Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Swimming Pool on a Budget

A beautiful pool can be a great addition to any backyard.  But bear in mind they add little, if any value to most homes, outside of Southern California or Florida.  And there are a number of pitfalls to avoid.  After having one pool built, I learned a few things I would do differently if I was ever to build another pool.

Living better by living stingy.  This does not mean eating Raman Noodles and recycling toilet paper, but to learn how to spend money more efficiently, so you don't end up squandering most of your wealth chasing after material things.

A swimming pool is hardly a necessity and not having one is certainly a good way to save money on a pool.  But if you want a pool, there are a few things I have learned from our first pool that might interest you:

Little Additional Value Added to Home (Perhaps Detracting):  Bear in mind that like most home improvements, a swimming pool will not add as much value to your house as it will cost.  In fact, in many areas of the country, a pool is looked upon as a dangerous, energy-consuming and time-consuming nuisance that needs to be filled in, in order to sell the house.

The Washington, DC area was like this, and one of my neighbors actually ended up filling in his pool to sell his home.  The house languished on the market for a year.  He filled in the pool and it sold the next week.  That's Washington, for you, and yea, that's the mindset of our Government employees.

In other areas, like California or Florida, not having a pool is a hindrance, or at the very least, it does not detract from the value of the home.  But I suspect even there, if you spend $20,000 on a pool (which is easy to do) you won't get back much in the way of resale value.

Thus, if you want a pool, sometimes it pays to buy a house with one rather than add one one, particularly if there are other aspects of the home you are not pleased with.  Adding a pool to an existing home can easily over-improve your home for the neighborhood.

Status Symbol or Practical Relaxation:  Having a pool is fun, and lazy afternoon pool parties in the summer are a good old time - we had a LOT of them!  But part of having a pool is status - the idea that you can afford one and your neighbor's can't.  Is this why you are getting one?  If you are not an outdoorsy person (and few are today, although many pose as such) you won't use it much and it will just be an energy-consuming and time-consuming waste of money.

Think about this carefully before you buy.  I've seen many pools in my day, and I'd say for more than half of them, they are rarely used by their owners.  Some people buy houses with pools and think it will be fun to have one, and never use it.  Others build pools thinking they will be fun, but never end up using it.  And yet many more build a pool to show off their wealth, and NEVER use it all!

And think about how you plan on using the pool.  Do you swim laps, or just like to cool off and splash around with your friends?  Much of the enjoyment of the pool is just being around water - you won't spend as much time in it as you might think.

Location:  The location and layout of a pool can affect how you use your pool or whether you enjoy it at all, so plan your pool carefully.  A well-planned pool is an entertainment center and joy to have.  A poorly planned one is just a weed-attractor and eyesore.  For some reason, some people place a pool a long distance from their home - and then fence it off from the house.  Such pools are not inviting and have no ambiance - being little more than a concrete pond surrounded by a chain-link fence - all the charm of a prison.  This is particularly true in rural areas, where people have no imagination.

Other pools, like the one shown above, are located close to the home - mere steps away - and are the center of entertainment and relaxation - being tied in with seating areas for dining, outdoor barbecues, entertainment centers and the like.

Planning a pool involves more than just planning the pool itself, but how it will fit into the landscaping of the house, the flow of traffic, and how it will be a social center for your home.  I've seen far too many "orphan" pools, placed in odd locations, dozens of feet from the home, and not as inviting as they could be.

If your layout requires that you locate your pool away from the home, consider putting in a cabana for changing and housing entertainment (a bar refrigerator, stereo system, etc.) and also a patio for poolside dining, barbecue, etc.

In farm country, we tend to see pools away from the home, abandoned and desolate, representing tens of thousands of dollars in expense, and never used, because they were never planned properly.   No one wants to walk 100 yards to a lonely pool out in the field, surrounded by chain-link.  At one rural home, we saw people put a home in the front yard no more than ten feet from the sidewalk!   Needless to say it looked odd and was rarely used - and definitely detracted from the value of the home.

Fencing is often required - but think about landscaping (shrubs, trees, etc.) as a means of providing privacy and intimacy for your pool.

