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Building Isn't the Hard Part

In terms of home improvements that add a tremendous amount of enjoyment value, a deck has to be up there among the best investments you can make. A few months after finishing the deck on our townhouse, my wife and I were sitting out on it one night as the sun was setting, creating a nice shaded oasis to enjoy a drink on a warm summer evening. I commented to my wife that, when the time comes, it would be this deck that ends up selling the house. It would be impossible to find yourself out on that deck on a beautiful evening and not want the house.

By sheer blind luck, the back of our house faced almost due west and was backed by a common area with a lot of mature trees. This resulted in a near perfect scenario during the summer months where the deck was shaded by the house until mid-afternoon, was in direct sun from about 1:00 to 5:00 and just in time for dinner, was shaded again from then on as the sun descended behind the trees. Dinners and drinks on the deck became a regular fixture in our house.

Fast forward a decade and 4 kids later when we put the house on the market. Our neighbors would give us daily updates on showings of the house (we had already moved down the street at this point), letting us know who had seen it and quietly rooting for this or that family to make an offer. Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th day they called us to let us know that one couple had come by a second time. Not only that, but they came by in the evening and spent about an hour standing around and talking on the deck. They made an offer the next day. We accepted it without hesitation.

For all the logic and reasoning we apply to a home purchase decision, emotions still rule the day. It’s often a particular room, feature, or setting that causes us to “fall in love” with one home over another. Decks are just one of the common renovations that can have a significant emotional appeal. Not only that, but they’re a great place to gather and enjoy the outdoors.

Building or even renovating a deck is not a particularly complicated endeavor as home improvements go. The really nice thing about building a deck is that the rest of your house remains intact while you’re working on it. It’s not like that bathroom you couldn’t use for 8 weeks while you toiled away every weekend. Sometimes the most difficult part of deck building is just getting permission to do it in the first place. This is definitely the case for the county I live in. For all the relaxation that attends to having a deck, getting approvals to build one in the first place is decidedly not relaxing.

[Sidenote 1: Do not (and I repeat, DO NOT) attempt to build a deck or put an external structure on your property without approvals. Why? Have you ever used Google Maps with satellite view? Yeah, well, so does the county only they have better programs that are updated considerably more frequently. If a big structure shows up in your back yard that wasn’t there 6 months ago, you’ll have some 'splainin to do Lucy!]

Step one of the deck building adventure was to draw up the plans and an elevation view to get HOA approval (no point getting approval from the county if the HOA just poops on the plan anyway). I probably went a bit overboard on this step and did a full Google SketchUp model of the deck on my house. I actually needed to do this anyway to see exactly how everything would align with the patio, windows, doors, etc. The nice thing was that the drawing was sufficiently detailed that the HOA approval was rubber stamped. Now it was time to deal with the county.

One thing Fairfax County does reasonably well is thoroughly documenting the process by which you can submit for approval and they also provide a handy guide for deck building standards that are almost a “how-to” instruction manual for building your deck (can be found here and would be useful in any county). So, with all of the appropriate paperwork in hand, I headed to the county building ready to get my permit!

Building commission clerk: “Hmmmm…looks like you’re going to need to go see Jimmy over in environmental protection.”

Me: “Umm, ok? Where is that?”

BCC: “Oh, he’s just downstairs. Just take the elevator down and turn left, it’s the 3rd door on the right.”

Me: “Ok, great I’ll head right down” I replied, ready to just get this thing knocked out.

BCC: “Oh, you can’t go now. He’s out to lunch.”

Me: “Ahh…ok? Do you know what time he’ll be back?”

BCC: “Let’s see. It’s Tuesday so he usually takes lunch early. I expect he’ll be back in the next 30 minutes or so, you can just sit over there and wait.”

Me: “Ok. I’m actually taking time off work to get this knocked out today. Will he be able to approve my permit?”

BCC: “I’m not sure. You’ll have to talk to him.”

<30 minutes later>

Me: “Hi. Are you Jimmy? Betty up at the service desk told me I need to come see you about getting a deck permit.”

Jimmy: “Of course, of course come on in. Do you have your plat and paperwork?”

Me: “Oh yeah. It’s all right here. Here you go…”

Jimmy takes a long hard look over the paperwork and then proceeds to type furiously into his computer like a gate agent who has to browse 27 screens and type 98 words to see if there is a window seat open.

Jimmy: “Well, looks here like you’re in an RPA.”

Me: “Umm, ok. So, what’s an RPA?”

Jimmy: “Oh, yeah, sorry. RPA stands for resource protected area.”

Me: “Oooooook. So what does that mean exactly? Is there a resource in my backyard in need of ‘protecting’?

