Mike Holmes’ Advice on Backyard Decks and Fences

August 2, 2013

Makin’ it Right with Mike

HOLMES_Mike_Outside_003[1]By Kristine Archer

A fence or deck can be the focal point or finishing touch to your backyard. However, these projects can also lead to countless headaches and cost overruns if you choose the wrong person for the job. When dealing with such a big decision and important project, who better to talk to than Canada’s most well-known and trusted contractor?

That is exactly what Pools, Spas & Patios did, posing some of your most common fence- and deck-related questions to Mike Holmes, author, home improvement expert and star of the hit HGTV shows Holmes on Homes and Holmes Inspection. In this article, Holmes, whose ‘Make it Right’ motto has become famous, offers tips and advice valuable to any homeowner looking to tackle a backyard construction project.

PSP:  When it comes to fences and decks, should I hire a contractor or are can I tackle this kind of project myself?

Holmes: For most home renovation jobs, I tell people to hire a professional, and fences and decks are no exception. If you need to save money and want to do it yourself, make sure you do your homework and ask questions before you start any project.

PSP: What steps should I take before any backyard construction begins?

Holmes: This is a topic I cover in detail in my book, Make it Right: Expert Advice on Home Renovations. No matter what the project is, be sure to take your time and know what you want before you start. Find a good contractor and be sure to interview him or her before hiring. I like to call it ‘The Dating Game.’

You will absolutely need a permit if you are building a deck, but perhaps not for a fence; it depends on your municipality. Be sure to check your survey and call your local municipal government. You need to know if there are any issues or easements with your fence, especially if you’re on a corner lot. Also, find out if there are any bylaws on fence height and appearance. It is really important to call before you dig! You can cut cables and even break a gas line if they aren’t marked.

If you’re building a fence, make sure it is on your property and not your neighbour’s. If you plan to share the building expenses with your neighbours, make sure everyone is in agreement before you start. Discuss with them the costs, property lines, what style of fence they’d prefer and how much privacy do they want. It might even be a good idea to have some sort of written agreement in place before any construction starts.

If you’re replacing an existing fence, find out for sure that the old one was put in the correct spot in the first place. If it was not done correctly, finding out now may save you a lot of headaches when its time to sell your home.

HOLMES_Fences_Decks_003[2]PSP: What questions should I ask a contractor before hiring him or her to do any backyard construction projects?

Holmes: A lot of contractors start out in the business as fence guys, so make sure yours has some experience and didn’t just pick up a hammer. Ask if they have done these types of job before, how many they’ve done and whether you can go see some of their completed jobs. If they say no, that’s a huge red flag. You also don’t want a contractor who just ‘happens to be in the area’ or who is ready to start right away. A good contractor is usually busy; chances are he or she will not be able to start your fence or deck the next day.

Ask for references—and check them—and get lots of quotes. When you get them, remember there is no average price for a deck or a fence—every situation is different, depending on the materials, access, details, size and experience and skill of the contractor.

PSP: What are some other warning signs a contractor is unethical or unskilled?

Holmes: If they want to be paid in cash, walk away. If they ask for all of the money up front, walk away.  If they don’t provide a contract, walk away. Be sure to structure the job and payment schedules the same way—contractors should be paid based on milestones they reach, not a big deposit up front.

PSP: What are some of your basic rules for fence building?

Holmes: When doing wooden fences make sure to use wood that has been chemically treated, like cedar, or composite materials, since they will last the longest. Also be sure your contractor checks the wood for cracks, warping and crowning before installation starts.

Use 152-x-152 mm (6-x-6-in.) posts, rather than 101-x-101-mm (4-x-4-in.) ones; this will cost you a bit more, but it will be well worth it in the long run. Also, make sure your gate is secure, with a sturdy 6-x-6 post in a solid foundation. This is a really important detail, and is often overlooked. When installing hinges go for that extra set (use three instead of two); more hinges will better support the cantilever. Also, make sure your contractor uses galvanized screws and nails.

