“Success will be when I can have a real swimming pool instead of the fifty-dollar one I buy at Kmart every year,” quips singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff. For many, pools are a status symbol signifying “luxury, leisure, and above all, glamor,” according to Lucy Scholes of the BBC. They’re also a lot of fun.
Swimming is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the United States, behind only exercise walking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It improves flexibility, stretches muscles, and helps you lose weight. According to Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and triathlete, an hour of vigorous swimming burns up to 700 calories — more calories than walking or biking for the same duration.
It also offers mental health benefits. In his book “Blue Mind,” Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols claims that humans feel better when they interact with water, which can put us into a “mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life.”
Once considered a luxury only the wealthiest could afford, private swimming pool ownership has exploded since the 1950s and 1960s as a result of higher incomes, improved technology, and new pool financing sources. Today, approximately 10.4 million homes in the United States have swimming pools, according to the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. Should your home be one of them? Let’s take a look.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Pool
While a swimming pool can be great fun for you and your family, pool ownership isn’t something to be entered into lightly. Here are the questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether to install a swimming pool or purchase a home with a pool installed.
1. How Old Are Your Children?
Children and teenagers tend to use swimming pools more than other age groups, spending more time swimming than doing other recreational activities, according to the Census Bureau.
I built a pool when my children ranged from two to seven years of age. They were in it almost every day in the spring, summer, and early fall until they left for college. However, having neither the time nor inclination to swim, my wife and I rarely used the pool after that until our first grandchild arrived.
2. How Many Days Will You Use a Pool?
Realty Times notes,”If your pool is going to have more downtime than usable time, it’s probably going to feel like a waste of money. Unless you have the funds to have an indoor pool, you should probably avoid a pool if you’ll only be able to use it a few months out of the year.”
Those who live in a fairly dry, warm-weather state such as Arizona, California, Florida, or Texas will obviously get more use out of a pool than those living in states with lengthy cold seasons or a large number of rainy days.
3. Do You Have Access to a Clean Public Pool?
Many potential pool owners elect to use public or semi-private pools, such as those found in residential communities, rather than own a private pool. Chris Bibey, a Money Crashers writer and pool owner, notes that an individual summer membership at a local pool usually doesn’t cost more than $100 to $150. Most country clubs offer a variety of amenities, including pool access, in the cost of membership; however, the initial cost of membership can run anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000, and monthly dues can run $100 and up.
It’s worth noting that some public pools are safer than others. A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found at least one safety violation in 80% of routine inspections of public pools in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, and Texas. One in eight pools had severe problems that forced their closure. The combination of chlorine, sweat, and urine creates chemicals called “chloramines” that cause eye and respiratory problems.
The CDC recommends that parents purchase testing strips to check the quality of their public pool’s water themselves. However, you may opt instead to install a pool of your own or buy a home with an existing pool.
4. How Much Space Do You Have?
Few people want a backyard dominated by a swimming pool. Experts recommend having open yard space that’s at least equal to the size of your pool. For example, a yard with a 40 x 20-foot pool should have at least 800 square feet of walkways, decks, patios, and grass.
Bear in mind that how you intend to use a pool — for recreation or exercise — will affect the size and depth of the pool you’ll need. If you plan on using it primarily for recreation, the size is less important than if you plan on using it for exercise. For lap swimming, you’ll need a minimum size of 32 x 16 feet for a single swimmer.
5. What Kind of Neighborhood Do You Live In?
Building an in-ground pool in the yard of an established neighborhood is more expensive than constructing a pool in a vacant space with open access.
In an established neighborhood, fences, gates, and temporary structures must be removed and stored during the construction and installation period. A concrete pool typically takes four to six weeks to build, excluding the time necessary to get permits, conduct an inspection, and contractor and subcontractor delays. During this time, you will have a construction zone in your backyard and all the problems that go with it, including noise, loss of parking space, possible neighbor complaints, and loss of privacy.
6. What Regulations Will You Need to Follow?
Most states and communities have laws regarding pool signs and fences, some requiring a fence around any pool inside a fenced backyard. Homeowners’ associations (HOAs) may require special conditions for building and using private pools. Other requirements could include how to dispose of pool water when draining a pool or conditions for removing a pool. For example, the City of Los Angeles allows pool owners to drain pools into storm drains or sanitary sewer systems. Before draining a pool, contact your local municipality to find out the rules and prohibitions for your community.
