Weather Beater

After putting up with a leaky deck for 10 years, Mick Roberts wanted the problem to end. Permanently. He hired Emerald Contractors, a remodeler in Tarpon Springs, Fla., to do the job.

July 31, 2008
Company Snapshot
Products List
Project Timeline
The Financials

Faulty original construction meant that water leaked persistently from the rear balcony onto the deck below, deteriorating the deck flooring, posts and steps.
Photos by Bill Muehling, Emerald Contractors

After putting up with a leaky deck for 10 years, Mick Roberts wanted the problem to end. Permanently. The deck had been leaking since he and his wife had had the Tarpon Springs, Fla., house that was built in 1996. Over the years, he had brought back the builder three times to repair it. He commissioned a home inspector to recommend how to fix it. He hired a home repair specialist to make the repair. All failed.

Roberts had run out of patience. So when he turned to design/build remodeler John Marzulli of Emerald Contractors in Tarpon Springs, he had a straightforward request: make the problem disappear; give him a deck that is leak-free, a deck that will no longer require a stitch of maintenance. Oh, and do this without changing the appearance of the deck in any way.

Stubborn Problem

When the developer built the house on the banks of the Anclote River, Roberts's wife specified Key West style details, including lap siding and traditional-looking white cedar trim. The look is pleasing, but in this coastal area the elements — from the sun's piercing rays to windblown saltwater and heavy rains — can take a toll on wood-skinned buildings. The Robertses knew that well.

"My wife and I wanted [the builder] to use some of the low-maintenance, synthetic wood products that would be resistant to decay," Roberts says, "but he continually told us that there were no products on the market that would work with our design." Instead, the builder used pressure-treated wood steps, cedar posts and handrails, and wood trim for the decks and balcony. To expedite the project, Roberts went out and found metal roofing and wood-look fiber cement siding — the only weather-resistant products specified.


Soon after the Robertses moved in, they discovered water bleeding onto the rear deck from the 7½-foot by 14-foot balcony overhead. The builder came back and applied "Band-Aid" solutions that corrected the problem only temporarily.

In 2005, Roberts's next-door neighbor hired Emerald Contractors to design and construct a detached garage that matched the style of the house. Roberts was impressed. "I saw John visit my neighbor's a number of times to check on the progress of the construction and to make sure my neighbor was satisfied. I noticed how clean and neat the workers left the work area each day. I saw a group of craftsmen who seem to take great pride in doing things with care and precision." Not only that, he says, but he had confidence, too, because of the extensive research on contractors in the area that his neighbor performed.

Roberts called Emerald in February 2006. "We talked over the phone at great length," Marzulli recalls. Then Marzulli and project manager Bill Muehling met with Roberts at the house "for probably a good couple hours." Marzulli came away with a plan for solving the leakage problem, a signed design agreement and a commitment to build. Roberts never considered contacting additional contractors.

So much of the balcony perimeter beam was rotted that the balcony would soon have given way.

Bad News, Good News

Looking around the rear deck, Muehling says, "it was purely evident that there were faulty details" in the structure. "They had tucked the fiberglass deck behind the drip edge and fascia," says Marzulli. The cedar railing posts had never been flashed. Water was going behind the fascia boards, around the posts and into the wood members. "We poked and prodded," says Marzulli, "and saw how soft things were." It was clear that the balcony perimeter beam was partially rotted, and the railings and posts had deteriorated.

Marzulli gave Roberts the bad news: the decks needed to be torn open and rebuilt. The good news: The leak would finally be resolved.

But rebuilding with high-tech, maintenance-free products would not come cheap. Marzulli gave Roberts a rough preliminary budget of at least $22,000 and said, "I think it will be more — as much as $27,000 or $28,000 [total]." Roberts didn't flinch. "I could have cut the price in half if I had used standard materials and done a Chevy fix" — another patch and paint job — says Marzulli. But that's not what Roberts wanted. "He didn't mind paying for a Mercedes," says Marzulli, "as long as he got a Mercedes."

