Sitting in his booth last month at the Hartford home show, Phil Brown, owner of Archadeck of Central Connecticut, thought that three strong leads - i.e., set appointments with prospects ready to spend - would make it worth the time and money he had invested to be there. Instead, Brown talked with 50 prospects and ended up with 20 strong appointments. Good news indeed, since, he says, his sales in 2009 were down 30% from the previous year, and 2008 was down 20% from the preceding year. Right now he has several high-ticket deck jobs under contract, and 2010 is looking promising.

Brown's fortunes mirror those of the deck and rail industry as a whole. "I just looked at our numbers," says Ben Timko, owner of 765-DECK, a Clearfield, Pa., home improvement company that has made decks, especially re-decks, its specialty. Timko says that overall company sales held steady at $1.1 million in 2009, but that deck and railing jobs were off 20%. Put another way: in 2006, deck and railing jobs were 50% of his company's sales. Last year they were about 25%.

A recent report by market research group Principia Partners notes a 40% drop in demand for residential deck and rail products in the last three years, from $4.6 billion in sales in 2006 to $2.8 billion in 2009. That fall has happened for many reasons apart from the drop in new construction. Decks, says Virginia deck builder and designer Mike French, are not a product that people have to have. "You need a house, a bed, and boots. But you don't need a deck," French says.

More Players, Less Business

That fact, plus tight credit and homeowner reluctance to spend, has left many deck builders scrambling for a dwindling number of leads. Companies that financed a significant percentage of their jobs found themselves particularly vulnerable. "It's a lot harder to go to the bank for that $20,000 than it used to be," Timko notes, explaining the difficulty in finding and selling deck jobs in his Central Pennsylvania market.

And there are, established deck builders say, many more contractors chasing those deck leads. Wes Barber, co-owner of DW Elite Decks, in Olathe, Kan., says that ever since the new-construction market began to tank, his company has been competing with former home builders and the subcontractor crews that once built their product. All kinds of people, Barber says, "guys that were framers or window installers," have jumped into the deck market. The tactic of newcomers, he notes, is to offer to build for barely above cost, and, in some cases, at less than cost, to get the job. "I see numbers that weren't even higher than my materials costs," Barber says. Last year his company, which he says is the largest deck-builder in metro Kansas City and the only one with a showroom, built 214 projects. Of these, 40 consisted of botched jobs by other outfits, which had to be taken down and rebuilt from scratch. "The most expensive deck you can buy," he adds, "is the one you have to build twice."

Brown says he has seen similar. Recently he was contacted by a prospect who wished to re-deck, i.e., replace the rotting pine boards on her deck structure with composite planks. She'd gotten one estimate - for $7,000 - but subsequent attempts by the homeowner to contact that contractor had gone nowhere. Brown inspected the structure and told her that the minimum cost for replacing pressure-treated deck boards with composite was $15,000 to $16,000. "I told her: He could never do it for $7,000 and still have money to eat." Archadeck of Central Connecticut ended up rebuilding the entire structure.

Who's Buying Decks?

The recession has not only brought out new competitors and reduced demand but, for some companies, has changed the type of customer they deal with. Today's deck buyer is likely older and able to afford to pay cash, or at least has no problem securing a loan. "Everybody in 2008 and 2009 wrote checks," notes Brown. "They had the money."

Timko says that all his deck customers in 2009, when he built 15 decks, were aged 55-plus. All those decks were located on what was clearly their "retirement house." "A few years ago it would've been couples in their 20s and 30s," he adds. Now, the need for "rock-solid credit" has altered customer demographics.

So has the issue of disposable income. Dennis Schaeffer of Flint, Mich., says that before he sold his deck building company, Creative Wood, last fall after nearly 20 years, what he was seeing was the disappearance of the middle market. "We were talking to people who simply had to put on a [$2,000 or $3,000] rectangular deck to sell the home," he says. "And the ones who were doing quite well and wanted the best of the best. The $7,000 to $10,000 decks were no longer in existence."

Future Spoils

If the deck market reverses its downward trend, as market researchers expect, deck specialists see themselves as ideally positioned to draw the lion's share of that new business. Two facts will help them do that: according to the North American Deck and Railing Association, there are 40 million decks in the U.S. that are 20 years old or older, many of which need to be re-decked or replaced. What also benefits the deck specialist as the industry rebounds is the custom nature of the product, unique to the designer and the carpenter who executes that design.

"With a deck, it's the personality of the contractor that designates the finished product," Schaeffer says.

Timko expects to build the same number (15 to 20) of "fancy decks" that he did last year. Barber is more optimistic about 2010. "I think we'll be in good shape. I've got three folders full of bids." Brown anticipates that this will be his best year in a while. He is already seeing quite a bit of that deck replacement business. He cites pent-up demand, no doubt a factor in that forecast of marketwide sales growth. "The people who've traditionally been our clients have stayed away from the market," he says. "It's beginning to look like they're coming back."


This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the February 2010 issue of REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR.