It happened about 15 years ago while my parents were hosting a company office party. Everyone was out on the deck. The grill was going and my father was standing over it. Suddenly the 12-foot–square second-story deck pulled away from the house and collapsed with 14 people on it.

The first thing we thought was, was anyone under the deck? Fortunately not. However, several people sustained minor injuries. And soon enough there was all the unwanted attention that comes with ambulances, news crews, and news stories.

That deck had been added after the house was built. The company that constructed it is still in business. The methods they used at the time were proper; back then, joist hangers were not required and the bolts anchoring the deck to the house were spaced 24 inches apart.

Lessons Learned

Today I'm the general manager of a company that sells siding, windows, and decks. Last year decks made up 40% of the $10 million in volume we did.

To avoid any possibility of having one of our decks fail, we build every deck one step above code. We also make that a key part of our sales pitch.

Here's how we do it: When a rep sells a deck, he hands it off to someone on staff who generates a CAD drawing. The CAD drawing is then passed to the manager who designs the deck according to our specifications. Those specs will always exceed the local code. If code, for example, requires a 2x6 joist, we automatically make it a 2x8. If pickets are to be spaced 4 inches apart, we space them at 3½ inches. We use stainless steel screws, which cost $40 more per box but won't corrode.

We submit that blueprint, with specifications, to the county. When we go out and build these decks, we work hand in hand with the county. I want us to do what they want us to do.

Moreover, we don't allow any of our installers to supply materials for the deck. We supply it all, although we could save about 15% on materials if we took shortcuts. What that means is that, in a multi-bid situation, our price is usually somewhere in the middle.

Selling Backward

In explaining our pricing to prospects, our sales reps are instructed to work backward from the proposed price so homeowners understand what sets us apart. For example, our installers are covered by workers' comp and general liability insurance, and we use high-quality materials. We break out everything that goes into our cost — administration, advertising, insurance — and explain how these are part of the price. I always relate the breakdown back to the homeowner's own job. I want customers to know what they're paying for and that we will not take shortcuts when it comes to safety. I also want to know whether they think our price is justified.

If a competing bid is lower — say ours is $8,900 and the competitor's is $8,500 — we raise certain issues with the prospect. If there is a problem with the deck, will the competing company take care of it? Don't just tell homeowners that your competition can't get it done for $8,500. Show them what the actual costs are and ask, “Are you sure they can get it done for that price?”

Safety is important. Many homeowners are not aware that the deck that came with their house could be just one person away from falling. Not long ago I was called to a home where one of our crews was replacing the siding. The house had a two-year-old deck on it, and the deck was attached to the house by two bolts and two nails. I called the jackleg contractor who built it and threatened to report him to the county. He took it down and rebuilt it.

By the way, the deck on my home has three times as many bolts as code requires. —Greg Sliger is general manager of Prince William Home Improvement in Woodbridge, Va.