7. How Much Time Are You Willing to Commit to Maintenance?
A swimming pool requires constant maintenance, including removing debris such as leaves and grass, testing the water for proper balance, adding chemicals, and pump and filter upkeep. Depending on conditions, owners can easily spend five to 10 hours a week keeping their pools in shape. The need for maintenance continues even when the pool is not in use.
You can opt to use a pool maintenance company, but that will result in an added expense. Willan Johnson, CEO of the national pool management company Vivo Pools, suggests in a CNBC interview that pool cleaning services will run $100 or more each month. My present pool service in Dallas, Texas averages $180 per month for weekly cleaning and chemical supplies.
Costs of Pool Ownership
Owning a pool isn’t cheap. As you weigh whether it’s right for you, keep these considerations in mind.
1. Installation & Maintenance Costs
A basic in-ground pool costs $25,000 to $30,000 without amenities, while an above-ground pool averages $6,000 to $8,000. Monthly maintenance costs can easily add $100 to $150 to your budget. Unless you have significant disposable income and a good credit rating, the cost of a private swimming pool may be out of reach for you.
2. Potential Liabilities
According to FindLaw, a swimming pool is considered an “attractive nuisance,” or something on someone’s property that might attract a child and pose a risk to their well-being. If you have a pool on your property, you are liable to anyone who uses it, whether or not they have permission to do so.
Homeowners insurance may cover the replacement or repair of your pool, as well as liability for death, injury, and damages up to a state maximum (usually $100,000). Insurance counselors recommend that pool owners have a liability rider of a minimum $1 million and be sure that their pool conforms with all local and state regulations. Many carriers will exclude pools with diving boards or slides due to the high incidence of injuries and medical expenses as a result of these features.
3. Impact on Home Value & Property Taxes
Remodeling surveys and real estate agents seem to agree that a swimming pool is probably a wash when it comes to cost versus value. However, this can depend on your area. Massachusetts real estate agent Kimberly Kent sums up the ambiguity: “A pool is a great selling feature for those buyers who want one, and a major detractor for those who are absolutely against one.”
Homeowners who live in neighborhoods where private in-ground pools are common often face market pressure to have a pool. Carol Royse, a Tempe-based real estate agent, says pools are a “must-have” feature for a new home in Arizona, and that any home with a market price of $250,000 and up is pretty much guaranteed to have a pool. Those that do not are likely to sell for less.
While a pool might not add to your home’s resale value, local taxing authorities might increase its taxable value to gain additional municipal income.
4. Income Tax Deductibility
You can try to deduct the costs of a private swimming pool as a medical expense, but the likelihood of successfully receiving such a deduction is very low. To determine whether a deduction is available and worthwhile for you, consider the following:
- General tax rules apply to deducting medical expenses. As a consequence, you must itemize your deductions using Schedule A of the 1080 tax filing form.
- Medical expenses are deductible only if the costs exceed 10% of your gross income (or 7.5% if you’re over 65). You also must show that a physician prescribed the use of a pool as a necessary medical treatment or physical therapy
- Any addition to your property’s market value because of the pool must be subtracted from the expense before deduction.
- The deduction of the pool is likely to trigger an IRS audit. You must prove that the pool is specially designed for medical treatment, is used primarily by the patient to whom it was prescribed, and that access to similar facilities is not readily available or is unusually burdensome.
On the bright side, if you can obtain the medical deduction for a swimming pool, you can also deduct the cost of operation — such as electricity, chemicals, and cleaning services — and repairs as long the medical reason for the pool exists.
Which Type of Pool Is Right for You?
Swimming pools today range from do-it-yourself above-ground tanks with wooden frames and plastic liners to elaborate backyard oases with cabanas, fully equipped outdoor kitchens, waterfalls, and decorative lighting. There is a pool design to fit every pocketbook.
Potential pool owners have a plethora of options when considering the addition of a swimming pool to their property, but for all of them, there are three main characteristics to consider.
