Are Trex and Other Composite Decking Materials Now More Affordable Than Lumber?
With lumber prices at record highs, homeowners who want to build decks are taking another look at composite decking. Are these premium materials beyond your budget? We crunch the numbers.
Summer’s here, but the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t behind us yet. Homeowners are looking for ways to congregate safely with others and improve their outdoor spaces, and building a new deck is high on many wish lists. The problem is that pressure-treated lumber, the long-standing choice for decking, has more than tripled in price since early 2020. As a result, the cost to build a wood deck today is nearing the cost of building a deck from composite decking.
We consulted with Leslie Adkins, vice president of marketing for Trex, a leading manufacturer of composite materials, and Andrew Wilson, a home improvement contractor from Madison, Wisconsin and expert for Contractor Advisorly, to find out what skyrocketing lumber costs mean for homeowners looking to build a deck this year. Read on to learn why lumber has gotten so expensive—and whether building a deck from a premium decking product, such as composite, makes sense at this time.
What’s Driving the Spike in Lumber Prices?
When COVID-19 began to spread in Spring 2020, lumber producers reduced production or shuttered entire sawmill plants. They feared a housing slump was coming, and new residential construction would halt. Of course, the housing market did just the opposite: Builders continued to build and DIYers, many of whom felt trapped home under COVID restrictions, began tackling the major remodeling projects they’d been putting off. The result? Not enough lumber to go around. Suddenly, lumber was in short supply everywhere, and prices just kept climbing.
The Composite Difference
Unlike treated wood, which is susceptible to warping, rotting, or splintering over time, Trex composite decking doesn’t fade, resists damage from the elements, and never needs sealing or painting. It’s eco-friendly, too, because it’s manufactured from high-quality recycled materials. “Composite decking and polymer decking both last longer than wood decking,” contractor Wilson explains. Still, before lumber costs rose, most of his clients still chose the least expensive material—wood.
Today, Wilson is seeing a change in consumers’ behavior. More clients are choosing composite over lumber as their decking material of choice.
“The bright side of this change in demand [of Trex over wood] is that wood is typically the weaker deck material,” he says. In other words, homeowners who are investing top dollar in a deck may as well go with the more durable, lower-maintenance option: composite decking.
While lumber decks require regular maintenance to keep them looking their best, building a new deck with composite materials is pretty much a one-and-done project.
“Wood decking can be more expensive than composite in the long run,” says Trex’s Adkins, “once you account for the annual time and labor costs required to sand and stain a wood deck and railing.” Maintenance on a composite decking is minimal, which is one of the material’s main selling points. Adkins likens Trex’s upkeep to washing a car’s exterior.
Are composite decks still more expensive than wood decks? Yes, but barely. To give us an idea of the difference in price between decks made of the two materials, Wilson worked up quotes on what he would charge to construct identical decks, one from pressure-treated lumber and the other from composite.
“With the current prices of lumber, I can build a 15-foot by 15-foot deck using lumber for $9,500,” says Wilson. Of that quote, he says, $5,600 is the cost of materials and $3,900 is labor. “To build the same size deck using Trex composite for the decking, I would charge $10,875.” His $3,900 labor costs are the same, but material costs for the composite deck are $6,975.
A $1,375 price difference—about 14 percent—on a $10,000 project isn’t pocket change, and is enough of a difference that some homeowners will stick with pressure-treated wood to minimize costs. A couple of years ago, however, they could expect to pay at least twice as much for a composite deck than they would for a wood deck.
The Bottom Line
It’s anyone’s guess what lumber prices will do in the near future. It’s also true that the cost to build a deck varies from one community to the next, based on deck size and the going rate for labor.
“With wood prices so high, the price gap between wood and composites has narrowed considerably,” Adkins said, adding, “for those who think they can’t afford to build with composite, it’s time to take another look.”
If lumber continues its upward trend in price, the gap in price between a wood deck and its composite equivalent could narrow even more. Bearing in mind that composite decking lasts longer than wood and requires very little upkeep, it may be worth the additional upfront investment. That hassle-free factor, says Adkins, is “the long-term value of Trex compared to wood—oh, and no splinters!”