How To Build A Deck: Failing Inspection


Oh how I wish that hashtag was in reference to some cheeky Internet meme. Instead, it’s about the result of our deck’s footing inspection. Sigh. Picture us singing “you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have, the facts of DIY life.”

So here’s the deal. We scheduled the inspector to come look at the six holes we had dug for our footings. By my understanding, he’d simply be looking at each one to make sure they were in the correct spots and dug to the right width & depth. Pretty straightforward by my assumption.

But if you recall, we chose to go above and beyond by having some of the ledger boards attached so that the inspector could check those for us too. I figured it was best for him to see that before I went through the trouble of finishing the whole darn thing (in our county, the second inspection happens after the entire deck is completed) – that way he could catch any errors sooner rather than later.

And boy did he catch errors.

As soon as he rounded the corner to our job site, he did three things that made my heart drop:

  1. He shook his head.
  2. He said “we’ve got some problems here.”
  3. And then he silent started writing in his notebook.

It was around this point that Sherry, whom I had tasked with taking some covert pictures of the inspection from within the house, snapped this picture out the guest room window. Don’t I look like a happy camper?

Despite being the bearer of bad news, the inspector was fairly helpful in explaining what the issues were (once he came out of the silence that had me sweating bullets). First, I had overlooked two tiny (yet apparently critical) letters on one of the diagrams in the county’s deck building guide. That “P.T.” highlighted below means that the house’s rim board where I attached my ledger board on the siding side of the alley needs to made from pressure treated wood. Ours was not.

So although we had added the required water-proof flashing behind our ledger board, the inspector said that if I wanted to put a ledger board on that side I’d need to also either replace the rim board with a piece of pressure treated wood (but messing with the structure of the house does not sound like my idea of a good time) or lower my deck by about two feet so that I was bolting into the masonry foundation instead.

But that ledger was only half of the reason for our failing grade. He told me on the other side of the house that I wasn’t permitted to screw into the brick side of our house because it wasn’t sound enough to bear the weight. I had read about this online before beginning, so I told him I thought I had solved that by purchasing screws long enough to go through the rim board of the house as well (for added stability). But apparently everything you read online isn’t true (go figure), so he explained that it still wasn’t acceptable in our county.

He even drew this little diagram on my ledger board to explain why it was wrong. Don’t you love having the error of your ways illustrated? The problem is that the air gap that is left between brick and the house (which I knew about, but didn’t realize was problematic) prevents the load from ever being fully transferred from the brick (which is just built to bear the vertical weight of itself). Again, my only solution here was to lower my ledger by about two feet so that I was going into the masonry foundation instead.

The other option he gave me was to forget the ledger boards and just built a free-standing deck – i.e. one that’s just supported by posts in the ground. Since Sherry and I didn’t want a deck that was two feet lower than our doorway (we wanted to just walk out there and eat, without having to carry things up or down stairs or worry about people tripping out of the house), it quickly became clear that free-standing was our best option. Translation: we had to revisit our plan, dig more holes, and attempt to pass our second inspection after our little course correction…

At that moment I was pretty close to devastated because it almost felt like starting back at square one. But I held it together long to get a few more questions answered by the inspector, thank him for his time, and wish him on his way. But I did take a second to pout at Sherry when I saw her snapping this picture through the window.

Of course, the inspector then handed me my official rejection receipt. He really knows how to twist the knife, doesn’t he?

When I walked into the house Sherry said she heard everything. I told her I need a few moments to be upset. If I were a drinker, I’m sure there would’ve been a beer or three involved. But instead, me and my sober self enjoyed a few moments of self loathing. I was mad at myself for wasting my dad’s time. For delaying our building progress. For ignoring my instincts to build a free-standing deck in the first place. For having to tell my dad we had more holes to dig. For (despite having done hours of research and planning) not having done it carefully enough.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty good at beating myself up. Though I was also a bit ticked off at the permit office that okayed my plans in the first place (I was right there if they had any questions for me to clarify before we spent days executing a plan they approved!). In their defense, they didn’t have the info about what type of housing I was attaching to, but I wish they had at least asked. As you may remember, I was all dressed up in my permit-getting outfit and ready to be grilled that day (more on that here)…

… but they didn’t ask me a single thing, and sent me on my way with a nice big “approved” permit to hang in the window.