Indoor pools are found in many regions of the country, especially where weather limits outdoor use. In addition to allowing year-round use, indoor pools require less cleaning time and effort since natural debris (e.g., leaves, insects) is avoided. Security is also easier, and sun safety is improved. Nevertheless, there are specific disadvantages to owning an indoor pool:
- Cost. The standard indoor swimming pool is 8 x 15 feet with a 40-inch depth, more like a giant spa than a pool and considerably smaller than a typical outdoor pool. According to Endless Pools, the cost of an indoor installation is $20,000 and up. Potential owners should also consider the additional cost of humidifiers and vapor barriers for the walls to avoid problems with excessive moisture, mildew, and mold.
- Health Concerns. Without proper ventilation, the air above an indoor swimming pool can become saturated with chlorine byproducts, which are most concentrated near the surface of the pool and are especially dangerous for young children. The air can also grow to contain mold spores, which have been linked to lung damage, asthma, and cancer.
- Potential Property Damage. High humidity causes mold that can damage building materials. Chlorine vapor oxidizes into hydrochloric acid, a corrosive substance that can deteriorate cement blocks, mortar joints and bricks, metal, wood, and even human tissue. Some pool experts recommend covering an indoor pool when it’s not in use to avoid this damage.
Most swimming pools are outdoor, located away from and independent of housing structures, primarily to lower the cost of construction compared to an indoor pool. Though inclement or cold weather can limit the number of days an outdoor pool is available, there’s nothing quite like the ambiance of swimming under the sky. Also, you can extend swimming seasons by using pool heaters.
Outdoor pools are less expensive than their indoor counterparts, and more conducive to social events, due to the additional space surrounding the pool. The significant drawbacks of an outdoor pool are:
- Constant Cleaning. Leaves and other debris are continually blown into outdoor pools by the wind. Contrary to advertisements, few automatic pool vacuums work perfectly, and pool skimmers can become blocked.
- More Chemicals. Outdoor pools generally have more guests on a regular basis, requiring additional water treatments to maintain the proper water balances.
- Increased Security Concerns. Indoor pools are typically hidden from visitors and protected by normal door and window locks. Because of their accessibility, many communities require fenced enclosures for outdoor swimming pools, even if they’re located in a fenced backyard. Finally, the distance between a house and an outdoor pool makes supervision of children difficult if you’re in the house.
Some outdoor pool owners try to capture the best of both worlds by erecting a transparent cover or structure over the pool. The options for this vary from domed vinyl covers that rise above a pool’s surface by a constant air blower to retractable, high-walled glass or transparent plastic structures.
The upsides of such a structure are that less debris gets into the pool, warmth is kept within the structure, and swimming is potentially available year-round. The most significant disadvantage is the cost of the protective cover, which can exceed the value of the pool.
2. Above-Ground or In-Ground
Above-ground pools are most popular in regions where swimming seasons are short. Across the country, above-ground pools are almost as numerous as their in-ground counterparts (48.2% versus 51.8%) and share many of the same features. While their design is more restricted, above-ground pools are available in round shapes up to 30 feet in diameter and oval shapes of 18 x 36 feet.
Since these pools are installed above ground, adding a latched gate to the steps is generally adequate for security. If you have a deck around the pool, a fence along the perimeter of the deck will be necessary to guard against falls. The greatest advantage of above-ground pools is the cost — basic above-ground pool packages range from $1,500 to $5,000 depending on pool size. Installation can be completed over a weekend, site preparation is limited, and maintenance expenses are proportional to the smaller size, even though they use similar equipment as larger in-ground pools.
On the negative side, above-ground pools won’t add any value to your home since the structure can be easily dismantled and moved to other locations. Pool sides can be punctured, resulting in leaks that can cause damage to lawn and landscaping. Above-ground pools may be subject to special regulations in some municipalities, so be sure you’re familiar with any legal requirements in your area before making a purchase.
There are three types of in-ground pools, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. All require ground excavation and are considered permanent structures. They are all more expensive than an above-ground pool and require professional installation and similar maintenance.
- Vinyl Liners. Vinyl liners are 20 to 30 millimeters thick and can be punctured by swimming dogs or kids throwing objects in the water. While the typical life of a liner is seven to 15 years, replacement requires draining the pool, and a new liner costs $3,000 to $4,000. However, these pools have a lower initial cost, can be fitted to any shape, are smooth to the touch, and inhibit algae growth. Also, pools with vinyl liners are built to handle the frost heaves that regularly occur in the colder North and Northeast.
