Technology and design boost appeal of backyard pools

MAKING A SPLASH

March 17, 1996|By Kerry White

Imagine: It's Memorial Day. Your neighbors are stuck in beach traffic on Route 50. The sun beats down on their station wagon -- overstuffed with half-filled rafts, beat-up skim boards and sweaty children. You and yours, meanwhile, are relaxing in your backyard swimming pool. Summer breezes ripple the surface of the clear water, carefree laughter fills the air, and as the sun sets, the backyard grill beckons.

"We're all born from water," writes former Hollywood swimmer-starlet Esther Williams in her foreword to Kelly Klein's 1992 book, "Pools." "What could be more natural than to swim all your life in that wonderful, weightless medium?"

What could be more uplifting than planning your first dip of the season in your own back yard? What better way to greet the warm weather than assembling friends and neighbors for a grand pool party?

Swimming pools have long been a symbol of luxury in America, but they were once a privilege reserved for Hollywood stars and the upper crust. (Think Sunset Boulevard, lavish passenger liners and stately country clubs.) By the 1950s, a pool-construction boom, spurred by the introduction of low-cost, sprayable concrete, brought swimming pools into the back yards, communities and hotels of middle-class America.

Today, there are nearly 3.5 million in-ground pools in this country, according to the National Spa and Pool Institute. But in-ground swimming pools come with a hefty price tag, and maintenance can be grueling, so what's the appeal?

"Swimming pools are a way to vacation at home -- without spending money on gas and lodging, and away from the crowds," explains Frederick Frey of the National Spa and Pool Institute.

Swimming pools, Mr. Frey adds, are all about family values. "They're a great way to keep the family together. It's a healthy thing everyone in the family can enjoy, in a comfortable, controlled environment."

In mild Maryland, where summer weather comes early and fall weather late, "the pool season can often last six or seven months," he says.

Pool companies say now may be the best time to build a backyard swimming pool: user-friendly, computerized controls have made pool maintenance -- the bane of do-it-yourself pool owners -- easy.

"We're selling pools today that are fully automated," says Gary Hohne of Hohne Pools, a Maryland-based pool company. "They're self-checking. They automatically sanitize without the use of chlorine, and leaf trappers and filters clean the pool of debris."

Less cleaning means more time to enjoy the pool. And according to Mr. Hohne, pools today can be enjoyed both in and out of the water.

"Years ago, there were fewer design options," he says. Pools were most often rectangular, with white concrete and maybe some tiling, depending on the budget. But pool design is serious business today, and aesthetics are a primary consideration for new owners.

Hohne Pools aims "for a more subdued look, pools that blend into a natural setting," Mr. Hohne says. "Rectangular pools with white concrete are hard to take care of and aren't that exciting to look at. We give a more personalized look that's tailored to the client's home and lifestyle."

Hohne pools can range from the long and narrow, for serious swimmers, to rounded pools with waterfalls and spas, for serious loungers. And colors are no longer limited to the familiar aqua and white families. Pebbletec, a pool finish made from tiny colored pebbles and cement, was hot in 1995 and is expected to remain so this year. Pebbletec colors range from Tahoe Blue to Sandy Beach.

Swimming-pool technology and design may have evolved, but the cost today of an average built-in model renders pools a luxury purchase for many families. Typical buyers, says Tony Gambini of Anthony Pools, wrestle with the decision for a couple of years before signing up.

"The average homeowner doesn't just decide one day to build a pool and then give us a call. Usually a person warms up to the idea over time. They do a lot of research, consider the financing options, and then they contact us," Mr. Gambini says.

In his 20 years at Anthony Pools, Mr. Gambini has never known consumers to be so well-informed. He attributes this preparedness to the information available through computers and in specialty publications. "It's phenomenal how much our costumers know about pools," he says.

Representatives of area pool companies say their outdoor concrete pools generally range from $25,000 to $30,000 and up -- estimates that don't take into account the requisite heating system, winter pool cover, fencing, landscaping, deck furniture and extra liability insurance, which can add thousands of dollars to the price of a pool.

If the costs of a pool have your head spinning, compare the cost to a vacation home, or a luxury car, says Mort Spirow, owner of Maryland Pools.

"A pool is a luxury purchase, no doubt about it. But vacations add up, and pools can cost less than some cars. And if it's done right, meaning it's well-maintained and it looks good, it appreciates over the years."

Deciding to build the pool of your dreams is only the first of hundreds of pool-related decisions. Mr. Frey of the National Spa and Pool Institute recommends those new to the market consider each option carefully.

"Check out several licensed designers and contractors to find the one that's right for you," advises Mr. Frey. Check with previous customers to find out if they're happy with the work. Then, call the Better Business Bureau to find out if there are any unresolved complaints against the builders.

Don't delay: Buying before the warm weather sets in has its advantages, says Mr. Spirow of Maryland Pools. Not only can you look forward to being in the swim this summer, you can also save loads of money -- prices generally go up with the temperatures.

Pub date: 3/17/96

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