New York Times Article

August 8, 2004
Spending

Tired of Mowing the Grass? Just Replace It With a Pool

By KATE MURPHY

MARGARET MILLER of Houston turned 50 last year and to celebrate, she said, she had a "mud pit" dug in her backyard. "I'd always wanted a pool, and I thought, you know, I'm old enough, I can have a pool," said Mrs. Miller, a Webmaster for the human resources department at Exxon Mobil.

The mud pit was the first phase in the construction of her rectangular lap pool, which has three fountains arching across it. The 8-by-20-foot pool replaced a barren spot in the yard where Mrs. Miller said she had spent years fruitlessly trying to coax Bermuda grass to grow. Now she swims laps evenings and weekends but says she most enjoys "floating face up, looking at the sky and trees."

She is not alone. More homeowners are building pools of various sizes for exercise and relaxation as well as to enhance their homes' aesthetics and overall value.

The National Spa and Pool Institute, a trade organization in Alexandria, Va., reports a 5 percent to 6 percent year-over-year increase in pool construction since 1998. And pool builders and consultants say lap pools are particularly popular because they can be wedged into smaller spaces than the traditional kidney-shaped pool with the diving board at the end.

Though many people would not be satisfied with a pool shorter than 40 feet, laps of a sort are possible in 20-foot pools, and those a mere 10 feet long can be outfitted with special jets or harnesses for swimming in place.

Tight urban environments and crowded suburbs offer little room for anything much bigger than a lap pool, said John Romano, president of All American Custom Pools and Spas of Norwalk, Conn. Homes are often built so close to the edge of the lot that "you can literally spit in your neighbor's window," he said, adding that his crew recently had to dig a 15-by-30-foot lap pool for a customer in Brooklyn by hand because there was no room between the house and the property line to accommodate even the smallest backhoe.

That was a costly project. With all the manual labor and extras like fiber-optic lighting and a computerized filtration system, the Brooklyn pool cost $330,000. But pools can be built in the range of $20,000 to $50,000, Mr. Romano said. It is a price homeowners seem willing to pay, thanks to low interest rates on home improvement loans, said Brian Reid, publisher of Swimmingpools101.com, an informational Web site.

Judging from the site's message board and visitor feedback, he said, "We've noticed a real trend in luxury upgrades of homes," with pools built as much for enjoyment as to increase property value.

Purely as an investment, installing a pool is not as good as, say, renovating a kitchen. A home's resale value generally increases by only 35 percent to 50 percent of a pool's cost, according to the American Society of Appraisers, a trade group in Herndon, Va., while a homeowner should recoup 65 percent to 85 percent of the cost of a new kitchen.

Part of the cost of building a pool may be tax-deductible if a doctor recommends swimming or any other form of water exercise as therapy for a medical condition like arthritis. So perhaps the chief motivation for building a lap pool is for its fitness benefits. "Lap pools are really big now that the baby boomers are getting older and looking for ways to exercise without stressing their joints," said Tom Griffiths, an aquatic safety consultant and author of "The Swimming Pool," a consumer guide to designing and building a pool.

And the pool need not be outdoors. Ben D. Hill, a real estate developer in Grand Junction, Colo., had a swim-in-place lap pool installed in his home last year. The 7-by-15-foot pool, in a sunroom next to his bedroom, has powerful jets that keep Mr. Hill stationary while he strokes against the continuous current.

"I'm a runner, but I was beginning to get those aches and pains that come with age," said Mr. Hill, 52. Since installing his pool, he said, he swims four days a week, and "my knees are in much better shape."

Mr. Hill's pool is made of molded fiberglass, which was delivered like a big tub on the back of a flatbed truck for his contractor to slip into the floor. Fiberglass is also used for outdoor above- and below-ground pools, but homeowners are limited to the preformed shapes and sizes available.

CONCRETE and vinyl-lined pools, which are generally in-ground, can be made to fit any area and design. Concrete pools are supported by a skeleton of rebar and are usually surfaced with plaster. A vinyl-lined pool has a vinyl surface covering a sand base and walls made out of steel, fiberglass, aluminum or pressure-treated wood.

Above-ground fiberglass pools are obviously less expensive, because there is no excavation involved. But since the cost of an in-ground pool has more to do with the digging and engineering required than the materials used, Brian Van Bower, a pool designer and owner of Aquatic Consultants Inc. in Miami, said that "people should just choose the vessel material that has the look they want and the feel they prefer under their feet."

What drives up the price of a pool, Mr. Van Bower and other pool experts said, are the choices among types of filters, heaters, lighting, pumps and border tiles, not to mention the cost of the surrounding deck, patio and landscaping. On the high end would be a pool like Dale Doorly's, which he had built in 2002 in his backyard in San Diego. A financial consultant with Smith Barney, Mr. Doorly said he wanted not only a pool for exercise but a "thing of beauty." So his 23-by-40-foot pool has an artful "infinity" edge, with the water on one side spilling into an invisible trough to create the illusion that there is no retaining wall.

There is also a "sheer descent" waterfall - meaning it falls in a smooth sheet - and sprinklers that telescope up from the bottom. A fiber-optic lighting system makes the pool seem to glow at night, and a solar-powered heating system keeps it comfortable year-round. Moreover, the pool is virtually maintenance-free, thanks to a top-of-the-line ozone filtration system and automatic chlorinator.

Mr. Doorly said the total cost, which he would not disclose, was three times as much as "your basic pump-and-filter pool." But he added that the upfront cost would save him money over time. The pool's heating, lighting and sanitary systems are so efficient that he spends next to nothing on chemicals, electricity and general upkeep. "Pools are a pay-me-now, pay-me-later kind of thing," he said. Maintenance costs vary widely, but chemicals and cleaning supplies alone can run $300 to $500 a year.

Because there are so many options, it is important to find a pool builder who is knowledgeable as well as independent.

YOU probably don't want someone who is affiliated with any one supplier or who has any exclusive distribution deals, because you're not going to find out about all your options," said Mr. Reid at Swimmingpools101.com. Before signing on with anyone, pool owners and designers advise inspecting at least three pools the company has built. They also suggest requesting the names of recent customers as well as those from several years ago to see how pools have held up over time.

And, make sure that the warranty covers not only the pool but also all the ancillary systems like filtration, plumbing, heating and lighting.

Also, Mrs. Miller in Houston said, be prepared for a "huge mess" during construction. Wincing at the memory of her smashed sidewalk, trampled shrubs and the mud pit that almost swallowed the backhoe, she said, "It looked like a bomb went off while they were building it, but the payoff was this totally great pool. I love my pool."

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