The range of options in deck materials has expanded over the last decade or so. Where once you could only build the deck out of wood, there are now solutions in the form of composites or vinyl. Each material carries with it numerous pros and cons that should be considered before any investment is made.
The venerable wood deck is the standard by which all other decks are measured. While they may require more deck maintenance than some other choices out there, it's worth noting that nothing looks or feels quite like real wood. While other materials may claim to be more resilient or require less upkeep, they all try to ape the look of real wood. The other advantage wood has is that it's typically cheaper and more structurally sound than synthetic deck materials.
The downside to having a wood deck is that you'll need to seal it immediately and reseal it regularly every three years or so. Wood is also prone to decay, pests and splintering over time. You could pay someone to clean and refinish your deck every few years, but might be cheaper to invest in a synthetic deck instead.
The vinyl deck is becoming increasingly popular due to its longevity, low maintenance and a more convincing wood look in recent years. The latest incarnations of vinyl have varying shade patterns to look more natural, are lightweight and more resistant to discoloration from UV rays.
However, vinyl decks aren't without their flaws. First and foremost is an upfront cost that easily doubles the price of pressure-treated lumber. The light weight of vinyl may also require a redesign of any deck plans that were originally geared for wood; vinyl posts are not as sturdy and need to be placed closer together to provide adequate support. Lighter colors are favored because, unlike wood, vinyl doesn't tend to reflect sunlight and can actually get hot to the touch. Not all vinyl is created equal either – virgin vinyl seems to be the preferred type by deck contractors that specialize in synthetic materials. However, if you want a deck with the least possible maintenance, vinyl is a great option.
Composite decks would seem to offer the best of both worlds: wood mixed with plastic to create a product that looks like wood, but has added resiliency and longevity.
However, since the woods used in composite decks are generally recycled woods that are not used for deck building in the first place, they tend to absorb water and can produce mold as a result. Composite materials are more expensive than wood but comparable with vinyl. After five years you may need to replace your deck, as you cannot re-sand or refinish it like you can with a wood deck. Lastly, though you may not need to stain your composite deck every few years, there are still detailed cleaning instructions required to keep it looking good for the duration of its life.