In Over My Head

So you want to build a backyard pool? You can count on two things: The job will take a lot longer than promised, and it won’t always go swimmingly.

May 1999By Comments

THE GROUNDBREAKING for my family’s long-awaited swimming pool last August promised to be a momentous occasion. The excavation crew unloaded a massive backhoe from a trailer, cranked up its thundering engine, and drove it across our lawn to the designated site.

“Before he starts digging,” my pool contractor declared, “you’d better sign the contract.” Now, I don’t mean to insinuate that because the heavy equipment was in place he thought I might just skim over the fine print, but that’s exactly what I did. Not that I had taken complete leave of my senses; about to put pen to paper, I turned to my contractor and told him to give it to me straight. “Where are the surprises going to come from?” I asked. “The extras? The add-ons? What’s going to drive up my cost?”

“No surprises,” he insisted, shocked that I’d even mention such a thing. “That’s the full price for a finished pool with a lifetime warranty on the shell.”

Even though this speech sounded suspiciously well rehearsed, I was reassured enough to sign on the dotted line. With a wave of his hand, he signaled the backhoe operator to start work. What a thrill! Down went the bucket and up came a massive scoop of soil and grass that I would never have to mow again. In a matter of weeks, I’d be splashing with my family and swimming laps, supermodels would be dropping by for our famous pool parties . . . Suddenly the backhoe’s engine fell silent.

“Turn off the power!” I heard someone yell. Then I saw that on its very first scoop the backhoe had pulled up a thick gray electrical conduit that seemed to lead directly to my main breaker box. I ran to the box and opened the cover to find a spaghetti tangle of wires and broken breakers. The backhoe had pulled the power cable to my well pump out of the box and busted nearly every other breaker to my house as well.

I tried to remain calm. After all, we live in a 65-year-old house, so I’d known that we might find some underground surprises. While waiting for an electrician, we decided to dig in another spot, which proved equally disastrous: On the second scoop of the day, the backhoe pulled up the main water line to my house, a propane gas line, a bunch of sprinkler-control wires, and several other large pipes. Water gushed from the broken pipes—but not for long, of course, since the power to the well was off.

“You’d better get a plumber out here to go with that electrician,” I told my contractor.

“Okay,” he said, “but remember, you’ll have to pay them.” I was dumbfounded. What had he said ten minutes ago? What about “no surprises”? “We’re not responsible for things hidden under the ground,” he retorted. “Check your contract.”

Dazed, I stumbled back into the house, took some aspirin, and began to search for a magnifying glass with which to read the back of the contract. How had I come to this pass? How could I have committed all my earthly resources to something as absolutely unessential as a swimming pool?

Well, for starters, my wife and I are lap swimmers who rarely find time to drive someplace to swim. Also, our eldest child, who is now eight years old, started clamoring for a pool when she was five, and we finally decided the only way to silence her was to fulfill her dream. So we designed a pool, found a contractor we liked, and went so far as to cut down an oak tree that was in the way. But then we got cold feet, partly because we didn’t have the money but also because the pool didn’t really fit where we were trying to put it.

A year passed, and then, looking out my bedroom window one sunny morning, I realized that we had a larger spot for a pool. Though it would require excavating a hill for one end of the pool and elevating the other—both of which would be expensive—the money was apparently burning a hole in my pocket. I called the original pool contractor, who came out to take a look at the new site and my rough sketches. A week later, he was back with a bid for a 45-foot-long lap pool. With a limestone deck and retaining walls to keep the whole thing from sliding down the hill, it came to a staggering $35,000.

“That’s bare-bones,” he assured me. “Hardly a nickel of profit.” It was also five grand more than the price we hadn’t been able to afford a year earlier. I began to look for another pool builder.

One of the best ways to find any kind of building contractor is simply to ask friends whom they would use again for a similar job. So I asked five or six acquaintances who had built pools, and every one of them said they’d be happy to tell me their pool-building horror stories—if I had a lot of time.

Former governor Ann Richards told me how her family had once bought a house that already had a big pool. “Unfortunately that sucker just leaked like a sieve,” she said. “I wanted to fill it in and plant corn, but my hubby won out, so we actually had to pay to build a second pool inside the old one!”

But I was not to be dissuaded. Consulting the Yellow Pages, I called a couple of contractors who took down the same specs I had given the first guy. A week later, one of them faxed me a slick architectural drawing with a maze of split-level decks and three waterfalls. I called him back to say it looked great, and I was just taking a sip of my morning coffee when he told me his price estimate was sixty grand. After spewing coffee all over my computer screen, I said I’d let him know. So far I haven’t gotten back in touch; maybe he’ll read this article.

All my hopes fell on the other Yellow Pages contractor—who, in a stroke of luck, was already set to build a pool at a house under construction next door. Claiming he could save some money by bouncing his equipment and crews back and forth between the two jobs, he gave me a price that was almost $5,000 cheaper than my low bid.

Sold on the price, I called the first contractor back—the one who wasn’t making a nickel for five grand more—and apologized for abandoning him after he’d worked so hard for my business. “I’ll match his offer!” he countered in a flash. At first I thought he was being incredibly generous. But then I realized he had either included an extra $5,000 in deniable profit in the first “bare-bones” bid or he was going to lose a lot of money by building my pool. Either way, I wanted no part of it. The third contractor got my business.