Soon enough Sherry swept in with a positive spin on the situation. Number one: She wasn’t upset – she had actually expected that we’d fail at least one inspection (we’ve heard that more people fail then pass in our county, it’s apparently very strict and it’s sort of a miracle if you get through both inspections without having to redo something unless you’re a repeat pro builder who works with the county a lot). She pointed out we were much luckier to catch this early (if we hadn’t started on the ledger board until after our hole inspection, we would have built The. Entire. Deck only to find out that it wouldn’t pass at our last inspection and the whole thing had to come down). Point taken. This was starting to feel less like the end of the world. I might have even been writing punny titles for this post in my head to cheer myself up, like “The Petersiks: We Put The “F” In Footing Inspection.”

Sherry was also glad the inspector had been helpful with his suggestions so we knew what to do from here on out. And she was glad to have a learning experience that we could blog about. Seriously, she hugged me and said “this’ll be a funny story someday – and it’s just another example of how DIY isn’t always easy, but in the end it’s always worth it.” So before long I was out of my funk and was on the phone with the county’s building inspection making an appointment to get this:

That’s our new plan. The inspector suggested that I meet with the reviewer who okayed my first plan and just have him draw me a new one for a free-standing deck. Part of me wondered why this wasn’t offered in the first place (certainly would’ve saved everyone some time!), but mostly I was just glad to have the very people drawing my plans who would later approve them. He was also considerate enough to keep our new post holes to a minimum (7) and to try to work with as many of the existing materials that we had already purchased (we’ll still need to pick up some new stuff, but it could have been much worse). The best news is that he believes we can still use our ledger boards – but as rim boards instead (with flashing over them as well, which we’d planned to add from the get-go). Even though they’re not approved to bear the full weight of the deck – those seven new footing holes will do that – he’s confident they can still be used as the stabilizing rim boards that I’d be required to add around the perimeter of the deck anyways.

So the only real change from our original illustrated plan below is that there will be seven posts added to convert this to a freestanding deck with girders (which are boards that will run in the same direction as our ledger boards, but they’re attached to the posts, so no weight is put on the house).

Overall it was a good, quick meeting that – if nothing else – helped open a line of communication between me and the building department (I have since called this same guy with two follow up questions). Perhaps I won him over with my more casual-slash-approachable-revised-plan-getting outfit:

So that’s where we are folks. We’ve got some more holes to dig (btw, my dad took the news very well) and a few more materials to pick up – but we’re gonna wait on getting those until our footing inspection is successful. Fingers crossed! Hopefully by this time next week I’ll be running around singing “The hills are alive with the sound of an approved footing inspection!”

We’ll definitely keep you posted on this roller-coaster of real-life DIY tribulations. But now it’s time for your failed inspection stories. Or really any general life failures are fine by me. Let’s commiserate. Especially if your story has a happy ending to go along with it. I just keep reminding myself that Sherry’s right about DIY not always being easy, but it has definitely been worth it when we look back at all of the major things we’ve accomplished in the past five years (like a bathroom gut job, two kitchen overhauls, built-in laundry cubbies, a built-in double desk, a 12′ long console table, and our big patio project). So I’m keeping my eye on the prize: a new deck that we’ll spend lots of family time on someday. And even with all of these snafus, it’ll still be a lot cheaper than hiring someone else to build it. At least I hope so. Off to knock on some wood…


  1. says

    Duuuude, that’s such a bummer (curse the internet and its false information!), but Sherry’s right–better that you guys caught it now. It would have been terrible to take down a finished deck over two little pieces of wood.

    My most recent fail moment came a couple of months ago when I was starting my final project for my drafting class. I had to do a floor plan for an entire house, and I got several rooms done before I realized… I didn’t make the back wall long enough and everything I had done to that point was off by several feet. I had to start over. (I ended up getting an A, so it worked out, though!)

  2. Robin O says

    Awww, I’m so sorry! I bet your hearts just dropped! Hang in there – it sounds like you have a sound plan now. You know, reading a post like this is actually a little reassuring. You guys seem like the perfect DIYers and hearing that you go through a few bummers along the way makes me feel like the hiccups I run into aren’t the end of the world. Go Petersiks!!! :)

  3. says

    Isn’t it funny (in the ironic way, not the haha way) how we often put more stress and expectations on ourselves that are usually necessary.

    For instance, I received my two year review this morning and only met job standards in the stress management category. I’m furious with myself for not exceeding expectations in this one area. But I have to remind myself that I am literally doing the work of three people, there has been some crazy drama, and even death in the workplace for the last 6 months and that fact that I’m still showing up everyday is nothing short of a miracle.

    Hang in there, its going to be great in the end.

