When I was a boy, our family installed a swimming pool in our backyard. This was a big deal. I remember my friends being excited, and all of our neighbors were a bit envious. There was one exception, though. A woman we knew delivered a frightening warning on the eve of construction:
“There’ll be a day when you wish it was paved over with concrete.”
She then cackled wildly, jumped on her broom, and flew away.
OK, she wasn’t a witch and was normally a really nice person, but why so negative? Captain Buzzkill was trying to rain on our tropical paradise. Thankfully my parents laughed off her comment and got with the digging.
There was only one small problem. She was right!
Pools are a beating. Having had one for years and having experienced the maintenance firsthand, I wouldn’t want one now if you gave it to me for free. And they are nowhere even close to the realm of free.
So as summer approaches and you gaze with envy at neighbors with pools (“maybe this is the year to pull the trigger!”) I’m here to caution that a swimming pool is a terrible investment.
Why We Got a Pool
I was in the 6th grade when we got our pool. I wasn’t really sure why we needed one at the time, but I thought it would be fun. Had I known the cost or been a little older, I’d like to think I’d have pounded the table no.
I believe my parents thought that installing a swimming pool was going to make our backyard into the Mecca of the teen scene. I would transform from a somewhat nerdy kid into a social supernova. Any bets on how that turned out?
For those who are thinking of installing a pool to jumpstart your kids’ social lives: I think a pool is simply a lever. If your kid is going to be popular, it will help, but your kid is going to be popular anyway. If your kid often favors a good book over socializing, and, when socializing, plays Dungeons & Dragons and Axis & Allies, a pool may not pave his path to homecoming king.
The first summer of the pool was wonderful. We swam a lot and really enjoyed it. My brother and I hosted our friends, and my parents had quite a few parties for adults. Yay!
A backyard pool provides an incredibly evocative image. It’s like you’ve created your own beach resort right outside your door. The reality, as in most things, is a bit more mundane.
Over time, our use started to slip. When you have a pool available every single day, sometimes it’s easy to say, “Maybe tomorrow.” And even when I did go in, I’d jump in, swim around for about two minutes, and then ask myself, “What now?” A wet bathing suit and need to shower became reasonable hurdles, and you start to question why people without pools always want to come swim.
To be clear: there were some absolutely wonderful memories from our backyard swimming pool. Beating my brother in our legendary water basketball games (I believe I won almost all of them) is a joy that still shines bright. In college, my best friend would visit, and we’d be in the pool for hours every day. The missus (before she was the missus) and I had a great summer by the pool after finishing b school. Jumping in the pool with an ice cold beer after mowing the lawn on a 100+ degree Texas summer day is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
But when I add up all of the fun, and then compare it to the enormous cost of installing and maintaining the pool, there is no way it was worth it.
How Much Does a Pool Cost?
Great question. Very similar to asking, “How much does a car cost?”
Let’s see what the folks at HomeAdvisor think:
That is a lot of money. But remember: that’s just the initial investment.
I’d wager the minimum running cost is way more than $1,000 a year (if you have a pool, I’d love to hear your current annual spend).
Chemicals and water (it does evaporate…) alone start to add up. You need to skim leaves and other junk and brush the sides – you could make that a labor of love or outsource it for additional cost. All of the different system parts don’t last forever, and eventually you’ll need to fix leaks and perhaps resurface the whole pool.
You may get a window of 3-4 months each year to use the pool, but the meter on maintenance is always running.
Once my brother and I moved out of the house, I’ll wager my parents used the pool less than 10 times a year. (One interesting note: I think they did entertain outside more than they would have without a pool, but these were non-swimming affairs, which makes the pool a curious and expensive bit of landscaping.) In the end, they may not have wanted it paved over, but I’d bet if they could have waved their hand and made it disappear, they would have.
What’s the Return? Also, What’s a Return?
Investopedia estimates a pool will give a return between 15 and 25%. They even use the term “ROI”. There’s only one problem – they’re actually saying that you may be able to recover 15 to 25% of the pool cost when you sell your home.
