Among exterior projects, building a deck is by far the most discretionary. It’s not about keeping rain or wind out of the house. It’s about relaxing and entertaining. The homeowner’s goal is pure leisure.
Oddly enough, then, contractors often find that clients will get more anxious about a deck job than the roof or windows. People who sign a contract for a deck often “take years to make a decision,” says Matt Breyer, owner of Breyer Construction, in Reading, Pa., and president of the North American Deck and Railing Association. “Once they’re ready to go, they generally want it completed as quickly as possible.”
Often they want to know if it can be done in time for that Fourth of July family reunion, or the Labor Day wedding that’s in the works—a good thing for contractors to keep in mind. For instance, on that first visit to the house, sales consultants from Outback Deck in Atlanta ask homeowners if “there’s anything coming up in the future that you might need your new deck for,” company president Bryan Miller says. “If you ask good questions on the front end, you’ll know what’s happening in the homeowner’s life that might affect your project.”
Those questions, put to the client by sales, are reiterated in contacts by admin and production. “We have that conversation multiple times,” Miller says. If you don’t have them, he points out, it’s likely you won’t meet a client’s expectations, simply because you're unaware of them.
It’s Not Just A Deck
Companies well respected in their markets make a point of communicating fully and often, if only because there’s a lot for clients to understand. Homeowners need to be aware, says Adrian Petrisor, owner of Adrian’s Quality Fencing and Decks, in Portland, Ore., that many variables go into putting a deck project together. These include design, engineering, municipal permits, job scheduling, and construction. And in some places, some of those variables can get complicated.
Gary Marsh, of Gary Marsh Design, has been building much-admired deck projects for Northern California homeowners for 40 years. Rarely, he says, are clients aware of the engineering required for each project. Building on Marin County’s steep hills, his decks have to be earthquake proof, the beams attached from deck structure to foundation to resist lateral tug, i.e., to keep the deck from creeping down the hillside. “They think, 'Oh, it’s just a deck,'” Marsh says. At that point, the award-winning designer says, “my most difficult job is to inform them from the start that this is a multi-layer process, that there are many steps along the way. It’s going to take three or four months."
This isn't the case only in California. Miller estimates that 40-50% of his company’s clients are not aware that a deck project requires a permit. “The competition isn’t out there telling them they’ll have to get one,” he says, and if this is their first deck project, everything will be new to them. And permitting may take a day, a week, or six weeks, depending on which municipality the project will be built in.
On The Schedule
Homeowners also need to understand that any reputable deck builder almost certainly has dozens of projects backlogged, each attached to other clients who want their projects finished by a certain date as well. At Outback Deck, for instance, right now there’s a million dollars' worth of projects on the books.
In Portland, “most of the good companies are booked two or three months or longer,” Petrisor notes. Still, he and other deck contractors get regular requests from clients insisting, or pleading, that the project has to be done in time for a particular event.
Lou Pagnutti, owner of Decks Unique, the largest deck builder on Long Island, can’t count the number of times in the last 30 years he’s had homeowners tell him they “had” to have the deck by Memorial Day, or July 4th, or Labor Day. Like most good business owners, he’ll go far to accommodate—but not if you want the deck in two weeks. If sufficient lead-time for engineering, permitting, and materials ordering exists, his highly efficient crews can put a deck together in two days, but it's not how they prefer to run things.
Not A Perfect World
Given typical client anxiety (mixed in with a little excitement), once the project is scheduled, homeowners will continuously want to know when the work will get started. But let's not forget another uncontrollable variable: weather.
No one would expect to see a crew working on the roof in rain, or cold, or drizzle. With a deck, that curious impatience to have it done can sometimes get the better of clients who, between cloudbursts, might call the office wanting to know where the crew is.
When it comes to scheduling the build, Matt LeFaivre, president of J.R. LeFaivre Construction, in Taneytown, Md., assumes every day will be sunny and always leaves some wiggle room between an approximate start date and an approximate completion date. “For a 12x18-foot deck, which takes a week, I tell them two weeks,” he says. Though if there’s an event on the deck planned, “we’ll speed it up.”
Once all the proper paperwork is intact, “weather is the number one delay,” LeFaivre says. If it’s raining, he texts the client that morning, or the night before, to let them know the crew won’t be there. Clients understand if it’s pouring rain, but if it’s drizzling, he might very well get a call questioning why the work can't be done.
There are excellent reasons. “You might get half of what would’ve been done on a good day,” LeFaivre says. “Plus it’s unsafe. The last thing I need is for a guy to get hurt because I sent him to a swamp.”
Still, if for whatever reason—permit and design review hold-ups, supply problems, weather—too much time elapses past the start date, some people “start yelling and threaten you with bad reviews,” Pagnutti says. So, he continues, “when we sign a project, we give them a tentative build date and explain in great detail that it is tentative because of weather, scheduling, and delivery problems. We’re not in a perfect world. Can you tell me how many days it’s going to rain between now and the Fourth of July?”
Other issues can halt a deck job before it’s even underway, and clients need to be informed of these. Termites and structural problems are two big ones. Every deck contractor, for instance, has had the experience of pouring concrete for foundations only to discover that the soil’s unsuitable. Or, if the project is a re-deck, close inspection may reveal joists rotted or otherwise compromised. Likewise, pulling away stucco from the wall around the deck area can expose insect damage.
Marsh inspects for all that before designing. Not only will any of these slow the project, they may also indicate a change in the scope of work, and its cost. “If I see signs of that happening,” Marsh advises, “then I say to the client that once we start tearing things apart we will need to discuss what it’s going to take. If it’s severe, there will be a change order.”
The best deck builders head off such changes, if possible, at the estimating stage. “We try to walk slowly during the design/sale of a project,” Breyer says, “so that we can incorporate as many refinements and details as possible up front.”
If They Want It, They Will Wait
Today, many deck companies keep the process and project moving by paying attention to the following:
- Determining in the course of the sale when the client wants the deck finished and why, so as to prioritize production
- Stocking in the shop extra railing, deck boards, hardware and other materials used on every company job, just in case an order delivered to site is shorted
- Maintaining a reasonable production schedule: “We’ve got an expectation of the amount of work we can accomplish on a monthly basis,” Breyer says, “and we only book up to that amount.”
- When clients call today, wanting their deck done next week, be prepared to level with them, even if it means the homeowner calling someone else. “We’re honest and upfront about time constraints,” Pagnutti says. “And if they want us to do their project, they will wait.”
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