Unlike the builder, Marzulli assured Roberts that classical style, maintenance-free materials could be found. He had used some on other projects, and he scoured the market to find more that would suit the Roberts project. "He sometimes brought me samples, sometimes just brochures. Several times he sent me Web links," says Roberts. "Then we would discuss the various products, the pros and cons, and which best met my requirements." Marzulli's $25,480 estimate incorporated a palette of innovative, traditional-looking, easy-to-install products including:

  • Composite decking that never rots and resists mildew. It "cuts and miters with a regular saw — no special tools or fittings" he says, and installs like a pressure treated wood deck.
  • A polyvinyl railing system with a stainless steel core that is "indestructible and colorfast. It goes together like an Erector set," he says. "It's so much quicker than standard wood fencing, and it looks like a regular rail system unless you are up close."
  • White, wood-grained composite trim that "cuts like cedar, looks like cedar, and blends and flows" with the other products.

High and Dry

Soon after demolition began, Roberts left the country; his wife is stationed overseas, and Roberts is away for months at a time. Emerald sent reports by e-mail, often with Muehling's progress photos attached. "They kept in constant contact with me," says Roberts. Before draw requests, Muehling asked Roberts's brother, who lives nearby, to come take a look. Roberts then wired payments to the bank.

One of Marzulli's first e-mails to Roberts was a shocker. It read, "Hey, you're lucky you didn't stand on the corner of your balcony six months from now." Why? The beam was rotted farther back than Emerald had anticipated, the sheathing was completely rotted away, and the corner post was supported on the bare edge of old fascia board. Marzulli said another six months would have left no corner at all.

Emerald's subcontracted crews repaired damaged structural members in the rear deck and balcony; replaced the main beam, posts and wood wraps; and rebuilt the structure. They reinstalled the awning and installed a new frame around the balcony door, surrounding it with fiber cement siding to meld with the existing siding. In the front deck, they replaced all the wood rails.

Is the problem solved? Since project completion, "we've had some big weather systems come through," says Marzulli. "I've been over a couple of times" to take a look. It looks as crisp and fresh as new. And best of all: no leaks.


Company Snapshot

Emerald Contractors 
Owner: John Marzulli
Location: Tarpon Springs, Fla.
2007 volume: $1.5 million
Projected 2008 volume: $1.3 million
Web site: 
Biggest challenge of this project: Maintaining a traditional-looking deck using high-tech materials

Products List

Boardwalk composite decking: CertainTeed LXT railings: Digger Specialties Fiber cement siding: James Hardie Composite vinyl column wrap & trim: Versatex

Project Timeline

2006 Stage of Project
Feb. 2 Design agreement signed
March 15 Pre-construction meeting
March 25 Contract signed
April 9 Materials ordered
April 14 Demo begins
April 21 Fiberglass deck installed
April 27 Railing and trim installed; existing awning and storm shutter reinstalled
April 20 Deck painted
May 8 Punch list and cleanup
2006 Client Payment Schedule
March 25 $6,000
April 27 $16,630
May 27 $2,500

The Financials

John Marzulli based his estimate for the Roberts project on a sticks-and-bricks calculation, including the 35 percent gross profit margin that is standard for Emerald Contractors. Ordinarily that margin holds. When it doesn't, says Marzulli, "most of the time [the change] goes in our favor, not against. To slip a point is the exception, not the rule."

But two factors brought down the margin on the Roberts project to 33.15 percent. One is that the team had to order more LXT railing than needed to be sure not to run short. "When I did my initial take-off, I didn't realize they don't take back [any extra]. We ate the difference." The second factor: Marzulli's estimate included about $350 for painting the new fiber cement siding around the deck door. It turned out that the new siding matched the existing so well that painting was unnecessary. "We gave him credit because it was work we didn't need to do. "I could have kept the money," says Marzulli, but that's not how Emerald does business.

Budget History can be viewed in the August 2008 issue of Professional Remodeler.

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