Do The Homework

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Whether it's a simple tile and plaster replacement or a complete remove and redo, sizing up the customer — and the pool — is the first step in a successful renovation project. And that holds true whether the project is in the backyard of a modest tract home, or cantilevered over a canyon in the Hollywood Hills.


Sizing up a customer is a bit art, a bit science. Skip Phillips, Genesis 3 co-founder and principal of Questar in Escondido, Calif., designs projects at the high end of the continuum. His remodeling projects start with a thorough understanding of what the clients want.

"I really try to keep an open mind," says Phillips. "I think this helps create success; you're not promoting any preconceived ideas about what's available to [the homeowners]. Everything's on the table. I'm the designer at this point, and they want options. They want to know what all the options are and let them decide what has merit.

"We get a feel for what it is they don't like about the vessel that they have. Then we get a feel for what they do like about the images they've collected. They'll say, 'We'd like to have something that looks like that, is that possible.' Well, it's always possible, it just may not be possible with the shell that they have. So as an example, if the pool's in the wrong location, and is the wrong shape, then it's unlikely that that vessel is a candidate for a remodel, and you're better off just pulling it out and starting over.

"So that's the sort of exploratory conversation we have. Now even if the pool, cosmetically, is a good candidate for remodel, it could be that it's a structural failure, cracks in the pool or something that would render it unlikely that we would want to put any money into a shell that's already failed," Phillips adds. "Even if there are options for doing that, we typically will not pursue that, we'll just pull it out and start over."

Tom Driscoll of Cabana Pools Aquatech in Houston, is also a Genesis 3 member. "It's an education process for the homeowner," he says "They would like a different look out there, because they've seen newer projects that other people have done, so they're wondering what they can do."

Few builders have the luxury of working for clients with unlimited budgets, and for a good many homeowners, cost is a key factor in the remodel. But even with more budget conscious projects, it's important to keep options open.

"The customer may be willing to add things to his scope of work and he just didn't know about them," says Mike Sorenson of California Pools in San Gabriel. "He was never offered them by a builder who assumes that the homeowner wants to get in and out for the least amount of money."

Even Phillips, whose clients are not usually constrained by budgets, has learned it pays to offer a wide range of options. "We were looking at tile, — and this pool was clearly a glass tile candidate — and they saw a sample in my box that I had never used before, that I had just received from Vitrium, and they said, 'We like that!'" says Phillips. "I said, 'OK, but each one of these tiles has to be set individually [thereby upping the labor costs considerably] and these are $140 a square foot, just as an FYI,'" says Phillips. "They said, 'We like it, lets do that.'"

"So I almost didn't present that glass as an option," says Phillips. "There are a lot of people out there who would enjoy having those options if they knew about them."


Once you have a firm idea of what the clients want, it's time to see if the existing shell can deliver. Whether it's a simple tile and plaster, or a total reconstruction, a thorough inspection and assessment of the existing pool is necessary to determine whether it can accommodate the customers' wants. This is also the time when a builder must start to educate the homeowner, and start to talk about what might be discovered as they get into the project.

As the scope of the project starts to take shape, it's important to manage the client's expectations. "They need to know right up front what they're looking at, because there are hidden things, things the homeowner doesn't see, but that you as the builder know about, you can make them aware," says Driscoll. "Look at the whole project. Look at every aspect of that pool: the skimmers, the plumbing, the lighting, equipment. You have to look at all of that. You can't just go in and go, 'Yes we're going to redo the decking,' then find out that the skimmers have to be replaced — that's another $1,500 per skimmer," he says. "All those things have to be addressed. You don't want to have to go back to the homeowner and say this is going to be another $3,000. They don't like that."

Larry Stone of California Pools in Burbank, Calif., is methodical in the way he inspects a pool before a remodel. "In the tile line itself, sometimes you'll see a crack down about an inch, inch and a half, and that means that the deck, usually, has pushed the coping, and when it does that, it shears it at about a 45 degree angle. People don't want to replace the coping, but if you just take the tile off and put tile over that, I promise it will crack again in six months. Then you've just wasted their money and your time and now you have an upset client.

