What's the Difference Between a Patio and a Deck?

Defining Backyard Spaces and Rooms

beautiful patio
A beautiful tile patio. Spaces Images/Blend Images/Getty Images

Should you build a patio or deck in your yard? How do you know which one is right for you, your lifestyle and your outdoor living space? And how can you really tell the difference between the two, anyway?

For starters, let's define them. Patio is a Spanish word, which means it is a courtyard of a house or building. A courtyard is traditionally an open space surrounded by walls or other structures or is an area of ground adjacent to a building.

A patio differs from a courtyard in that it doesn't have to be surrounded by walls. It's similar to a courtyard in that it's an open space that can be situated directly on the ground.

Patios can be attached to a house or detached. They are often designed and oriented with the landscape in mind. Patios are versatile: they can take on any shape and be built with a variety of materials, including concrete, pavers, stone, tile, brick, pebbles, rock, or pea gravel. Most patios are set on a concrete slab or a sand and pebble base. Since patios are built at or around ground level, they don't require safety railings.

Decks are primarily made of wood or a composite wood material or vinyl, like Trex. Popular woods for decking include redwood, cedar, and pressure-treated pine. Properly cared for, decks offer a beauty and warmth unlike any other material. You can stretch out on a deck without a cushion and still be quite comfortable.

 

Like patios, decks can be attached to a house or freestanding. Decks often are built to take advantage of a view. Decks can be different levels and often need railings. Certain types of wood and composite decking are resistant to insects. Unlike natural wood, composite and vinyl decking don't splinter and usually don't warp.

Before starting a project, check with local zoning laws. Some cities or counties require blueprints and an official approval from the planning commission, along with periodic inspections during the building process. This might determine whether your project becomes a deck or patio.

Patios and Decks: The Similarities

Both patios and decks are outdoor or backyard spaces that define activity areas and guide you from one space to another. Other traits they share:

  • A cover or pergola can be built over either for shade or privacy.
  • An outdoor kitchen can be located on a patio or deck.
  • Both can accommodate fire pits, although a fire feature placed on a deck will need a fireproof material separating it from the wood deck, such as concrete, ceramic, porcelain, etc.
  • A patio or deck can surround a pool or spa.

Caring for Patios and Decks

Unlike a concrete or brick patio, a wood deck needs to be maintained yearly to preserve its beauty. This might require scrubbing or sanding. If the deck has gone too long without regular care, it might need to be refinished or painted. Either one will require prep to make sure there aren't any loose nails, screws, or boards. It should also be sanded or refinished to ensure there are no peeling pieces of wood that could cause splinters.

A variety of deck products are available, depending on the scope of the repair project.

Depending on the material, a patio will also need to be maintained, although doesn't require the same level of attention as a deck. Bricks might need to be replaced, pea gravel should be cleaned and raked, and concrete might need to be cleaned to get rid of mold or mildew.