- Fiberglass. Made of plastic reinforced with glass fibers, this material is used in a variety of products due to its strength — it’s stronger than some metals — and its ability to be molded into various shapes. Fiberglass pools are generally less expensive than concrete gunite pools and can last up to 30 years. Since they’re manufactured and transported to the installation site, the number of shapes and sizes available is limited. However, they are available in all colors and shades and can have steps and seats built into the mold. Installation time (three to five weeks) is generally shorter than for concrete pools (which take three to five months). According to Mike Giovanone, CEO of Concord Pools and Spas in upper New York, fiberglass pools are increasing in popularity, rising from 7% of installations in 2015 to 15% in 2016.
- Concrete Gunite. While concrete pools are generally more expensive and take longer to install than other types of in-ground pools, they are exceptionally durable and unlimited in size, shape, and depth options. Designs can include different types of entries, vanishing edges, attached spas, kiddie pools, or tanning ledges. This flexibility means that they can be more easily integrated into landscapes to create stunning environments for comfort and luxury. At the same time, maintenance is more intense and expensive, with more chemicals and filtration needed to prevent algae growth. Concrete is alkaline, and as such, it raises the pH of the water and requires the addition of muriatic acid to counteract its effect. If you choose a plaster finish, it will need repair or replacement every seven to 10 years or so. Some owners prefer the smooth feel of vinyl liners or fiberglass over the rougher surface of a gunite pool.
3. Water Treatment Systems
Contrary to popular opinion, chlorine is the sanitizing agent used in both chlorine-treated and saltwater pools. The difference between the two systems is the method by which chlorine is added to the water. Homeowners with a traditional chlorine system physically add chlorine to their pools in the form of tablets or granules; a saltwater pool has a chlorine generator that delivers a lower level of chlorine on a constant basis.
Traditional Chlorine Treatment Systems
Traditional chlorine-treated pools have been around for decades and constitute the majority of in-ground pools. Ideally, chlorine levels in a pool should range between 3 to 4 parts per million (ppm). However, an excessive number of swimmers contributing sweat, saliva, oils, and urine to the water, or additions of untreated rain or tap water, dilute the free chlorine in the water below adequate levels, necessitating frequent testing and adjustment of these levels.
The disadvantages of a chlorine-treated pool are:
- A possibility of itching and skin irritation
- The necessity to buy and add chlorine powder or tablets on a regular basis to keep the proper water balance
- The need for consistent monitoring of chlorine levels
- Not being able to use the pool for a period after any shock treatments (occasional treatments of super-chlorination causing chlorine levels to rise to 10 ppm)
Saltwater Treatment Systems
Though traditional chlorine pools have been a suburban backyard staple for several decades, many homeowners have decided to switch to saltwater swimming pools due to the increased comfort they offer swimmers. According to data from Swim University, saltwater pools account for 12% of the 10.6 million pools in the United States.
These pools require less constant attention since self-regulating chlorine generators — which cost around $1,000 — automatically check and maintain the proper chlorine levels, reducing algae buildup and delivering a continuous, reliable level of cleanliness. Saltwater pool owners never have to buy or add chlorine to their pools.
However, a saltwater pool is more expensive to install and maintain, according to Fixr. A saltwater generator costs about $500 to $1,500 more than a chlorine generator according to Angie’s List and uses more electricity. Due to the corrosiveness of salt, metal parts and components require replacement more often. Also, the salt chlorination cells in the generator need to be inspected each quarter and replaced every two or three years. Since saltwater can kill plants, some cities and towns ban saltwater pools. Be sure to check your area’s requirements before switching from a traditional chlorine treatment system.
Accessories & Amenities
Lighting options include in-pool fixtures as well as fixtures for the surrounding area for decoration and security. Access to a sound system through remote speakers around the pool can add immeasurably to your pool experience; however, avoid any electrical devices in or around the pool. Outdoor cameras focused on the pool can relieve anxiety when children or single adults are swimming unsupervised.