Size:  Size matters, as they say, but size isn't everything.  We built a 38' by 18' pool and while it was enjoyable (it was deep in the center, and shallow at each end, making it suitable for water volleyball and water badminton) we could have gotten by with a much smaller pool.

As you go up in size on a pool, everything gets more expensive - piping gets larger, pumps are more powerful, filters are bigger and more expensive.  And of course, more energy and chemicals are needed.

If I was to do it again, I would build the smallest pool possible - the one the pool companies advertise as a "special" in the Sunday Paper.  Why?  Because I don't lap-swim, I just splash around, and that's all the pool I need.  Most of the fun of having a pool, I learned, was having it as a water feature for a background garden where you could hang out with friends and relax and have a nice outdoor barbecue picnic.

If you ARE a lap swimmer, consider an elongated lap pool.  Concrete pools can be made in any shape, and it is possible to build a long and narrow lap pool that will give you a place to do laps without breaking your budget building an "Olympic Sized" pool.  I've seen them built even with Japanese garden bridges across them, which makes for a charming garden feature.

DEPTH is another issue and expect to pay a lot more the deeper you go.  If you want a diving pool, you have no choice in this regard - you have to go deep.   Our pool was about seven feet deep in the middle, which was more than enough.  But a large, shallow pool is an invitation to divers to break their necks (it happens every year).  So be sure to put up a "no diving" sign.

Safety:  In addition to the diving issue, small children are something you should take into consideration with a pool.  Young children - toddlers really - are fascinated by water.  And every year, many drown in private swimming pools.  The scenario is all-too-common and always the same - just like motorists turning left in front of motorcyclists.

Parents of a toddler come to visit a friend with a pool.  Everyone has a cocktail and a good time.  The toddler toddles off to look at the "pretty water" and a few minutes later, there is a scream as a party guest looks out the window to see the toddler face-down in the pool, quite dead.

You read about this all the time and it happened to a friend of mine.  Why does it happen?  Toddlers like water.  They are also top-heavy (big head, small body) so they fall in when they get near.  And since they can't swim.... well, it is very, very sad.

You should have your pool fenced, and in fact it may be required by law in your area.  And if your home opens up directly to the pool, you should have some sort of alarm in place if you have small children, or have friends who come over with small children.  Yes, I know, you plan on sitting by the pool and watching the kids swim.  Good intentions.  But in the 10 minutes it takes you to chit-chat and make drinks, the toddler finds the water - they are drawn to it like bees to honey - trust me on this.

We had an alarm system on our house that alarmed every door and window.  Each time you opened a door or window, it would go "Beep! Beep!".  A friend came over with their toddler.  We told them the horror story of our friend, and told everyone to be vigilant about watching the toddler.  Yea, yea, yea, everyone said, let's have a drink, first.  A minute later, "Beep! Beep!" and I look out and the toddler is making a beeline for the pool.  I intercepted the toddler just as they reached the edge of the pool and started to do its top-heavy tip-over routine.

I swear to God, they are like lemmings!

Some people have removable fencing between the house and pool that can be installed when you have small children, and then later removed.  Others have it permanently.  Pool alarms supposedly send off a signal when the sound of someone falling in the pool is heard underwater.  Whatever method you use, use it.  Pool safety is no laughing matter, and a fun pool can be a horrid nightmare when a friend's child drowns in it.

Maintenance:  Think carefully about pool maintenance if you plan on getting a pool.  If you are not handy with pumps and things, you may end up hiring a pool maintenance company.   In places like California or Florida, they abound.  In places where people fill-in pools to sell their house, you won't find many pool maintenance companies, and you will have to do it yourself.

A clean, sparkling pool is inviting.  Unfortunately, they don't stay that way for long.  Leaves, dirt, and debris fall into the pool.  Earthworms, frogs, and even mice (ugh!) fall in.  It needs to be cleaned regularly, often with a pool net and a vacuum.  Automatic vacuums are a good idea, but they do cost about $500 to $1500 or more.

