Getting in the backyard swim: look before you leap

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Before they know it, many people who buy swimming pools, spas, or hot tubs are in over their heads. They haven't shopped wisely and find they've spent more than intended for less than expected. The investment is too great to be casual in selecting the builder, retailer, or installer.

For many, a swimming pool is their second-biggest investment, trailing only the purchase of a home. The choice of pool builder is just as important as the selection of an architect, contractor, or home builder, the National Swimming Pool Institute cautions.

"The first thing any prospective pool buyer should do is check wit neighbors or friends who have pools, get their recommendations for builders, and then get several bids," advises Donald Burns, executive vicepresident of the Swimming Pool Industry Council in San Francisco.

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"Make certain you talk with satisfied and happy customers who had their pool completed before you order yours," he suggests. "And be wary of the company that comes in with a very low bid, because that's when you can really get hurt. A lot of people will buy the cheapest bid and the result often is nothing but grief."

The same guidelines apply in buying a spa or hot tub. As Mr. Burns notes, most reputable companies will be fairly close in their pricing. "So buy quality , because you're going to have the pool a long tim," he cautions.

Most of the pool, spa, and tub horror stories stem from doing business with dealers, builders, installers, and contractors who undercut the market. The good deal you get today is worthless if the company you're doing business with folds tomorrow.

It pays to investigate before investing. There's too much money at risk and too many long-term snags in store if you leap before looking carefully.

The average price for building a swimming pool varies around the country. But, as an example, in the San Francisco Bay Area the figure runs between $9,000 and $12,000 for a basic pool. The Spa and Tub Association, a division of the National Swimming Pool Institute, pegs the average price for an installed spa at

As the price of gasoline goes up, so do sales of pools, spas, and hot tubs. Rather than face long gas lines and higher pump prices, many homeowners are plunging into pools, spas, and hot tubs as alternative recreation in the privacy of their yards.

Dealers report that sales remain brisk, despite the apparent arrival of recession. The logic may be economically questionable. Pools, spas, and hot tubs are not cheap backyard toys. Prices of construction and installation are climbing, and so are costs for maintenance, care, and heating. Thousands of dollars are being spent to save hundreds of dollars in travel expenses.

Many homeowners shrug, convinced that a pool, spa or tub is a home improvement "investment" that can be enjoyed while enhancing the value of their home. Whatever they shell out now, they believe, will be recovered when the home is sold. The pool, spa, or tub will be worth even more, following the same appreciation line as their house.

A pool, spa, or tub may be an asset -- but it also may be a liability. The mistake most investors in such units make is assuming they will receive 100 percent or better of the amount sunk into them. Many experts agree this is unlikely.

The best rule is to expect to recover maybe 50 percent of what the pool, spa, or tubs cost to have installed. Because you've forked over $12,000 for a swimming pool -- easy enought to do these days -- don't expect to be able automatically to tack $12,000 onto the resale value of your home.

"A pool or spa may make your house more salable, but at best you may only get half your cost in terms of return of value," says Joel Carneggie, A Walnut Creek , Calif., CPA and tax accountant. "Are they an investment? From the standpoint of getting value out of them, I don't think so."

Since a spa or hot tub is more personal than a pool, they may have special appeal to prospective buyers. "But I don't think anyone's going to spend $10, 000 more for a house because it has a $5,000 spa," Mr. Carneggie says. "They can buy the house and put in the spa themselves.

"Some people may even consider them a hazard," he adds, "Pools, spas, and the landscaping added to a home are very personal. I've seen some people do things to their house that are good for them but when they try to sell it they may not get anything for the 'improvements' because others may think they're a detriment."

As with real estate in general, the resale value of pool rests primarily with its location. "If you're in a neighborhood of $100,000 homes and you put in a pool for $20,000, in essence you have $120,000 invested in your home," notes John Howard, the northern California regional manager for Walker & Lee Inc., San Jose. "When you sell, however, you may receive only 50 percent of the value of the pool. It's not going to be 100 percent."

His firm is the largest independently owned real estate company in the United States, with 90 offices, all of them in California and the West. "A pool," he points out, "is strictly a luxury item, recreation for the family. If it's there and you use it, it's worth a lot, but you don't measure that in dollars."

Will a spa or hot tub add to the value of your home? "You'll get a different answer, depending upon which Realtor you talk to," says Tom Conley, executive director of the Spa and Tub Association. "The age of the installation is important. If the unit has been in less than five years, especially if the manufacturer is still around, if it's been installed according to code, and the permit requirements have been met, there's no question it will increase the value."

Another view comes from Jay Meyerson, a Wells Fargo Bank vice-president in Oakland involved in consumer loans. Not high on pools as an investment, he has an even lower opinion of spas and tubs. While a conventionally built, properly designed pool may return 50 to 75 percent of the original investment, he says, a spa may only fetch a 25 percent return.

Spas, he notes, are more personal than pools and may have less general appeal , "because there are functions of color, design, and seating arrangement. The therapeutic effect of a spa is not necessarily desired by everyone."

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