Is it A pool Or A Money Pit?

Backyard swimming pools seem like the American dream, but they are pricey to maintain and fix. And they can actually hurt your resale value.

By Melinda Fulmer

Touring that new house with a pool, you imagine a future of weekend swim parties, envious neighbors and relaxing evening swims. Reality, however, includes weekly chemical treatments, higher utility bills and endless pool skimming.

Experts recommend that before taking the plunge on a home with a pool, house hunters should take a hard look at the costs and upkeep involved. In addition, they say, an aging pool is not only likely to require costly repairs but can actually hurt the resale value of the house.

Real-estate agents say it's important to know the condition and age of the pool you are getting.

"If the pool has been neglected and needs a lot of work, or the concrete is buckling, that can be a red flag," says Sylvester McGinn of ReMax Executive Realty in Charlotte, N.C. "That's a hole in the ground where they are going to pour money."

It also pays to study the market. Depending on the region or even the neighborhood, a pool can add or detract from the resale price of a home.

Who wouldn't want a pool?

Even in hot, humid Houston, agents say there are as many people who don't want pools as do want them.

"It's a wash," says LaRetta Allen of Prudential Gary Green Realtors. "A lot of families with children and older people don't want the liability." However, in some pricier neighborhoods with larger lots, she says, it's almost expected.

Do your homework, appraisers say, and count the pools in your neighborhood.

"If you are the only person in the neighborhood with a pool, you are probably going to lose money on it" at resale, says Joseph Huffman, a master real-estate appraiser in Holt, Mo.

On average, in-ground pools add 7.7% to the value of a home, according to the National Association of Realtors. But that value varies widely from area to area. In the scorching, dry Southwest, pools add 11% on average to the resale value of your home. In the Midwest, they add only 6%, and many agents say they dramatically reduce the pool of prospective buyers.

"It minimizes your buying public," says St. Louis Realtor Marie Farnsworth. In fact, she says, in her area it is mostly buyers looking at million-dollar homes who expect a pool.

The case is crystal clear against above-ground pools. On average, these less-expensive units subtract 1.9% from the selling price, according to a study done by the National Center for Real Estate Research.

The bottom line, experts say, is that you should take on a pool only if you really want one and are prepared financially for the upkeep and repairs.

Bills, bills and more bills

"Every month, there's a bill," says Les Greenfield, owner of Hydro Blue Pool & Spa Service in Valley Village, Calif. "There's always a (financial) reminder that it's out there."

Certainly, buying a house with a pool is typically less expensive than installing one yourself, real-estate agents say, noting that most people who add a pool to their property don't recoup the full $25,000 to $50,000 they've invested.

But simply maintaining a pool can be costly as well, pool experts say. If you hire a pool service to put in chemicals and vacuum your pool, you could spend between $1,500 and $2,000 a year in maintenance, water and regular repairs, Greenfield says. And that's for an unheated pool.

If you live in a cooler climate and have to heat your pool, the bills run much higher. Heating a pool intermittently for just one season can increase heating bills $500, says Guy Larsen of All Seasons Pool & Spa in Orland, Ill. Moreover, most pool owners can count on the electric bill going up another $50 a month from running the pool's filter.

Owning a pool can also bump up the cost of your homeowners insurance. Given the risk of slip-and-fall accidents and drowning -- and the lawsuits that accompany them -- most insurers recommend that pool owners get a $1 million umbrella liability policy, as well as install a pool fence, warning signs and even a cover. Indeed, some municipalities require that you either build a pool fence if you have children or place alarms on covers and doors leading to the pool.

"People need to be prepared," says Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute in Washington, D.C. "We live in a very litigious society."

That delicate, expensive balance

To control expenses, pool officials say, it's important to keep the water in your pool correctly balanced and sanitized throughout the year.

"The better you take care of your pool the longer it will last," says Stephanie Schober, manager of California-based Arcadia Pools Construction. "The No. 1 killer of plaster is poor water chemistry."

Keeping the pool in balance requires adding water weekly (sometimes every couple of days in summer), testing your water every week and adding the necessary germ-killers and pH adjusters like chlorine, soda ash or muriatic acid, all of which can cost $20 to $50 a month.

Too much chlorine or acid can break down pool walls and tile grout. Likewise, letting too much algae develop can strain pool filters and require massive amounts of chemicals to "shock" the pool back into balance.

"You can get a brand new plaster job and kill it in a few years," Greenfield says.

Now you're talking real money

Real-estate agents say it's important to know the condition and age of the pool you are getting.

Realtor Allen in Houston says she tells her clients to get a separate pool inspection when they are interested in a house. If lighting isn't up to code, plaster is missing or the filter is on its last legs, a buyer can stipulate those repairs in a sales contract.

Most pool experts say a newer pool will typically run with few repairs. Most have PVC pipes, which are less apt to leak than the copper pipes found in older pools. (FYI: It's copper pipes, not chlorine, that turn your hair green.)

When a pool passes the five-year mark, many require a new filter or pump, repairs that can cost about $500.

The big costs come when a pool gets to be about 15 years old, Schober says. That’s when most pools require resurfacing and some encounter plumbing problems. Both of these problems require a huge outlay of cash.

A pool resurfacing can cost between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the size of the pool and how much tile is involved. Ripping up decking and replacing leaky plumbing can cost $6,000 to $8,000.

And if you want to upgrade a pool, replacing tile, plaster, decking, etc., you’ll spend up to $20,000, Schober says.

Because of repair and maintenance costs, some owners decide to fill in older pools rather than deal with them.

Pool owners also say it takes a lot of work to maintain their pools, something many were not prepared for when they bought their house.

"I spend more time taking care of it than I do in it," says master appraiser Joseph Huffman, of the above-ground pool at his home in Holt, Mo. "I would pay someone to come and take it away."

For some families, though, a pool is worth the price.

Partha Dasgupta, a 47-year-old computer science professor at Arizona State University, says he rarely swims laps in his pool and admits his 11-year-old-son uses it only sporadically. But, he says, the view from his house is priceless.

"It's a money drain," he acknowledges. But, "I like having it in my back yard. It looks nice," he says with a chuckle.

Should you or shouldn't you?

Five things to consider when buying a house with a pool:

1. How old is the pool? If it's older than 10 years, you're probably in for some major repairs in the years ahead. Get a pool inspection to make sure the pool is safe, up to code and doesn't need new equipment.

2. How much time are you willing to spend on a pool? Most people spend several hours a week testing and topping off the water, skimming leaves and adding chemicals. Are you prepared for this? Are you OK with handling chemicals? If not, be prepared to spend anywhere from $50 to $90 a week to have a pool service do the work for you. Letting a pool get thick with algae is not an option. In fact, it's subject to a fine in many areas.

3. Can you afford it? If you plan to stay in a house for some time, or you have an older pool, chances are you will have to spend thousands on parts and resurfacing. And if you live in a colder climate, count on spending hundreds of dollars more each season heating it. One pool builder estimates that heating up a spa alone costs about $25 per soak.

4. How much will you use it? And how much do you entertain? If you live in Arizona, a cool pool is inviting much of the year and doesn't require heating. In Chicago, it's a different story. Ask yourself how much swimming you will really do, and how much of the year you will use it. If you only take the occasional dip, you might want to look at neighborhoods with a community pool instead, real-estate agents say. Likewise, if you rarely have people over, a community pool might be the better option.

5. How many other pools are in your area? If you have one of the only pools in the neighborhood, there might not be much demand for them in your area, or in your price range. Down the road, you might have a harder time selling the house.