The chemistry of the pool needs to be checked periodically and adjusted, using chemicals and of course you have to chlorinate and shock occasionally.  A new gag is the salt chlorinator - a device which electrolytically separates salt into Sodium and Chlorine, and thus does not require hazardous, noxious, and corrosive chlorine (inhaling chlorine fumes will make you cough or much worse.  Handling it does a number on your skin.  Leaving chlorine tabs - even sealed in a bucket - in a room with metal in it, will cause that metal to corrode aggressively).  These devices claim to save you money, versus the cost of chlorine, but a friend of mine had one, and it broke after a few years - and they are expensive to replace!

Filters need to be backwashed (and sometimes disassembled and cleaned) and if you live in snow country, pools need to be winterized, covered, and the like - and the process reversed in the Spring.

And yes, things break and sometimes they need to be fixed.  If you can replace a pump yourself, you can save a lot of money.  If you can't, you've added to the list of repairable appliances you own.  And like most appliances, they last about 15 years.

And speaking of which, this is about how long the liner on a vinyl liner pool lasts, or how long the plaster lasts on a concrete pool  (Concrete is porous, and thus the inside surface is coated with about 1 half-inch of water-tight "pool plaster" which wears out over time).  Once you have built the pool, the game is not over - you have to keep spending money maintaining it, and after a decade or so, it will need an overhaul and update, just like anything else you own.

For vacation or seasonal homes, you may need to hire a pool company to maintain your pool while you are away.  Snowbirds who flee the Florida heat for Northern climes every summer have to pay pool companies to keep up their pool while they are gone.   This ain't cheap!

Energy Consumption:  The pump runs several hours a day, and is a 220 V pump drawing at least 10-20 Amps.  So expect your energy bill to go up.  Not a lot, but it will.  Once you install a pool you've created an expense item for your home, than every day will take a little bit of money out of your pocket.  If it is something you want and desire and are willing to pay for it, great.  Otherwise, you'll wonder why you are spending the money on a pool every month and never using it (so many people just watch TeeVee today, instead).

And that's not including the cost of heating the pool!

Heater:  To heat or not to heat?  In Virgina, we installed a gas pool heater (Teledyne Lars) and it cost us $1200.  I did the install myself, which required a 1" gas line be run all the way to the pool house.  It was a nasty bitch of a job, but I was able to swim on my birthday - in March.  Of course, in the first few months we had it, our gas bill easily exceeded the cost of the pool heater.  Heating a pool isn't cheap!

Others heat with propane, which is staggeringly expensive.  A more modern innovation is the pool heat pump, which as the name implies, heats the pool electrically by pumping heat out of the air (and cooling the air as a result).  These can be a little more efficient, but it does add basically the energy cost of another heat pump to your monthly bill.

Solar heating panels work well in the South.  The problem in the South is usually the opposite, though.  By August, the pool is at 85 degrees or more and is about as refreshing as swimming in your own sweat.  Most people in Florida stop swimming in their pools by mid-June or July, as they are well over 80 degrees and not very refreshing to swim in.

Screening:  In most of the South, bugs can really ruin a day at the pool.  In the North, bugs are not as much of problem - and pool screening is not practical due to snow.  In Virginia, we could keep them at bay with sprays and torches (although sometimes at night in the summer, the mosquitoes could be vicious).  In Florida?  Forgetaboutit!  Almost everyone screens in their pool, otherwise they would not be usable.

In addition to keeping out bugs, a properly designed pool screen can keep out leaves as well - and also provide a little aspect of privacy.  A properly screened in pool creates an indoor-outdoor sanctuary which is inviting and fun.

An improperly designed pool screen is a nightmare of maintenance, as it collects pine needles and leaves on its roof.  I have a neighbor who has one of these and it looks like a Rastafarian with dred locks.  The entire ceiling is nothing but pine needles sticking through.  If you do screen in your pool and you have overhead trees or pine needles, consider a pool screen with a good pitch and a fine screen.