Stone also looks for places where rust may be present on the surface of the plaster. "In the old days, it was all done by eye, so there may only have been a half inch of gunite over the steel. Those spots need to be addressed. Even if they're only doing a replaster and tile, they're throwing money down a rat hole if they're not addressing these issues," he says.

Mike Sorenson inspects a job with a "should do/could do" list. "I look at the pool, looking for aspects of the pool that are in real disrepair or need attention. I compare the pool to the home and the cars the people drive, the way they dress. If you can see that they have nice things but the pool is in really bad shape, you deduce that maybe they just don't realize what disrepair the [pool] is in, and if you can point these items out and give them costs to change it and what the benefits would be, that list kind of takes its own shape.

"If someone has called me out and kind of puts his hands in his pockets and stands next to the pool and waits for me to talk, I usually will submit to the customer in my estimate two lists," adds Sorenson. "The first list is a 'should do' list and the second one is a 'could do' list. The should-do list includes things that the pool badly needs. I would itemize them and give them a cost for each of the items. Then the could-do list would be upselling; other things that are available now that maybe weren't when the pool was built. That could be deck materials, it could mean adding a spa, it could be remote controls, it could be a salt generator, it could be changes in underwater lighting, things like that."

For customers who are remodeling a pool they may have built when their house was new, sticker shock may be an issue. "People who purchased a pool 20 years ago and come in to do a renovation now, find out that it's running twice as much as they originally paid for the pool," says Driscoll.

At the same time, those customers will find out that the advances in materials and equipment over the last 20 years are just as surprising. The sting of learning they have to replace all their equipment can be softened a bit with the knowledge that the new mechanicals are more efficient, longer-lived and less expensive to operate.

At the high end, there's no discussion about replacing equipment. "Generally it's a given, regardless of what we do with the shell, even if we keep it, that all of the mechanical will be redone," says Phillips. "The plumbing and the deck—all of that will be gone."

For projects that are more cost-sensitive, builders may choose to work with existing equipment, but they should be very clear about the possible consequences with the client. "I would always express to them that if you're going to spend the money and remodel your pool, you may as well redo this equipment, and then your pool is really going to be carefree for several years," says Sorenson.

Sorenson advises establishing the condition of the pool — and all it's parts and accessories — with the client before any work begins. "See it with your own eyes," he says. "There's been more than one occasion where I've finished a project and then we get the pool filled with water and operating, all of a sudden it's, 'Well, that light worked before you guys got here, but now it doesn't.' Or 'That filter was fine before you drained the pool.' So the best thing in giving an estimate on a remodel is to see the pool full of water, see it operating, listen to the pumps, look at the filter pressure, fire the heater. If there's something that's not working in advance — it's like a rental car, you always walk around the car and look for dents before you drive it off the lot. The builder needs to do that with the customer to make sure everyone understands what is there and what isn't. Otherwise, the builder, if he's customer service oriented, he's going to be buying that at the end."

Another surprise for customers can be code or safety issues. A builder may visit a site to work up a bid for a simple $5,000 plaster and tile job and find a noncomplying junction box that may cost $4,000 to bring up to code. "If a building inspector comes out to check a portion of your work, and he sees something like that, he's going to shut down the job and force the customer to change it," says Sorenson. "But there's often work you might do in a remodel that does not require a permit."

"People get caught up in costs sometimes and won't address the safety issues," says Stone. "Or they don't want to address future things — they want to avoid it. And if they don't want to address those things, you're better off to walk away from the project, rather that do something for the dollar and know that you're going to be called on it."

"In some cases, if the customer is going to be scared off, I'm not going to pull punches, I'm going to tell them exactly what they need to hear and what they need to expect," says Driscoll. "It's their decision, but I try to educate them. Builders need to look at the whole project and understand what's going on. Know the age of the pool, address cracking in the pool. Everything should be tested and checked out."

This attention to detail is not only important aspect of customer service, it's equally important to the builder's financial health. "It has to be as profitable as new construction, because there's more effort that goes into it," says Stone.

"A remodel can eat you up really quick if it's not done correctly," adds Driscoll.

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