Abstract The photothermal surface deformation (PTSD) method is used for characterization of the first-order phase transition (PT) for the first time. The advantages of the method are demonstrated experimentally for the well known metal-to-semiconductor PT in VO 2. It is found that near the PT temperature the PTSD pulse in a VO 2 film has a sign opposite to that of the thermoelastic response. The conclusion is drawn that this phenomenon is determined primarily by the contribution of the decrease in the specific volume (Δ V/ V) of the substance involved in the semiconductor-to-metal PT. The sign of Δ V/ V for a submicron polycrystalline VO 2 film is determined. Besides, analysis shows that in the PTSD kinetics measured as a whole we can “separate” a law for the metal-semicon- ductor interface movement (i.e. the interface moves towards the interior of the film when the latter is heated and back towards the surface when it is cooling down). The relative density change due to the PT is estimated based on this law.