Jimmy: “Well it looks here like there’s a stream a couple of hundred feet from where you’re proposing to build the deck. We’ll have to evaluate the impact of your deck on the water flows into the stream. So, what is this deck going to be made of?”

Me: “Wood?”

The conversation went on like this for probably about 15 minutes before Jimmy decided it would be ok to issue an RPA exemption to allow me to build a deck in my own backyard and that it wouldn’t have a manifestly negative impact on the stream behind my house. He then sent me back up to the main desk where I was told I needed to talk to John.

Me: “Hi Betty. I was just downstairs talking to Jimmy and I think we’re good on the RPA thing and he was able to approve the exemption. He did say I needed to come up to talk to John though. Where does he sit?”

Betty (and I’m not even making this up): “Oh dear. I’m sorry, but now John is out for his lunch break. He’ll be back in about 45 minutes.”

So I proceeded to wait the requisite 45 minutes for John to return so I could meet with him. John actually returned after about 20 minutes, but proceeded to sit at his desk for the additional 25 minutes with the “out to lunch” sign conspicuously hanging from his desk as he proceeded to read a book. Then at precisely 1:30 on the nose, he proceeded to take the sign down and summon me to his desk. #CustomerService

John then proceeded to rain on my parade further by informing me that while my house was not in a flood plain, the backyard and thereby the deck was in a flood plain on account of the aforementioned creek a few hundred feet away. “Oh, it’s ok” he assured me. “You can still build the deck, you just can’t attach it to the house.” <Double Facepalm> He went on to further explain that the deck could still be next to the house, but it would have to be free-standing and, as such, needed to meet the requirements for a free-standing deck instead of those for an attached deck.

Having done a decent amount of research on deck designs, I knew immediately what this meant - 2 additional posts would have to be placed right next to the house requiring 2 additional holes in my patio and, effectively, rendering the patio itself nearly useless. All because someone was afraid my deck might float away in a flood?

I returned home completely dejected and resigned to my fate when a chance venting session with a neighbor saved the day. As I was recounting my misadventures with the county, he told me that he received a FEMA map amendment letter from the prior owner when he purchased his home (about 6 or so houses down from ours). The amendment letter basically stated that our homes and yards were not, in point of fact, in a flood zone. Overjoyed, I contacted the county and was able to get my original plan submitted and approved. It was finally time to get started!

[Sidenote 2: As I've since discovered, flood plain designations are not fixed, but are instead quite fluid (no pun intended) and actually subject to quite a bit of interpretation. Specifically, some lenders will force you to have flood insurance because of their interpretation of the data and others will not. If you find yourself in this sticky situation, the easiest thing to do is to abandon a difficult lender. If that doesn't do the trick, you can hire an engineer for a couple hundred bucks to make a determination.]

One of the better decisions I made in this adventure was to pay a contractor to frame up the deck. There are not many contractors who are willing to do this and while I didn’t save a great deal of money compared to them doing the whole thing, I did save a LOT of time and got to learn a lot about deck building in the process.

Bailing out a 40in footer full of water is nobodies idea of a good time

One of the reasons this turns out to have been a great decision was that this particular fall was rainy even by northern Virginia standards. It seemed every time the guys came out to dig the footers, we’d get 2 or 3 inches of rain before the inspector showed up. If you aren’t familiar with how footer inspections are done, basically the inspector shows up with a piece of rebar, pokes it into the bottom of the hole and if he deems it “too soft” you keep digging. These poor guys came out 3 different times, spent half their time bailing water out of the holes, and the other half covered in mud. When all was said and done the footers ended up over 40in deep! So a few tips if you decide to tackle the full deck build on your own (mostly learned the hard way):

DIY Tips

  1. Be sure to have all utilities marked before you dig anything

  2. Find a friend and rent a 2-man auger to speed the dig (you may still need to dig a big wider depending on your local area)

  3. DO NOT request an inspection until the holes have been dry for at least 48 hours

  4. If you get rain, pump the holes out immediately with either with a hand pump or a small electric pump (we rent them!)

  5. If you live in a particularly wet area or are building during a wet season, pile a small amount of dirt around each hole (so the water runs around the hole) and then cover each hole with an umbrella (not with a tarp!) - why? Water will run off an umbrella and onto the ground while a tarp will just collect water atop the hole that will seep through or just fall into the hole.

The Tool List

  1. Post hole digger

  2. Shovel

  3. 1 or 2-man auger

  4. Small electric or hand-pump

In subsequent posts we’ll talk about actually building and finishing a deck along with other hard-learned but valuable lessons we picked up along they way. If you have an idea for future post or want to be a guest contributor, feel free to let us know in the comments section or reach out to us on social media via the links below. Happy Doing!

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