Want a New Wood Deck During the Pandemic? It Helps to Be Flexible.

    Supplies of pressure-treated lumber are low, while demand—and prices—are up. Here’s what you can expect and do about it.

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    Aaron Pilch was on a quest for two pieces of wood. It took him three weeks to find them.

    The do-it-yourselfer recently needed the 2-inch-by-12-inch-by-12-foot planks of pressure-treated pine to make stair-tread supports, or stringers, for the deck he was renovating at his Stroudsburg, Pa., home. For three weeks, in the hours before and after his day job, Pilch drove from one home center to another, checking and rechecking barren lumber racks. Then he got a break.

    “I happened to be at Lowe’s at 8:30 at night, when they dropped a new load of wood on the rack,” Pilch says. “They had only four pieces, and I took two. I just lucked out.”

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    Pressure-treated lumber, an outdoor building staple, is normally as easy to find as, well, toilet paper. But as recent panics over that household necessity have shown, these are not normal times. Pandemic-related factors have created such low supply and high demand for pressure-treated wood that retailers can’t keep it on shelves.

    Prices have risen sharply. “I’m paying 30 percent more than I paid just a few weeks ago,” reports Rick Tejeda, owner of T Square Renovations in Hartsdale, N.Y. “It’s like lobster; they’ll only quote you the current market price.”

    With all of that uncertainty, homeowners who want to build or improve a wood deck or other pressure-treated wood structure in the near future are going to have to be flexible with price, materials, and deadlines. We'll explain how.

    Production Drop Meets Consumer Demand

    Today’s shortfall took root early this spring, as the coronavirus began its spread in the U.S. Expecting a slowdown in home construction, lumber mills in North America cut production by almost half.

    What they didn’t expect was that do-it-yourselfers would spur a building boom. With home centers and lumber yards open as essential businesses, consumers with both the means and newfound time began to spend on home improvements—like wood decks.

    Demand exploded for pressure-treated lumber, required for deck structures by many building codes. As The Wall Street Journal reports, saw mills have been caught unprepared, supplies haven’t met demand, and prices have soared. The spot price of lumber on financial markets is the highest it’s been in years, and more than double what it was just four months ago.

    “What’s going on is all DIY-driven,” says James Rane Jr., vice president of manufacturing at Great Southern Wood Preserving, based in Abbeville, Ala., which obtains sawn pine from mills, pressure-treats it, and sells it to retailers under the name YellaWood. “We can’t get enough inventory for the demand,” he says. “And it’s not just us—it’s everyone in the industry.”

    Rane says he can’t be sure when the current supply will improve and prices will drop. Retailers aren’t making promises, either. “Our merchandising and supply chain teams are working hard to replenish in-demand items as quickly as possible,” Margaret Smith, a Home Depot spokesperson said in an email.

    “Our vendors are saying, ‘We can deliver in 2 to 3 weeks,’” says M.J. Toops, a spokesperson for McCoy’s Building Supply in San Marcos, Texas, “but it actually might take 6 to 7 weeks.”

    What You Can Do Now

    If you’re set on building or improving a wood deck to use in the next few months, don’t lose faith. Contractors and DIYers we interviewed said that pressure-treated lumber isn’t impossible to get, just more time-consuming to locate. “Within the last five days, I’ve been able to pick up 50 percent of what I need,” Tejeda says.

    That said, you may have to spend more, make some concessions, and strategize:

    Shop in person, ask for help, and be patient. Though you may be skittish about entering a store in person during the pandemic, it may be the best way to secure your supplies. (Home Depot and Lowe's both are requiring masks in-store, among other social-distancing measures.) Pilch says he couldn’t order supplies online but had success when he appeared in person at a store. Toops agrees on that approach. “Get to an individual store early in the morning, talk to the manager, build up a rapport,” she says. “Ask, ‘When do the orders come in? When’s a good time frame to follow up?’” Be prepared, though, to wait another week or a few days if the new load doesn’t fill your order. “It’s coming in, in dribs and drabs,” Tejeda observes.

    Source from different suppliers. Tejeda says he visited five lumber suppliers to find enough pressure-treated lumber for a large, 1,200-square foot wood deck he’s currently building. Pilch gathered his wood from several sources, too.

    Choose an alternative plank size. When retiree Dave Smukler sourced the lumber for his home’s deck in Hadley, N.Y., he was able to find enough pressure-treated wood by opting for a thicker plank than the 1¼-inch thick, “5 quarter” boards typically used on decks. The 2-inch thick planks Smukler chose are heavier and a bit rougher than the traditional planks, but they also cost less. “I’m going to have to sand down some of the cut edges,” Smukler says. “But unless I brought it to someone’s attention or they were a carpenter, they wouldn’t know the difference.”

    Choose a different material. Non-wood composite boards, such as those made by Azek, Fiberon, and Trex, aren’t as flexible underfoot as real wood but typically are more stain-resistant, Consumer Reports’ recent deck testing results show. You may also be able to purchase a steel structure to up your composite deck so that you can avoid the pressure-treated lumber hunt entirely. Tejeda recently put mahogany floor boards on a client’s deck; he says the material was $2 per foot less than Trex but needs annual maintenance that composites don’t require.

    Choose a different plank quality. Pressure-treated wood comes in different grades. The most popular product, grade #2, has more knots and less-straight grain than grade #1, but it’s less costly. But #1 may be what you’re able to find right now. Pilch says he was able to get all his deck materials by buying some #1 planks; they added 10 percent to his project’s total cost.

    Indeed, Pilch says he plans to be extra careful with the boards he now has, taking extra seriously the carpenter’s credo to measure twice and cut once. “I’m measuring five times,” he says.

    Tobie Stanger

    I cover the money side of home-related purchases and improvements: avoiding scams, making sense of warranties and insurance, finding the best financing, and getting the most value for your dollar. For CR, I've also written about digital payments, credit and debit, taxes, supermarkets, financial planners, airlines, retirement and estate planning, shopping for electronics and hearing aids—even how to throw a knockout wedding on a shoestring. I am never bored. Find me on Twitter: @TobieStanger