- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

Decks and patios, which once were mere structures added for convenience, now have become big-ticket must-haves for many homeowners wanting to take advantage of outdoor living space.

Drive through any neighborhood, and you're bound to see a proud display of decks and patios extending from homes of all sizes.

Materials over the years have gone from pressure-treated lumber to synthetics and composites for decks and from plain concrete to textured cement, bricks and stones for patios.

While decks still seem to rule in the minds of many homeowners, patios are increasingly gaining in popularity.

"Decks and patios are definitely on the rise; a lot of people are getting used to going outside for more space," says Mike Ritter, manager of Long Fence Co. in Crofton, Md. "When people start getting into remodeling projects, extra rooms require too much work, like carpet and paint. A deck or patio is a simple structure that adds flair to their home and is about 20 to 30 percent cheaper than other remodeling projects."

Don't feel left out if you're without a deck or patio. Many homeowners cannot decide whether to invest in a deck or in a patio. With so many choices and variations, it's difficult to make up your mind on exactly which works best for you.

It can be a hard choice, Mr. Ritter says. He himself is building a kidney-shaped patio with lights installed flush into it.

"You can be very creative with patio styles," he says. "There's an assortment of colors and you can feature curves instead of a deck with 45-degree angles. Each year they get more popular."

Patios are going beyond the standard concrete square or rectangle. According to the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, poured concrete accounts for 60 percent of patio and porch materials. The rest are made of concrete pavers, bricks, stone, or slate over a sand or concrete base.

Homeowners are dressing up patios with fountains, decorative lighting and built-in planters.

Jim Husbands, pro salesman at Home Depot, says that although a patio can be tougher to build because it requires level ground, it blends in nicely with the natural landscape. "You can decorate more with a patio and have plants and waterfalls," he says.

Decks are evolving into a work of art of their own. People are building decks with built-in benches, swings, and even slides for the children. Decks have also become multilevel and more compartmentalized, with features for cooking and eating, lounging or even a hot tub. Deck railings have also become fancier, and some now even include cup holders.

"I see more decks than patios. I think you get more benefits from them," says Holly Stone of Washington Appraisers.

The floor plans for many homes allow for walk-out basements with a kitchen high above the ground, providing space for a deck off the kitchen with a patio underneath. The space can also be used for storage.

A deck is "unlimited with the possibilities," Mr. Husbands says. "A lot of two-story homes nowadays have a combination of both, a deck and a patio."

Maintenance is a factor to consider. If staining, sealing and power washing a deck is not your idea of fun, a patio or synthetic deck might be the answer.

Although patios are typically easier to maintain than decks, more people are moving to composite materials for decks that require little maintenance.

"I'm not saying that a composite deck is completely zero-maintenance. You still have to clean it. But, overall, they are a labor and cost saver," says Maureen Murray, spokeswoman for Trex Co., based in Winchester, Va., one of the largest makers of composite decking materials.

"Trex is completely safe and nontoxic. It's made purely from recycled plastics and waste wood from furniture scraps," Ms. Murray says.

There is a movement toward composite wood materials and away from pressure-treated wood, which contains arsenic. The Environmental Protection Agency announced in February the home-building industry's voluntary decision to move toward alternative lumber products by Dec. 31, 2003.

By 2004, the EPA will not allow treated wood for residential use including decks, patios and fences.

Trex is one of the composite products that have arisen to fill the need for alternatives to treated lumber. Composites have a natural appearance, but they resist moisture and do not splinter.

"What is unique to Trex is that with a little work you can bend and shape it into designs, but it still remains durable," Ms. Murray says. "I saw a client with a complete circular deck."

Prices vary with the size, materials and style used for patios and decks.

"Cost-wise, a slab of concrete is easier to pour so it will be the least expensive," Mr. Husbands says. But patios made of brick and stone and decks are competitively priced. Look to pay more for less maintenance when it comes to decks, though. Composites are more expensive, but Mr. Ritter says he believes that alternative lumber prices eventually will ease and get closer to the cost of real wood.

"I try and tell people that it all evens out by the time you spend the money on maintaining a wood deck," he says.

Mary Smirnaw of Long & Foster Realtors says she doesn't get many requests for people wanting to buy a home with a deck or patio because those are things that can easily be added on. She says, however, that when it comes to patios, buyers tend to be more impressed by the use of flagstone or brick.

You get the most out of your investment with a deck, according to Dan O'Donaghue, appraiser with Joseph Donelly Appraisers in Bethesda.

"With a normal deck versus a basic patio, the deck is going to give you more value for your money," he says.

Mr. O'Donaghue says each case needs to be evaluated on its own merit, however.

"A deck can be a basic 100-square-foot deck to a magnificent 500-square-foot one with all kinds of built-ins. The same with a patio. It can be a basic concrete patio or a magnificent flagstone with waterfalls. I base the value on quality because each house has something different," Mr. O'Donaghue says.

"It depends on the construction quality," says Bent Brown of Atlantic Appraisal Co. "A brick paver and flagstone patio will appraise higher than a regular concrete one. When appraising, I look for size and quality."

Mr. Brown adds that a deck made from composite lumber likely would appraise for more than a wood one.

When buying a home with a deck or a patio, always make sure to ask the homeowner for a permit to make sure that it was legally built. With a deck, check to see that the support beams are solidly in place so that you'll know the deck is sturdy enough to hold a lot of weight and won't come crashing down.

With a patio, there is no real safety concern. But look for cracks in the concrete and check the sides to make sure that it doesn't sink into the ground. "With a flagstone patio, make sure the mortar isn't starting to break up," Mr. O'Donaghue says.

Whether you choose a deck or a patio, you really cannot make a bad decision when it comes to increasing your outdoor space, which adds to the value of your home.

"People like creating usable, functional space to entertain and take things outside," Mr. Ritter says.

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