Optional in-ground accessories include waterfalls, sheer water walls, infinity edges, fountains, jets, and bubblers. Many pools have attached spas, tanning porches, splash pads, and custom entries. In-water benches and tables, grottoes, and swim-up bars are becoming more common as entertainment moves outdoors. More than half of home pools have a diving board or slide. The addition of a cabana with a toilet provides a changing room and protection from bad weather while eliminating wet traffic through the home.
While accessories quickly increase the cost of a pool, they also increase its likelihood of use and how much enjoyment you get from it. If you’re seeking a unique outdoor entertainment area, have adequate space, and can afford it, consider hiring a pool designer before finding a contractor. A designer can encompass your ideas for the pool and the surrounding space to ensure you achieve your dream.
Personal Tips from a Pool Owner
As an in-ground pool owner for four decades, I have learned the following lessons the hard way.
- Baby Safety. Mothers and babies enjoy swimming. However, pediatricians recommend they stick to a water temperature of 30°C to 32°C (86°F to 90°F) and that chlorine levels are properly maintained. Babies should never be in a hot tub or spa with water hotter than 32°C (86°F). Dr. Laura Sears recommends that, since babies are more sensitive to chlorine than adults, a parent who smells chlorine when entering a pool area — especially an indoor pool enclosure — should assume the chlorine levels are too high and remove the baby. Finally, all babies and young children who have not yet learned to control their bowel movements should be clad in a “swim diaper” specially manufactured for swimming.
- Trees and Plants. Whether natural or manufactured, areas of shade for relief from the direct sun increase the enjoyment of a pool. However, deciduous trees and shrubs can quickly tax your patience and energy when their leaves began to fall into the water. My solution was the installation of a pool cover around November 1st and its removal the following March. Regularly checking the water to maintain balance during the colder months was easy, and swimming began after a chlorine shock in the spring.
- Diving Boards and Slides. Both accessories are accidents waiting to happen — and they will. Our diving board increased the cost of our liability insurance even though it was rarely used. When I finally dismantled it, there were no complaints. Having a diving board also requires extra depth in the pool and sufficient space on each side to discourage teenage daredevils.
- Entering and Exiting. A ledge around the perimeter of the pool 24 to 30 inches below the water surface gives smaller children a place to rest and a boost to get out of the pool. Having adequate ladders in the deep end is a must. Seniors appreciate an installed rail to help negotiate steps when entering or leaving the pool.
- Glass and Other Breakable Objects. Cleaning up tiny glass shards or hard plastic fragments is impossible in a filled pool, but asking an adult not to drink a beer around or in the pool isn’t always easy. To avoid stress, allow only paper or metal containers around the pool.
- Towels. A pool owner can never have enough towels since kids and pets are in and out of the pool all day. Make a trip to a local discount store and stock up on beach towels; the more you have, the less frequently you’ll have to run a load of laundry.
- Safety Equipment and Training. According to the CDC, 10 people die each day from unintentional drowning. TIME magazine reports that almost half of all Americans don’t have basic swimming skills. Every pool should have a safety pool hook, which looks like a shepherd’s crook on a long pole, hung in plain sight and easily reachable. Safety ring life preservers can be decorative as well as lifesaving. Teach your children how to use safety equipment when it’s first installed and give refresher lessons before each swimming season. Do not allow safety equipment to be used as toys or in games. Finally, be sure that each child entering your pool knows your rules and how to respond in an emergency. Children under 10 years old should never swim alone or unsupervised.
Owning a pool is a significant responsibility and sometimes requires an owner to be the “bad guy” and enforce rules and safety practices. However, failing to manage the swimming environment and experience can lead to tragic consequences.
Swimming pools are expensive and can be a pain in the neck. It’s doubtful that constructing a home swimming pool can be justified as a financial investment. Nevertheless, pool ownership has given my family and friends hundreds of hours of pleasure during the past four decades. Even today, our grandchildren clamor to go to PaPa’s house and swim. Having a home pool also enabled my children to learn swimming and water safety skills, which they are now passing on to their children.
Whenever I think of water and the role it has played in my life, I always recall the Pixar movie “Finding Nemo.” When Marlin, the clownfish father searching for his son, gets depressed, Dory, a Pacific blue tang fish who suffers short-term memory loss, sings: “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” Her advice to Marlin has been true in my life. How about yours?
Do you own a pool? Have you considered installing one? Why or why not?