What to Know Before Building a Deck During the Lumber Shortage

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Wood prices are sky-high. Should you choose an alternative like Trex or Azek instead?

Spring is a popular time to build or replace a deck. But a lumber shortage is dramatically altering the decking landscape.

  • A national shortage of lumber has driven up costs for decking by as much as 150 percent in the past year.
  • It is now significantly more expensive to build anything that uses wood, including traditional decks. More than half of all decks built in America are wood.
  • Alternative materials, such as aluminum and composite decking, which are typically priced at a high premium over wood, are now more viable options, even if they’re still more expensive. Bear in mind that many decking alternatives still typically use wood for framing.
  • Consumer Reports has 22 varieties of decking currently in testing, with full results available in the coming weeks.
  • CR members can access our current decking ratings for partial test results, or use our decking buying guide for in-depth information about the different types of decking.

The Background

If you’re planning on building an outdoor deck this year, brace yourself. A national lumber shortage has sent material prices through the roof and made wood difficult, if not impossible, to find in some regions. We’ve been tracking the shortage since last summer, when a perfect storm of surging demand, supply chain disruptions, and reduced availability set off the biggest price jump ever recorded. Surging lumber costs might make composite and other alternative decking materials—normally far more expensive because they last longer—more appealing. In short, homeowners who previously would’ve passed over alternative decking, or may have even started their project with the intention of using wood, are giving alternatives a second look, either because the price gap has narrowed, or simply because it’s what’s available.
Wood and other materials each have their own advantages and drawbacks. “Wood resists flexing better than composite materials, but composite, PVC, and aluminum decking all resist staining better than wood,” says Mario Conlin. Wood in general also offers better slip resistance. The biggest appeal of alternative decking is that it never needs to be stained and requires little if any maintenance. Pressure-treated pine is the most popular choice for wood decking boards. More often than not, it’s also the wood used for framing any deck, even those made with a composite material such as Trex or Azek. Pine is a softwood that’s treated with a chemical application to help it resist rotting in outdoor applications, such as a deck. It was also the first segment of the market to be affected by the COVID-19 shutdown last spring. “The problem really first emerged with pressure-treated pine,” says David Logan, director of tax and trade policy analysis at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). “Early in the pandemic, supply-chain disruptions caused a shortage of the chemicals used to make pressure-treated wood.” Those early disruptions, coupled with a continued shortage of raw material, have caused the prices for pressure-treated decking boards to double since last year. Cedar decking, a traditionally more expensive (and naturally rot-resistant) alternative to pressure-treated lumber, has seen a 150 percent price increase in the same time. Alternatives have gone up, too, but not at nearly the same clip—and in some cases, not at all. “We had a price increase this year of 10 to 15 percent,” says Mario Conlin, the company that makes Gorilla Decking and its own line of vinyl railing.
“The cost of the 6×6 posts used to support decks has tripled in a year,” Conlin says. And then of course, there’s the issue of availability. Conlin confirms that surging wood prices have also led to a run on composite materials in some areas and from some brands, though others have been able to meet rising demand. “We have not had any deliverability delays and have inventory for quick turnaround times,” says Conlin. “We’re able to react quickly and have been able to convert projects because of that.” If, before the lumber shortage, the pricing of composite held you back—and you need a deck now—you could seize the chance to trade up to a material that resists staining, requires far less maintenance, and has long been viewed as a more premium product. We’ll have to wait for our final test results, though, to see how alternatives stack up against wood. And if the lumber shortage has made building a deck prohibitively expensive for you this year, hit pause. “Lumber futures tell us that prices will likely remain about twice as high for the rest of 2021,” Conlin says. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. “Just remember there will be a breaking point,” he adds. “This can’t go on forever.”

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