Of all the seemingly innocuous, misleading phrases that real estate agents sprinkle into their listings copy, “room for a pool” is the one that always sends me into a spiral. It implies that luxurious pool house living is just a snap of the fingers away, for whoever buys this home. Sometimes, the language goes even further and makes it seem like it’s actually a benefit that there is no pool, because then the homebuyer can design their own –hooray!
Sure, if you’re going to get a pool, you want it designed to your specifications. However, the distance between “room for a pool” reality and “inground pool ready for swimming” is six figures far. And even if the process goes, shall we say, swimmingly, it still takes months from the moment of initial inspiration to the time you finally dive in. Since we’re hitting the summer streak when everyone’s ready to max out a credit card for easy pool access, let’s look at how this particular home improvement process really works.
The Real Cost
Google’s top results are going to lead you astray here. An inground pool is not $10,000 or even $20,000 as a starting point, let alone an average cost.
“I’d say the bare minimum for a pool, assuming that everything’s perfect and you want a really stripped down product, is $50K, but it usually gets up to $100K and beyond,” says Jon Hutchings, owner of Bikini Pools and Spas (licensed in Los Angeles and Atlanta areas).
So, what about all those enticing search engine results, which show “average cost” of $10,000 or $20,000?
“That’s just a way to get the salesman’s foot in the door.”
Bob Tait, a mortgage banker in the NorthEast Tri-Cities area, confirms.
“A basic pool is $45,000 – and that does not include deck, fence, landscape, patio, lighting. All those elements take it up to $100,000,” he says.
Certainly there are ways to lower the cost – for example, installing a vinyl liner or fiberglass mold instead of gunite concrete will save 20-30%. And creative designers can think of ways to reduce material costs. Bikini Pools has created a “flagstone effect” by installing a few individual flagstones in grass, instead of paving an entire patio. But there always has to be some type of landscaping or hardscaping, and that will always cost additional to the pool itself. So, figure the total cost at 20% of the home value.
The Essential Elements
When you’re dealing with a pool salesperson on a high-end item, “there are all sort of ways to bump the price up” according to Hutchings. Especially for something that is not built yet, it’s easy to pad the initial estimate. And buyers should certainly be cautious. Also, however, be aware that certain elements seem extra, but simply cannot be eliminated – by law. For example, a fence is typically not optional.
“Fence rules may vary, but in general, there’s always a requirement for a fence outside the property to make sure a kid can’t come in—and it has to have self-closing gates,” says Hutchings. “Some areas have gone beyond that – requiring a fence in between your own house and pool.”
Other potential extra costs that may be optional or mandatory, depending on the area and the home, start with an automatic pool cover, special alarms on the home’s doors and windows, underwater pool lights, and a heater. Then there are the pre-existing variables, like trees that need to be cleared, or hidden utilities that need to be rerouted.
“Usually by the time someone approaches me, they’ve gotten the preliminary numbers,” says Tait. “But I like to talk to the pool contractor with my client to make sure they’ve got everything built in.”
As someone who regularly secures financing for homeowners undertaking this project, he says the general rule is that everyone will go over budget 10-15%.
Clearly this isn’t a one-person job. It’s also not a single-contractor job. If you’re getting a small, simple fiberglass or vinyl liner sport pool, you’ll likely work with a contractor who has a small, tight-knit network of specialty subcontractors like plumbing and electrical. Even the most hands-on contractors have their favorite specialists –plaster guy or rebar expert or artificial stone fabricator – that they strongly prefer using for that part of the job. If you have faith in your contractor, trust that their purpose in bringing in subs is to get top-quality work, not to make the job more complicated.
If you want something customized—small or large—with special features like a waterfall, or a paver deck, it will involve the main contractor bringing in additional specialty trade subcontractors, and also necessitate you hire a designer from the start.
Which brings up another important distinction: Pool designer and contractor are two different things. In many cases, the person who comes out to survey your yard and discuss your design preferences is not the person who will oversee the construction. They work together closely, though. If your main contractor does not work closely with all his subs, that’s a major red flag.
“I am the one who is involved all the way through,” says Jon Hutchings, whose LA business is geared entirely toward million-dollar homes. “I don’t have a salesperson. I hire subcontractors for certain things, but I have direct control over every element.”
One of the common mistakes people make is hiring the biggest, most heavily advertised pool company in the area. Some of those companies subcontract everything to smaller outfits, and the person on the ads promising “best pool contractor in the city” never shows up at all on the job site. This is not just a trick of large companies though. Less established contractors also do it if they don’t have a lot of expertise.
That’s why established, well reputed, hands-on contractors that personally oversee projects are in high demand.
People in the industry recommend physically going to the pool contractor’s office and/or to a couple finished projects, and asking questions until you’re certain the contractor you’re talking to will be overseeing the job personally—and have spoken with happy customers who vouch for the work quality.
Permits and Inspections
Inground pools absolutely must be permitted, and there will always be 4 or 5 inspections throughout the project. The contractor cannot proceed to the next phase without getting signoff. This usually takes 2-3 days each time, although certain cities have notoriously elusive inspectors.
The Real Timeline
According to mortgage banker Bob Tait, no matter what kind of financing he and his clients decide upon, it usually takes about 30 days to go through. And the timeframe for permitting once plans are in place is about 4-6 weeks. So, if a customer begins applying for financing at the same time as they begin working with a designer/contractor to create plans, they should be able to see construction commence 6 weeks after committing to the project.
Construction time for a pool, according to experts, should be 3-4 months. There are not many reasons why a homeowner would need to live with a giant unfilled hole in the backyard for any longer.
Possible reasons for additional delay? Excessively rainy weather (record-breaking rains in South Florida wreaked havoc on pool contractors’ 2018 schedules). Or, perhaps bad soil, leading to unforeseen engineering work.
But unless there’s a specific complication like this that a contractor can point to, if a project’s estimated completion date is passing the 4-month mark, it’s probable due to disorganization on the contractor’s part.
Knowing the real cost and complication of a pool, is it something a homeowner or buyer should prioritize? That depends on the weather, potential usage, and how long you’re planning on staying in the home.
“Per my personal opinion, if you’re putting a pool in, you better have kids who are going to invite friends, and you should plan on inviting the whole neighborhood,” says Bob Tait. Unless you and the extended fam are out there every day of the summer, in an area like the Northeastern US that only has 4 months of “pool weather” per year, the fiscally responsible expert says it’s probably not worth it.
However, for Southern regions — where you start having pool days in February and experience steady 90-degree heat by June – if you plan on being in a home for more than a few years, it’s a good way to utilize that extra room in the yard.