Spring and summer in Virginia are the perfect times to enjoy the outdoors at home. Whether it’s a graduation party, a 4th of July cookout, or a good old-fashioned family reunion, decks are a popular gathering place for good food and great memories. But happy occasions can be dangerous when a larger-than-normal crowd puts extra stress on a failing deck. In honor of Deck Safety Month, let's take a look at the problem and ways to ensure your deck is safe for your warm-weather celebrations.
Why do home decks collapse?
A 5-year study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) revealed that outdoor decks and porches' failure has dramatically increased in recent years. Based on their statistics, 224,000 people have been injured by faulty outdoor structures since 2003, including 18,000 serious injuries resulting from a complete collapse. Virginians are being affected too.
The problem? Of the 40 million deck structures in the United States, an estimated half are not built to regulate building codes. Here at NNINS, we often see decks aged out of the current VA state residential code during home insurance inspections. We also see some that were built without any building permit at all. Permits are not only required for most decks, they ensure your deck is well-built according to architectural guidelines for safety.
When you're buying a new home and your deck was built without a permit or you’re not sure if it was, get it professionally inspected by a structural engineer or decking contractor that is licensed in Virginia. Do the same before you hire someone to build a new deck. You can check out a prospective contractor with a name and zip code or license number.
4 Warning signs of an unsafe deck
In the meantime, here’s a quick DIY check for common signs your deck has serious problems.
1. Your deck is nailed to the house.
Older decks were built using nails to attach the deck to the house. Nails have small, smooth, flat heads, as seen in the first picture, and can easily pull away from your home. The second picture shows the appropriate bolts and nuts used to attach posts and beams to boards and decking and galvanized metal brackets and ties. If you see nails instead of bolts or loose/missing large metal brackets, your deck might be unsafe.
2. Your deck has splits or cracks in the beams or posts.
Even the smallest cracks in wood posts and beams are not a good sign. These fractures may indicate past and recurring stress and can mean your deck is already beginning to fail.
3. You can see discolored or rotted wood.
Over time, water damage can cause deck wood to rot. It can appear discolored gray and may even be breaking apart in places. If it’s questionable, do this easy test: try to push in a screw with your hand. If the wood is soft and spongy and you can push it in, you’ve got rot.
Proper flashing between a deck and your house before it's attached is essential. The wood used to build a deck should be pressure treated and then maintained with weatherproofing stains annually, depending on its product. If water droplets absorb into your deck surface instead of beading up, it’s time to treat again. And then there are termites!
4. Your railings are not tight and secure.
Another common thing we see is shaky or unstable deck railings. These are extremely dangerous, especially for stairs. And the height and location of railings are other important safety factors addressed in building codes.
If your deck railing feels wobbly when you pull or push against it, it is probably due to a loosened rail post connection to the deck frame. Ensure your deck posts are fastened to the deck joists and beams with solid lag bolts or screws surrounded by secured blocking. You can also check each bolt and lag and tighten anything loose with a power drill or ratchet. Metal hardware can corrode over time or loosen from its initial position. If your wood rails check out okay, remove the connecting hardware and replace it.
Have your deck checked by a professional
If your notice any of these overt signs your deck is not safe, stop using it immediately and call for an inspection or repair well before the big cookout. If you’re renting an apartment or live in a condo complex, ask your landlord or building supervisor when the last time any stairs, railings, decks, and balconies on the premises were inspected. You can even ask to see those documents.
While the safety checkpoints we've provided are helpful, not all safety issues with decks may be noticeable. It's important to have your deck professionally inspected occasionally, especially if you don't know anything about its history. A basic professional deck inspection in Virginia can run from $125 to $175 depending on the size and structure of your deck and can be added to a home inspection.
Buying a new home with an existing deck
If you’re in the market for a new home, ask for proof that an existing deck was permitted and built to code when negotiating the purchase. Also, never skip that contingent home inspection and have any deck or porch checked for maintenance and safety issues. You may be able to get the seller to remedy pre-existing problems before you close on the home. Then be sure to maintain things properly. And the good news is that well-maintained and built-to-code decks and porches can be covered under your home insurance policy.
We wish you a deck season marked with plenty of new outdoor memories around your home. Knowing your deck is in tip-top shape will give you peace of mind that your family members and friends and your times together are safe and sound!
THE NORTHERN NECK INSURANCE INTEGRITY PROMISE — We pledge to provide straight talk and good counsel from our NNINS Virginia insurance experts through our blog. While we hope you find this to be a helpful source of information, it does not replace the guidance of a licensed insurance professional, nor does it modify the terms of your Northern Neck Insurance policy in any way. All insurance products are governed by the terms in the applicable insurance policy.