part, his past experience in designing and building beautiful and physically sound outdoor structures won us over by completely enhancing our initial vision.
Don’t be shy with understanding pricing and subsequent contract negotiations. Once we had decided on this particular contractor, we started negotiations. Our selected contractor had been competitive with another vendor on price, but with a much better design – and once we saw that possibility, there really was no other option. My husband ended up procuring a high-quality composite decking material at a fantastic price (even the contractor was surprised), so after a few exchanges about pricing for the remaining materials and labor for installation, we ultimately decided not prolong the bartering and told the contractor the price we had intended to pay when we initially began budgeting for the project. Shortly afterward we settled on a price not too far from that. Now, I realize that software negotiations are not typically this simple and retailers are dealing with millions, not thousands of dollars during solution negotiations; however, the basic tenet is to fully comprehend what the pricing includes and doesn’t include. Ask questions, get clarity, and make sure you understand the total cost you’re getting into before going further with the project. Ask more questions. During several package selection projects, I have found that sometimes even the vendor salespeople are not aligned on or even fully understand what the pricing includes. Fully loaded implementation costs can be a nebulous chasm that can end up skyrocketing before the implementation is complete. Don’t get blindsided.
So yesterday was Day 1 of “Implementation: Gustin Deck.” The contractor and his crew arrived at our house with a 24-foot trailer full of materials, unloaded equipment, measured the layout, and dug 10 huge holes in our backyard; today, the lumber for the joists and support beams arrived and concrete will be poured. Each day will bring new advances, as well as challenges (these should be expected with any implementation.), and we are watching this transformation, not only confident in our decision about this contractor, but excited that in a few weeks we’ll have a beautiful deck to enjoy for many years.