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. Jenny says

    It’s not just when you’re DIYing that inspections are failed. We hired a contractor to build a deck for our new (to us) house 2 years ago and he got the county permit just fine. We asked about a city permit and he said it wasn’t necessary. Sure enough, the city code inspector stopped work on the first day and construction was delayed for a week while the contractor went through the (more complicated) city permit process. I’m happy to say the deck came out fine though and we have been enjoying it ever since.

  2. Linda P says

    The highlight of today’s post for me is that Sherry is a rock! She quickly pointed out the positives of the situation and gave John a hug! THAT’S what it’s all about.

  3. Barbara says

    They didn’t make it clear enough for you from the start.

    We built a whole house, and that involved MANY fails and do-overs.

  4. Kendra says

    We’ve done two deck/porch projects, and we had long discussions with our contractor both times about free standing vs. attached to the house. There are about 100 reasons why free standing is better – you will be much happier (and your house will be happier) in the long run with the deck built free standing. And you are getting off easy – we dug 24 footing holes with our screen porch project!

  5. says

    S&J – it wasn’t our fail, but do you even really want me to describe what our “septic” looked like when we moved in? Andy says I should never do a retropost on it, I disagree. If I can post about cat sh*t all over our basement, I think I can discuss the piping from our house…to…okay, I’m not ready yet.

    Yay for husbands taking a week off of work to rebuild (or rather, build) a correct septic system.

    I fail at stuff all the time. But it’s only failure if you don’t learn from it. Or I try and tell myself that.

  6. says

    wow…what a headache. sorry it didn’t work out guys. On the other hand, now you seem like a real human, and not a contractor in disguise :)

  7. Linda says

    So sorry, better now than later! Did you ever consider hiring an architect so that the design would be correct from the start (and he or she would probably be more knowledgable about county requirements)? They usually handle the permit process and can help with inspections too.

    • says

      It would have doubled our project cost to hire an architect, so we thought the plan we drew up for free would work (it inially passed when we got our permit!). It’s a surprise to have to revise things a bit, but they redrew the plans at the permit office for free for us, so I think we’re still very happy that we’re DIYing it and learning along the way!


  8. says

    I have question that has more to do with your schedule of blogging than the deck itself (which I can’t wait to see completed). Let me first note I’m not trying to make you feel bad about your hiccup in the plans, but does this make a hiccup in your blogging schedule as well? Do you have a general outline of how your week/month was going to play out in terms of what you were posting about? Or are y’all more of a go with flow and if you can post about it you will? I’m sending some positive energy for you guys to pass your next inspection with flying colors!

    -Shannon Summers

    • says

      We just post in real time, so we’ll contunue to share our deck adventures as we go and hope to have things completed by the end of July! But if we don’t, we’ll just keep working away and sharing our progress. The kitchen took a month longer than we expected so we have just learned it’s the most natural fit for us not to schedule things and to just share the good, the bad, and the ugly in real-time as we go!


  9. Koliti says

    Don’t you just love learning exeriences? Please keep in mind that when you pass on what you’ve learned, you are helping A LOT of folks out here in blog-reader-land.

    What I gather from John’s work so far is that EVERYTHING he (and his dad) did was WELL DONE – it just needed to be 2 feet lower for your building situation. I can understand your disappointment.

    Having worked for a “government-type” business before, I can understand how all of that convoluted “government-speak” is – they should assign a translator from the get-go! YAY! Sounds like John’s hooked up with the right person now.

    As for my current project of learning how to sew a little over-the-shoulder zipper-closure purse (by no means on the same magnitude as your deck project), I’ve mastered the art of seam-ripper-outer, re-sew, and seam-ripper-repeat. But I’m making progress and can feel my brain cells expanding!

    How you handle disappointment is something very valuable that you are able to pass on to Clara – acknowledge your feelings, re-assess, do good work, and carry-on.

  10. Pip says

    Frustrating! But there really are so many positives! We wanted to build an outdoor cabana with limestone – we used a contractor and still wound up with a demolition order after laying 4 courses of stone. After harsh words with our contractor, a bit of digging to expose the concrete footings and a lot of delicate communication with our council (county) we got through. Lounging around in our backyard in the finished product has never been so sweet :)

  11. says

    Totally bummed for you guys, but everyone is right – at least you had done that much before the inspection so you didn’t have the whole deck done.

    I failed miserably at cutting crown molding – I’m an engineer but my brain does not like geometry. After destroying 3 pieces of molding (seriously I never got close to getting it right) I gave up. One of my brother’s friends is going to come help me with it this summer.

  12. Meredith says

    When I was in my third year of law school, I was working 3 jobs and a full-time student and I was STRESSED. I needed to become a member of the American Bar Association in order to sign up to take the bar exam, and attempted to get this done quickly. I went to, signed right up, and was so pleased to have gotten that off my list. Definitely signed up for the American BIRDING Association and not the Bar. Oops. If you go to the website, there’s a big blue bird on the home page, so it’s kind of hard to miss, but I was in the zone. They were very nice about refunding my money. :)

  13. Amanda says

    Wow, if we are ever under nuclear attack I’ll remember to hide under ANY DECK IN CHESTERFIELD COUNTY. Thanks for keeping it real. Good luck with the new plans.

  14. Megan says

    Sorry. Dealing with the bureaucracy of the building dept is frustrating on so many levels! As you said, it varies county by county and inspector by inspector. But boy is it a great revenue source!
    You handled it well, though. :)

  15. says

    Oh and Sherry – second fail (sort of) – we just found out that Andy’s quotes won’t run in the NYT piece because he’s a professional and studied architecture/engineering and construction management in school and they wanted true true amateurs. :( Oh well! I bet it’s still going to be a great read! Thanks again.

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