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.

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.

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