Types of Pools:  The cheapest, of course, are the above-ground kind, which have a metal, wooden, or plastic frame, lined with a vinyl liner.  They are generally not very attractive, but are cheap and easy to build - all you need is a flat piece of ground to build them on.  Some clever people have made very inviting above-ground pools by taking advantage of the natural landscape, where a house is built along a slope, for example.  If you plan it carefully, an above-ground pool can be constructed so that it is level with the home, and attaches directly to the home via a wooden deck, and has all the appearances of being an in-ground pool.  Clever landscaping on the outside edges can hide the above-ground aspect from neighbors.

In-ground vinyl liner pools are basically a buried type of the above-ground pool.  They are fairly cheap to build, but the liners, like with above-ground pools, last only about 10 years.  My dad had one of these and it worked well, and looked like any other kind of pool.  Almost 10 years to the day it was built, he had the liner replaced, at a fairly modest expense.  These pools, like above-ground pools, come in fairly standard sizes and shapes, as the liners are made in those shapes.

Concrete Pools are the traditional type of pool most people think of.  They can be more expensive to build, but don't have as many leakage problems (a naughty child can poke his finger through a vinyl liner pool, or puncture it with a sharp object).  But concrete is not eternal, either, and pool plaster has to be replaced about every 10-15 years as well.   They also can be made in nearly any shape.  We had a concrete pool.

Fiberglass Pools are an interesting animal, and no doubt you've seen these stacked up by the Interstate.  Fiberglass can be fairly expensive (being oil-based) and these can cost nearly as much, if not more than, Concrete Pools.  They may take a little less time to build, but not by much.  I have no personal experience with owning one, but I have swam in some.  We talked with several fiberglass pool companies to install one behind our home.  Most wanted a lot of dough and never returned our calls.  I almost wonder, based on how many of these are stacked by the freeway, if it is some sort of marketing scam - to get people to go into the business of selling them and make money that way.

My Overall Experience With Owning A Pool?  Positive. But several things stick in my mind: 

First:  I never felt we used it enough.  There was always some reason to go inside or "don't feel like swimming today".  Too Hot, too Cold, Too Buggy, Too Dark, Too Bright, or "There's something on TeeVee" or "I have to do something".  One reason we put in the heater was to get more use out of the pool.  I finally relaxed more and realized that you don't have to use your pool every day, but can get enjoyment out of it simply by sitting by it.

Second:  It was a lot of work, particularly in Virginia, when we had to winterize it.  Winterizing is not fun, as you have to do it on a cold Fall day and de-winterize it on a cold Spring day.  Folding recalcitrant pool covers, blowing out lines, pouring in slippery antifreeze, and getting wet, no matter what precautions you took.  Pools are a lot easier to deal with in places where you don't have to winterize.

Vacuuming and sweeping the pool were never any fun, and some guests freak out if there are even one or two leaves in the pool.  So you have to do a lot of work to keep the pool in "swim ready" condition.  On the other hand, the amount of labor to maintain a pool, if you set it up properly, is not a lot more than the amount of labor needed to mow the same amount of lawn.

Third:  It was very expensive to build - about $25,000 as I recall.  One mistake we made was picking one size for it, agreeing on a price, and then re-thinking the design and increasing the size.  Needless to say, we got nailed on the price by going this route.  Today, I would go with the 8 x 16 splash pool and be done with it.  Cheap to buy, cheap to build, cheap to maintain.

Fourth:  I would NEVER finance a pool again.  If I could not afford to pay cash, I wouldn't do it.  It is a luxury, and debt should be saved for more important things.  For that reason, I would consider a smaller pool, as it would be easier to afford and I could pay cash for it.  Don't have the cash?  Save up for one, or do without.  Borrowing money to buy a pool was, in retrospect, a bad idea.  Don't have the money?  Probably a good sign you can't afford it.

Fifth:  After about 10 years, it started to look worn.  If the house had not been bulldozed for a new development, we would have had to spend a few thousand dollars "updating" the pool with new plaster and the like.  At the time, I did not have the money to spend, so I kept putting it off.   Put it off too long, and a pool will start to leak, and bad things will happen in a hurry.

