What to Know Before Building a Deck During the Lumber Shortage

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

wood deck Photo: James Brey/iStock

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. 

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“Wood decking has historically been the most popular choice, accounting for more than half of all the newly built decks in America,” says Min Kim Bryant, CR’s market analyst who covers decking. “But that preference has also really been driven by cost, so it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.” 

Wood and other materials each have their own advantages and drawbacks. Consumer Reports plans to publish full decking ratings for 22 lines in the coming weeks. But some results are already in, highlighting distinct differences among choices.

 “Wood resists flexing better than composite materials, but composite, PVC, and aluminum decking all resist staining better than wood,” says Rich Handel, CR’s test engineer for decking. 

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 Don Garrison of Nexan Building Products, the company that makes Nextdeck and LockDry aluminum decking products. 

With prices ranging from $5-$7.50 per linear foot, you’ll still pay a premium over what you’d pay for wood, but the gap has narrowed considerably. Envision Decking, a manufacturer of composite decking, hasn’t raised prices at all this year. One of its products, the Ridge Premium collection, now runs close in price to traditional wood options. 

“In stark contrast to historical norms, there have been times when composite decking has been cheaper than wood decking,” adds Logan at the NAHB. But while that would seem to make building a composite deck a more appealing choice, there are limitations. Many composite decks still require pressure-treated wood framing, and in some cases, these structural pieces have gotten pricey.

“The cost of the 6x6 posts used to support decks has tripled in a year,” Logan says. 

And then of course, there’s the issue of availability. Logan 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 Chase Moritz, director of marketing at Envision. “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,” Logan says. 

Beyond that is anyone’s guess. 

“Just remember there will be a breaking point,” he adds. “This can’t go on forever.”

Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.