That is all very confusing to me, so I asked my 9 y.o. to explain it to me in language I could better understand. He read the article, worked the numbers, and offered this:
“It sounds like you will lose money when you install a pool. You will lose almost all of it! You may get some of it back when you sell your house, but it won’t be much.”
[Investopedia – if you’d like to hire my son for personal finance freelance work please see the “contact me” tab.]
But let’s not be too hard on Investopedia. If you’ve ever investigated home improvements, this concept of “return” meaning “the money that remains after most of it has been flushed down the toilet” is pretty much the standard out there.*
The point is that you shouldn’t plan on recovering much of a pool’s installation cost. If you’re going to write that monster check to create your backyard tropical paradise, just know it’s pretty much an expense, not an investment.
Your Loss Is My Gain
Of course, the clever kids in class are sitting up, because they now see an opportunity.
If homeowners see a huge negative return on installing a pool, why not just buy a house with a pool installed? (Outstanding work! Here’s a sticker.)
That is indeed a much better financial strategy than installing your own pool. You won’t get to pore over the blueprints, pick our your own ornate tile, or design the waterslide, but you’ll save a lot of money.
I still don’t recommend it, because I’m pretty much anti-pool nowadays, but buying a house with a pool is far better than installing one yourself.
Ranking the Best Pool Strategies
The best strategy for pools, just like the best strategy for boats, is for your neighbor to own one. And we’re all agreed that installing a pool is the worst, right?
But what’s in between? Thankfully I’ve done serious scientific research and can offer a full spectrum of pool strategies. Here’s your ranking, from best to worst:
- Have a friendly neighbor with a pool and no lock on their gate
- Have a nearby community pool
- Have a big bathtub and a great imagination
- Have a baby pool + a garden hose
- Buy a house with a pool already installed (and ideally in great repair…)
- Install your own pool
But We Really Want a Pool!
So I’ve poured out my hard-won wisdom and failed to convince you that pools just aren’t worth it.
Fine. I’ll ask you to take a couple more steps before you push back your retirement by many a year. If you are still thinking of installing a swimming pool:
- Talk to people who own one. Probe hard on how they really feel. Some of them will be honest and say it’s an expensive beating, while others will gush about how their lives are transformed by its awesomeness. Watch the gushers, though – behind their happy smiles there are hints of doubt and frustration. Dig until you find them.
- Test drive ownership. Volunteer to take care of a friend’s swimming pool for a while – labor and materials. It will give you a sense of what’s really involved. They’ll be eager to take you up on it. You could also rent a house with a pool for a month (find some rich family summering in Provence) and swim every day. You’ll learn a lot.
- Consider moving. I’m serious. Your transaction costs may be much less than the cost of a new pool.
Anticipation Is All the Fun
You know who wants a pool the most? Someone who has never had one. A pool is an incredibly exciting home improvement until you actually install it.
You may be envious of your neighbor who just installed a pool. But guess what? Envy cuts both ways. You have three things they don’t:
- A pool is still an exotic thrill for you. Going to a hotel or someone’s house with a pool is a special treat. That fun feeling died in me long ago (at best, it lasts one summer for a pool owner).
- You have tens of thousands of dollars that you didn’t spend on a pool. You can splurge and buy your neighbor a case of beer when you go swimming at his house.
- You have a backyard without a swimming pool in it! For many, that is the final stage of evolution in pool ownership, and you are already there. Congratulations.
Swimming is a lot of fun, and I hope everyone’s about to enjoy a fun summer with some time at the pool. For your pocketbook’s sake, I just hope it’s someone else’s 🙂
Do you have a pool, or is there one in your past? Do you love them? Hate them? Somewhere in between? If any pool owners can tell me your annual expense, I’d love to hear – let me know in the comments.
* For home improvement projects, I’d like to propose new language borrowed from my restructuring days: recovery rate. Your recovery rate (expressed in cents on the dollar) is what you may get back from a home improvement project. Since most recovery rates will be < 75¢ on the dollar (and pools <25¢), it’ll highlight how much money you’re blowing. I’m sure the home improvement industry will instantly embrace it.
The picture is actually my childhood pool. Minutes and minutes of joy were had each year!