    • Diana says

      So true! I’m in the third year of taking very careful and small steps towards regaining my profesional licence, due to medical reasons. When I was cleared medically there were paperwork problems that took six months to clear, and then there’s the summer season and they cannot take me in the on the job training, nobody has the time to retrain me. Today i’m going to another medical assesment, and even though I know very well i’m alright, I can’t stop my stomach from churning, turning, knotting. But hope and faith and the knowledge that there’s so much solid work behind help me take it all as it comes.

  4. Amelia says

    It’s good to have someone who can put a positive spin on your mistakes! My husband’s fails were smaller, but have been frequent this week. I ran a half marathon this last weekend and when I was done, my husband met me and we walked to get the car. He told me about this awesome spot he found that was close to the finish and free! Awesome because it was completely blocked in by the race course. We couldn’t leave until the marathon finished 4 hours later! And I just got a call from him that he locked his keys in the car so I have to go free him after work today! All you can do is laugh about your mistakes because we all make them!

  5. says

    Where else would deck building be mixed with permit-getting fashion? Your blog is so much fun to read. Thank you! And not fair on the FOL song stuck running through my head. I didn’t even play the clip.

  6. Merrie says

    We have an inspection story that we laugh about now, but at the time was infuriating. We had an addition put on the side of our house while we were living in the house and I was pregnant. So there was a deadline (due date.). We were humming along and the foundation was poured. We were so excited for framing when our 88 year old, very nosy, always in our business, used to ask us who we were voting for and count beer bottles in our recycling bin neighbor called the city and complained that he thought the foundation was too close to his property. All progress ground to a halt for three weeks while we waited for the inspector, who was very busy, to come out and verify the foundation was fine.. My belly was growing by the day and we were so panicked and mad. It all turned out fine, but at the time, it was so hard to see that it would be. I was convinced we’d bring our baby home to an incomplete addition with wind blowing through unfinished walls..we laugh about it now. And you guys will, too!

  7. Michele says

    oh you guys! sucks, sucks, sucks. BUT well done seeing the positive. (and agreed, thank the good Deck Gods it was the first one you failed, before the entire thing had been built! ack!)

    all i can relate with is: failing my first driving test at 16. (is there ANYTHING more mortifying at 16?) i wanted to do the test on my birthday, and had to go out of town to do so. driving in a brand new city for the first time on the driving test? turns out it’s not the way to go. :)

    i passed the second time, and i bet you guys will too. :)

  8. says

    I just came out of a 3 year long ordeal with our county permitting department…long story, but I totally feel your pain. I find the best way to handle the issues with inspections is to really be open and honest and just ask questions, questions, questions! Good luck!

  9. Peg says

    That is so frustrating, but seriously, good on you for continuing to DIY this!

    My fiance is a contractor and we live in a county with similarly strict codes. He has built countless decks, is super skilled and thorough, and STILL gets thrown a curveball like this every once in awhile.

    I’m just straight-up impressed that you are doing this all yourself. Can’t wait to see the finished product!!

  10. says

    awww man…that really stinks. glad there was a bright side (you didn’t build the whole deck before finding out) and you guys know how to stay positive.

    I truly am almost too embarassed to admit it but apparently we were duped by some NY chimney people who put a too small liner in our chimney for the size of our oil furnace and gas water heater. It also appears to be the wrong type of a metal liner too. Should have known the price was too good to be true. I thought I knew what was going on and feel pretty burned and we still need to fix it. Should have made sure they had a permit…then maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Makes you appreciate DIY that much more.

  11. Nancy says

    Awesome post! Nice amount of suspense and action and drama. I’m sure it was very frustrating for you but relating all kinds of experiences is what is great about your blog. So often, it’s like “let’s cut the posts off the bed” and it turns out wonderful. But when you share how you deal with some setbacks and disappointment, it makes it all the more real and honestly, inspiring. And like any good literature, you need a little conflict to drive the story. ;) (And even though I’m a glass is half-full kind of girl, I have to agree with John it seems like a lot of this could have been ironed out in the initial getting-the-permit phase. Live and learn, I suppose.)

  12. Emma says

    I have a free standing deck too. You can’t tell the difference at all. It’s so great that you’re even DOING an inspection and getting permits. So many people would skip this step. It’s a pain but when you get ‘er done, you can rest assured that you’ll all be safe (you don’t want a death-defying 3 foot fall!). Just keep your eyes on the prize John. You’ll be enjoying your new deck some day soon. Good luck!

  13. Jill says

    Oh John,

    I love a man who both appreciates a good “Facts of Life” pun and the importance of a proper outfit.

    Also good choice by referencing Natalie. Blair would have made the post to arrogant, Tootie, way to annoying and Joe…well don’t get me started.

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