You should also make sure the holes for the fence posts are the proper depth, and that your contractor uses cement and proper cement forms (such as Sonotube®) to secure the posts. Fence posts should be set deep enough to go below the frost line—0.9 m (36 in.) is a good minimum depth, but 1.2 m (48 in.) is even better. Finally, make sure the posts are installed plum, that the top of the fence is level and that the fence is installed in a straight line.

HOLMES_Mike_Outside_001[3]PSP: What are some of your basic rules for deck building?

Holmes: Again, check with your local building authority—you will definitely need a permit if the deck is attached to your house or it’s over a certain height. If you don’t check and you are reported, you will have to take the deck down, so it’s best to double check and get the permit! The same rules apply to decks as they do with fences when it comes to checking for easements and proximity to property line and lot coverage, so do your homework.

Otherwise, when building a deck, you want to make sure it is properly secured and attached to your home. It needs to be bolted (not nailed) to the house (or another solid structure), using a ledger board, which runs the entire length of the deck. The deck joists are hung with joist hangers from the ledger board. To prevent water infiltration and damage, make sure each and every bolt is caulked and sealed. Also make sure your contractor uses vinyl spacer pins, which will allow water to drain free between the ledger and the house.

Another option is to do a freestanding ‘attached deck’ right next to your house on proper footings that is not actually connected to your house. This way, you’ll avoid any problems of water filtration in your home.

PSP: What about the different types of material that can be used for fences and decks? What would you recommend?

Holmes: I recommend using pressure-treated (PT) wood for the main structure of the deck. Then, you can clad it with whatever wood you prefer, like cedar or composite. It is popular, cost-effective and has been chemically treated with a copper compound to protect against insects and prevent wood rot. This means any screws and joist hangers must be labelled for PT wood. Even though it is treated, PT wood still needs to be maintained. Annual cleaning and a coat of water-repellant every year will help protect against moisture damage, splintering or staining.

I also love the look of cedar or redwood, but it will cost you more than PT. For a more cost-effective look, you could use PT for the structure and support, and then use cedar or composite for the planks and railing. Cedar is naturally resistant to insect damage and rot, and therefore needs less maintenance than PT wood. But remember, cedar should not come into direct contact with the ground. You will not need to treat cedar—it will weather to a grey colour or you can stain it. However, once it is stained you will have to maintain it regularly. You should also wash your deck every year with a mild detergent and water, but don’t use a pressure washer. Cedar is soft and can be damaged.

Composite wood products have come a long way since they first hit the market and I’m starting to like them better. Composite wood is usually polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PPE) mixed with wood fibre or wood flour. It looks a lot like real wood and is UV-resistant. It won’t fade and you don’t have to stain it, as it already comes in a variety of colours. It also won’t twist, split or warp and is resistant to insects. The drawback? It’s way more expensive, about five times more than PT wood. However, in the long run, you’ll save a lot on maintenance. Also, keep in mind that a lot of composite wood material is somewhat softer than natural wood, and isn’t available in long spans, so your contractor will have to place the joists closer together. You could also choose resin decking, which has no wood in it at all, so it won’t absorb moisture. It’s also lightweight, durable, won’t mould, splinter or crack and comes in lots of colours.

PSP: How involved should I be during the construction process? Is there a point at which I should ‘back off’ and let the contractor do their job, or should I stay as vigilant as possible?

Holmes: It’s always good to talk to your contractor, be involved, ask questions and communicate your concerns—just don’t make a nuisance of yourself.

For more on Mike Holmes and his various projects, visit www.makeitright.ca[4].

  1. [Image]: http://poolsspaspatios.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/HOLMES_Mike_Outside_003.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://poolsspaspatios.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/HOLMES_Fences_Decks_003.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://poolsspaspatios.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/HOLMES_Mike_Outside_001.jpg
  4. www.makeitright.ca: http://www.makeitright.ca

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