5 things to consider before you build a deck or patio

Deck additions are the most common DIY home projects, and can be the easiest one to bungle unless you know what you’re doing. Problems like skipped permits, water infiltration, unsafe guardrails, and unreliable framing materials and hardware can undermine your deck’s performance, cause serious safety issues, and lead to unnecessary frustration and unplanned expenses. Before you commit to the project, make sure you know:

  • which permits you need
  • the pros and cons of attached and freestanding decks
  • deck safety features
  • how to make your deck durable
  • additional features to make your deck more enjoyable

1. Approvals and permits

Decks over 30 inches above grade need a permit in most state jurisdictions. Sometimes, the requirement also applies to decks lower than 30 inches if the deck area exceeds locally established area limits. Apart from these permits, decks of any height or size may be subject to minimum setback requirements. Check your building department’s website to find out which permits and approvals are relevant for your project before you build.

To qualify for a building permit, you will have to prove that the project meets the locally adopted building standards and any additional ordinances which, your city or county may have on the books. Typically, you will have to submit drawings for approval from authorities along with the permit application.

Your local planning department may check whether your deck maintains minimum setbacks – the clearance from property lines – before approving the project. Setback requirements may vary between jurisdictions, so reach out to your local building officials to find out more.

You may be tempted to skip getting the permits for your deck project. It may appear tempting at first but can land you in a tough spot in case your neighbours report the project to the building department, or you wish to sell the home in the future. To avoid such headaches down the road, make sure your deck addition project is approved and has the necessary permits in place before starting the work.

2. Connection to the home

When you build a deck, you have the option of physically attaching it to the home’s structure, or letting it stand on its own in the yard.

Attached decks will let you save a bit of money on piers and footings, but impose additional loads on your home’s existing structure and penetrate the envelope, possibly causing water infiltration. Thus, if you opt for an attached deck, your two priorities should be ensuring a secure connection to the home, and preventing water intrusion.

Attached decks connect to the home via a ledger board, which is essentially is a rim joist that spans the length of the deck’s connecting side and attaches to the home’s structure. Affixing the ledger board to the exterior siding is not enough to secure the deck safely; instead, ledgers must be bolted to the home’s rim joist.

To deny any chance of water ingress at the point of connection, the penetrations must be adequately flashed and sealed.

Rather than relying on the home’s existing structure for support, freestanding decks are held up by their own footings and deck posts. You can place one anywhere on the property within the allowed setbacks – freestanding decks are treated as accessory structures for setback purposes. If you want to enjoy direct access from your home to the deck, you can place a freestanding deck flush with any wall of the house without attaching it to the structure. However, in this scenario, you will still have to flash and seal around the exterior siding penetration to keep out water.

Freestanding decks may cost more due to the need for additional footings and posts beneath the end that would otherwise hang off the home’s structure. That said, freestanding decks involve less structural planning and don’t overburden your home with additional loads.

3. Safety


As with any elevated structure, fall hazard is a safety issue on decks. In California, decks over 30 inches above grade must be enclosed with a suitable guardrail system. Requirements may vary between jurisdictions, but at a minimum, deck guardrails must:

  • have a top rail that’s 42 inches or more above the surface of the deck or 34 inches above the stairs’ treads
  • have a bottom rail that’s 4 inches or less above the surface of the deck
  • have 4 x 4-inch supporting guard posts spaced 6 feet or less
  • have balusters spaced less than 4 inches apart to eliminate the strangulation hazard
  • withstand a single concentrated load of 200 pounds in any direction, applied at any point along the top rail
  • be installed at deck stairs and any other means of access to the deck

Some cities and counties may have more stringent requirements, so take the time to research when you design your deck.

Seismic safety

We live in earthquake country, and no structure big or small is safe from seismic forces unless we make it so. To prepare your deck for an earthquake’s lateral loads, provide knee bracing between posts and beams and posts and joists. If you’re attaching your new deck to the house, reinforce the connection with a least two hold-downs tying deck joists to the home’s floor joists. And beware: if the deck is attached, earthquake loads acting on it will get transferred to the house at the point of connection. If you live in an older house, a freestanding deck may be the safest option as it won’t subject your home to additional loads. It is recommended to contact a licensed engineer to help design the deck and its connection with your home in order to ensure safe design under seismic loads.

4. Durability

You want your deck to last long, but if you build it with the wrong materials, it won’t. All wood eventually rots when exposed to moisture, but by using the right framing material you can prolong the longevity of your deck and minimize future repair costs. Pressure-treated lumber is your best bet. It may lack visual appeal but makes up for it with an ability to ward off rot and other moisture-related conditions. Besides, you can always beautify your deck with pine, cedar, or composite deck boards.

The hardware which connects a deck’s framing, boards, and guardrails can also suffer from its exposure to the elements. Using stainless steel or galvanized hardware will extend your deck’s service life. It may even be a code requirement in your jurisdiction. By doing some research and investing in durable materials, you can mitigate the risk of future replacements and minimize repair costs.

5. Additional features

Think your deck is boring? From awnings to hot tubs, there is a world of deck features for you to explore and make your deck stand out from the rest.

Canopies can extend a deck’s usable hours to those hot summer afternoons and the wet months of the rainy season. If this sounds like a worthwhile investment, find out whether a pergola, awning or simply a moveable umbrella will work best for you. If you opt for a permanent feature, such as a pergola, you will need to include its details in the drawings you submit for approval and permits.

If you want to decorate your deck with plants, your options range from floor and railing-mounted pots to planters built into the deck. If you choose the latter, you can also incorporate seating and storage elements into the deck’s design. The deck’s structure will have to interface with all these features, and you will have to show them on the drawings you submit to the building department.

For a cozy yet vibrant look, adorn your deck’s posts, guardrails, and steps with low-voltage, LED lights. You will need a transformer to power down the current; installing the transformer and the lighting system may entail getting a separate electrical permit. Be sure to get assistance from a licensed electrician and ask your local building officials whether you need a permit for this work.

How We Can Help

If you are planning a deck project, Design Everest can help. Our team of engineers will prepare your deck’s plans and calculations and guide you through the permitting process. Contact us at (877) 892-0292 to discuss your project and receive a quote today. We can also connect you with a professional engineer or designer right away for a virtual consultation or virtual on-site!

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