Now, like any sucker about to blow the gross national product of Sierra Leone, I had done a good deal of research on the general topic of pool building before getting to this point. I had learned that the cheapest pools are the vinyl-lined aboveground jobs, followed by vinyl-lined in-ground pools. Far more long-lasting are the type preferred by most Texas pool owners: excavated pools with a shell made of gunite, concrete that is sprayed around a frame of steel rebar. While still wet, the gunite is molded by hand around the plumbing connections and the lights. After this shell dries and cures, a layer of tile is added at the waterline, then the rest is plastered to a smooth finish. The contractor does almost none of this work himself. Most pools in a given area are built by the same rotating crews of subcontractors, who descend upon your house, do their job, complain that they build pools but never get to swim in them, and leave a lot of empty soda cans and dangerous construction debris in their wake.

Because there aren’t enough crews to meet the demand during the peak spring and summer pool-building season, we decided to build our pool in the late summer and fall. The National Spa and Pool Institute recommends that contracts include a starting date and a completion date. I ran that idea by my guy, and he told me that a year earlier he could have guaranteed a finished pool in six weeks. “But now,” he said, referring to Austin’s building boom, “it’s so hard to get crews that I can’t make any promises.”

Though his words were clear, my vision of a finished pool was clearer, and deep down inside, this naive homeowner was thinking that when he said it would take more than six weeks, he meant seven or maybe eight weeks at the most. We’d be swimming by Halloween!

Logic like this is what makes building a pool as self-delusional an act as a bald guy’s having hair implants and believing those little plugs will make his head look good. Even after the initial damage to pipes and wires was put right, nothing progressed with any speed. The excavation quickly turned up ledge after ledge of hard limestone that the backhoe’s giant jackhammer pounded for days with an earthshaking rat-tat-tat. Practically deaf by the time the hole was dug, I hardly heard my contractor inform me that he was going elk hunting. “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” he promised.

Now I’m not saying that work ground to a halt because he was hunting, but it was a few days after his return from the mountains that workers began to show up again. That was when my contractor’s pager message was changed to “Hi! … If you know me, you know where I am on the first day of deer season.” Deer season—how many days would he be away hunting? I felt a pang of regret as I thought of the matching offer I’d refused from my first bidder, a gentle fellow who probably wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less an animal. By the time this project was over, I was going to need hair plugs myself.

When progress did occur, it was in intense but brief spurts. The plumbers installed the water lines and skimmers in a single day. The gunite crew showed up soon after and completed the structural part of the pool and the retaining walls for the deck in ten hours. Then nothing. The ponderous silence of no one working soon had me longing for the noise of construction. After a couple of heavy rains, the muddy water in the half-built pool was breeding thousands of mosquitoes.

Eventually a crew of stonemasons arrived to put the limestone coping around the pool’s edge and build the limestone decks. As the work continued, we saw that our design was missing some essential elements—an extra step for the kids and, for any swimmer in trouble, bench-style love seats in the corners of the deep end. Though the contractor made these changes without complaint, they, of course, took even more time.

I was beginning to wonder if the pool would ever be finished. When Halloween came, we were optimistic that it would be ready within days. At Thanksgiving we were looking forward to a nice swim by the first of December. Three weeks later, with my hair thinning by the hour, the plumbing, tile work, and rock work were declared complete. Nearly four months after we’d begun, the pool was scheduled to be plastered and filled. But after weeks of scarcely leaving the house, I had to leave town on business.

Despite his earlier promise to powerwash the coping and decks, the contractor decided at the last minute that the cleaning wasn’t necessary, and the plaster crew went directly to work. This was not a good call. That evening, my wife phoned to tell me that the pool was creamy white and beautifully smooth. Since the plaster actually cures while the pool is filling with water and for a week or so after that, the hose had been turned on and the pool was slowly filling.

But then, long before the pool was full, Murphy’s Law kicked in: A heavy rainstorm washed dirt from the coping and debris from the oak trees down the sides of the pool. “No problem,” the contractor said when confronted with the ugly stains on the wet plaster. “We’ll brush them out.” When that didn’t work, he said, “No problem. We’ll use wet-dry sandpaper to get them out.” When that didn’t work, he said, “No problem. We’ll use a sanding block.” When that didn’t work, he said he thought the stains didn’t look so bad after all. I began to dream about hunting accidents, and the dreams were not unpleasant. (In March, he would finally drain the pool halfway and wash away the stains with muriatic acid.)

Though it was now mid-December, the weather was warm and the kids were eager for a dip. And after all my carping, I had to admit that our new pool was one of the prettiest I’d ever seen. I thought of how nice it would be to get up early and swim my morning laps at dawn, then climb out to a hot cup of coffee.

Finally, on December 21, the pool was declared swimmable. We had started in the summer, and now, on the first day of winter, we were finally pulling on our suits and preparing to jump in. A cold front was on the way and the temperature was predicted to drop into the twenties that night. This would be our last chance to swim, possibly for months. I checked the floating thermometer in the pool: 57 degrees. Although 80 degrees is considered the optimum water temperature for swimming, our pool was about 10 degrees colder than the famously frigid water of Austin’s Barton Springs.

I tried to wade in slowly but couldn’t bear it. Still, I’d spent every cent to my name on this pool, and I would not be denied. Backing up on the deck, I took a running start and made a huge leap. In mid-air, for some reason my mind was filled with the image of a Vienna sausage and two raisins. Within nanoseconds of hitting the water, I came up screaming for mercy.

And to think some people said I’d regret building a pool.

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