Becci Hethcoat's husband went to the store to run a few errands and came home with a hot tub. And not just any hot tub -- a top-of-the-line, six-person spa, complete with a built-in waterfall, colored LED lights and an iPod dock. The family wasn't in the market for a soaking pool, says the Wheaton, Ill., artist, but the dealer seemed to be "really hurting for business" and had slashed the price on the deluxe tub to an irresistible $10,000, a cut of nearly 30 percent.
But not everything about the family's new addition went down swimmingly with Hethcoat. The discounted model was available in only one color, a flat white that she says shows any hint of dirt. Then there are all the fancy extra features: "I'm not a bells-and-whistles gal," says Hethcoat. The colored lights are unnecessarily "froufrou," she says, and the spa's built-in iPod dock has already conked out. "The more stuff you get with it, the more things to break," says Hethcoat, sighing.
Who's up for a dip? With the pool industry in the midst of one of the most dramatic discounting eras ever seen, some homeowners are deciding that now's the time for all things wet. The foundering home market has done a number on the pool industry, driving sales of inground pools down nearly 75 percent since their 2004 peak and forcing an array of deals on everything from two-seater hot tubs to massive resort-style pools. To up the ante, some poolmakers are offering buyers freebies, too, like robotic vacuum cleaners. But perhaps the biggest movement has less to do with inground pools than with soaking tubs and swim spas, which generate a current, letting people swim endless laps in containers the size of a Volkswagen. These options can cost half as much as a more traditional pool.
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It's not just the housing bust that pushed the pool industry into the deep end. Mom-and-pop installers also are being squeezed by Internet resellers, which can afford to offer the same products for less. And as homeowners continue to trim their budgets, many are deciding that the benefits of owning a watery oasis are outweighed by the costs of maintenance. But as a still anemic housing market has more Americans adjusting to the idea of staying in their homes for the long term, some speculate that the swimming pool may be due for a comeback. "We're seeing a massive trend toward people who want to stay home and fix up the house," says Brett Abbott, an Austin-based pool-marketing consultant, adding that many of his clients have seen an uptick in people upgrading their existing pools. Industry insiders say this nesting trend bodes well; with people already starting to invest in home improvement, can the backyard pool be far behind?
But it can take some work to figure out how to buy one's first pool or upgrade an old one, especially with all kinds of new types hitting the market, many of which go way beyond your old kidney-shaped job. (Anyone for a "natural pool"?) And there are always hidden costs: Some current-generating swim spas, for instance, can quietly fatten electric bills. Still, analysts say that as summer draws to an end, the deal-making will only pick up.
Gavin Lloyd always hoped to have his own pool, but living in chilly New York state meant he'd need an indoor model if he wanted to use it more than just a couple of months a year -- a project beyond his budget. Then he discovered that, for a manageable $17,000, he could buy an indoor swim spa. Lloyd's pool is just 10 feet by 25 feet, but when the current's going, it might as well be an Olympic-size lap pool. Of course, there's also a downside to that current. "It can be quite aggressive," he says, noting that the first time he turned it on, it sent him swirling around like a leaf in a whirlpool. So while Lloyd uses the pool nearly every day, he often opts to keep the current switched off -- enjoying a little low-tech soaking instead.
While the rest of the industry has struggled, exercise pools have taken off. Bob Lauter, CEO of Master Spas, for one, says sales of swim models are up 33 percent this year. And while they can take some getting used to, experts say, they've come a long way since they debuted ("It used to be like swimming against a fire hose," says Lauter). They've also gotten increasingly tricked out; swim spas now come with features like massage jets and underwater treadmills -- there's even a line endorsed by aquatic Adonis Michael Phelps. Still, sellers say it's their relatively low price (starting around $13,000, compared with about $40,000 for a custom inground pool) that boosted sales during the recession. To keep them affordable, experts suggest checking power requirements, since a few of the higher-octane versions can require twice as much electricity as the average pool.
Some homeowners are hoping to save by going low-maintenance, often with saltwater models, which don't require constant streams of chlorine. (These pools do contain the chemical, but it's created by an in-pool generator.) In the past, pool owners had to trade the long-term savings on chemicals for the short-term cost of salt chlorine generators, which typically start at around $1,500. But with many builders now offering the devices for free, the savings can kick in quickly. Just don't confuse low maintenance with no maintenance. Christian Vernhes, owner of Crystal Salt Pools in Jacksonville, Fla., says people should check the salt balance in their pools at least once a week.
Swimmers hoping to banish chlorine completely might prefer a "natural pool." Already de rigueur in Europe, they're still rare in the States -- mostly because they look more like ponds than pools, which tends to freak out Americans accustomed to sparkling blue water. The pools pair a swimming section with a natural filtration area made of plants and gravel. Fans say they're as safe as their chemically assisted cousins and cost about the same to install. But they also say natural-pool discounts are rare, since this niche wasn't hit as hard by the recession. For a cheaper option, designer Mick Hilleary of Kansas-based Total Habitat, will draw up natural-pool plans for $75 an hour, leaving the actual building to mainstream installers, who are typically more willing to bargain.
Doug Burr had his eye on a new pool for nearly a decade but had long assumed he could only afford a relatively basic design. But when the Roswell, Ga., health care–finance professional finally broke ground last year, he was in for a case of sticker shock -- the good kind. With companies' postrecession prices, $40,000 now covered not just a lagoon-style pool but also an attached hot tub and a 35-foot waterslide. What's more, he had enough leftover savings to add a fire pit and deck. "My in-laws call it 'The Burr Creek Resort,'" he says.
Time to put the cover on those old cookie-cutter pools. Perhaps the best place to score discounts these days is on custom features. Builders are now tacking on fancy finishes and remote control systems valued at $3,000 for free, as well as halving the cost of $4,000 waterfalls. They've come down less on some of the bigger-ticket options, though; builders say adding an "infinity" edge, for instance, will still cost about $15,000. The difference, they say, is that such features require structural changes. By sticking with the less complex options, homeowners may find themselves echoing Burr's new pool sentiments: "The bad economy came at a good time."
Additional reporting by .