Sixth:  Work out a Pool Budget.  Figure out the amount of electricity the pool will use.  If you have a heater, factor that in.  Pool Chemicals are not cheap, so be sure to add in that cost as well.  Add more for maintenance and a budget for a liner/plaster overhaul over time.  Know these hidden costs up-front rather than being surprised later on.  You may be surprised at how much money it all adds up to.

Seventh:  I am a pool agnostic - that is to say, if I build another pool, I would not care if it was vinyl liner, concrete, or fiberglass.  I would go with the cheapest option and beat the snot out of them on price.

Eighth:  Beat them up on price.  Pool salesmen are a lot like used car salesmen, and they tend to use every bit of trickery in the book to get you to sign a contract on the dotted line.  Don't be in a hurry to sign.  Research it in advance, know what you want in advance - if you and your spouse disagree on design points or other features, the salesmen can work the two of you against each other.  Buying the cheapest, smallest pool possible is one way to eliminate "design creep" where small added features pad up the price quickly.

Some General Pool Advice:

1.  Never drain a pool without professional help:  A pool is like a boat, and if drained, the groundwater will "float" the concrete shell out of the ground and wreck the pool.  Yes, a pool will float, even if made of concrete.  They used to make boats of concrete, believe it or not!  A friend of mine wrecked her pool this way, when a neighbor tasked with watching the pool, left a pump on the pool cover and forgot about it.  It cost $20,000 to remove the wrecked pool and fill in the hole.  She ended up suing the neighbor, as her homeowner's policy refused to pay.

2.  Don't Over-Chemical A Pool:  Too much shock or pH adjust can corrode parts, etch plaster and make the pool feel "chemical-ly".  Pool supply houses sell a lot of chemicals and accessories and you don't need half of them.  I etched my plaster using a "pool closing kit" from one company, that had a lot of chemicals that I really didn't need or want.  Just lower the water level and let it go green.  You can shock it in the Spring.

3.  Install a Pool Alarm or Other Safety Device:  Very young children and pools are a lethal combination!

But most of all?  Enjoy a pool!  They can be a great center for family fun and entertaining.  Even with all the work and cost, it was worthwhile.  We had many lazy afternoons, and late night parties at our pool.  I remember coming home from work on more than one occasion and finding all my friends, already there, with coolers of  beer and the party already started.  It was like coming home to a spa or a resort vacation.  It was, overall, a lot of fun to have.

I am not sure I will build another one just yet.  If I do, it will be more of a screened-in outdoor space for relaxation and entertaining, with a small pool in the middle.

Our Pool at 8033 Washington Road.  We enjoyed it a lot!

UPDATE May 2014:  A reader asks, "should I get a swimming pool while in debt?"

Good question.   By "debt" I presume you mean credit card debt, car loans, student loans, and other consumer debt, as opposed to your primary mortgage.

If you are in debt this way, chances are, you will have to take on more debt to finance the pool, and the pool companies will helpfully put you in touch with a "finance company" that will offer you a loan on very, very onerous terms, as a secured second mortgage on your house.

This is probably a bad idea.   Why?   Because you are throwing gasoline on the fire of debt, decreasing your net worth, and probably decreasing your savings rate, all for something you don't need and which will add no value to your house.

Again, debt is evil, as it is "funny money" that you don't think about - in terms of the cost of paying it back.   So you think, "Gee, let's get the water fall and built-in hot tub, because it's only $200 more a month!" instead of saying, "Shit, they want $10,000 more for those features?  No way!"

We found that while a large pool is nice, a smaller pool works just as well, if not better, and costs a lot less.

We also found that after about five years, we lost a lot of interest in our pool, and this seems typical from what we have observed.   Most of the time, you sit looking at a pool and not swimming in it.

My advice would be to get out of debt first, save up for a pool, and buy one that is modest in size and make it part of the landscaping of your home.

Or, just not get one at all.   In our new home, we toyed with the idea of having a pool, for several years.   We finally realized that it would not get used much, cost a lot of money, and create a monthly financial drain, in terms of utility and maintenance costs.

So, it was fun to have one.   But I don't need or want another one, just yet.