Operation Re-Creation

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When customers consider renovating an out-of-date pool, they're usually pretty unclear about what they're looking for. Say their old pool's just painted plaster with red brick coping and a simple concrete deck. You know the type — kidney-shaped, vintage 1970s. The clients may not know exactly how they want it to look after the facelift, but words like "different" and "better" are obvious jumping-off points for them. It's your job, then, to guide them through the renovation process and to lay out for them the nearly limitless possibilities for aesthetic and functional upgrades, suggesting improvements the homeowners probably weren't even aware were possibilities. Neglect to do that properly and the project's outcome, as well as your company's income, will suffer.

"Money's always a concern, but I believe when you give people an option and say, 'Look, you can do it this way, and this is what it's going to cost, or you can do it this way and this is what it's going to cost, and it'll be first-class,'" says Matt Gohlke, president of Gohlke Pools in Denton, a thriving city at the northern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. "Typically, you can get them up to the higher price." That's how a recent renovation sale began for Gohlke, and his clients bought into the idea without hesitation.

"They told us, 'We don't want to do anything that's just going to improve the look a little bit. We really want this to be updated. We want it to look as nice as the rest of the yard,'" Gohlke recalls, adding that these customers, who were friends of his, had an immaculate backyard that deserved a prettier pool. "They could have just replaced the coping and put white plaster in, but they wouldn't get the look they got."

In addition to getting cosmetic surgery, pools can also be made moreuser-friendly with the addition of things like in-floor cleaners, chemical-metering systems, salt-water chlorine generators and digital controls. These types of improvements don't show up on CAD renderings, so some customers may initially balk at those suggestions, thinking their renovations should go no further than making the backyard look better. Dan Lenz, service manager for All Seasons Pools & Spas, in Orland Park, a suburb of Chicago, relates a story about one such reluctant customer.

"About a year and a half ago we did a $50,000 renovation to a 40-year-old pool, and [there were] two items that the homeowner sort of opted out of initially — the Polaris 380 pool cleaner and the Polaris Watermatic chlorine feeder. The guy finally said, 'OK, I guess we'll do it,'" Lenz says, laughing. "Well, the next year he called me, and he started out a little coarse: 'That pool cleaner thing you sold me and that chemical feeder?. Best damn things I ever bought!'

"He had turned what was a chore — cleaning the pool — into nothing. It made all of the maintenance and headaches go away to where now he's just enjoying the pool. That's what we try to show people."

Getting Started

Big renovation projects that include new equipment, fountains, faux rock and built-in hot tubs can certainly change the entire pool-owning experience, but will the average customer go for all of that? Well, they may not go for all of it, says Ginny Mulvaney of Custom Pools, Hopkins, Minn., but if you don't ask, they're unlikely to go for any of it. It starts with a simple conversation. "

First you've got to meet with the homeowner and see what he or she wants to do," she says. "Are they looking for a play pool, are they looking to play volleyball, are they looking to just float around. What exactly are they going to use it for?

"If the pool is 10 years old or less, most of the time it's just a liner replacement. If it's been around a long time, then maybe their deck's cracking, and they may just start there: 'How do we fix up this deck?' Then I have a little, for lack of a better term, wish list."

Mulvaney's wish list includes water features, lighting, filtration and pretty much everything in between.

"We list out all the things and I give prices on all of them," she explains. "Then we sit down and talk about what we want to look at. I'll even get a landscaper involved, if that's what they're interested in. Then they decide how much they want to do.

"Years ago it was not that way. There's a bigger array of options out there today."

Among the popular options for Mulvaney's clients is diving boards, a regional preference that's lost a bit of favor in some parts of the country, but not in her neck of the woods.

"A lot of people in the Midwest still want diving boards," she says, adding that sometimes these clients may also opt to change the bottom of the pool in order to meet standards that may not have been in place when the pool was first built. They may also want to change the depth to accommodate volleyball or simply to make it safer for children by eliminating the deep end. When you do that, she cautions, be very clear about how deep the water is going to be.

"I might say to them, 'OK, you want to make this 4-foot-6. But do you want 4 feet, six inches of water depth.' Because the water is down from the edge of the pool by 4 to 6 inches.

"Then we drain the pool, take out the liner, and if there are any other products or things they're adding like a slide or a water jet, we'll do that then also."

Pre-made steps and shelves are other options that are growing in popularity, Mulvaney says. Manufacturers such as Cardinal Systems, Latham International and others make the builder's job a little easier (and the customer's bill a little lower) by offering drop-in steps, shelves and benches, some of which can encircle the entire pool, giving homeowners a place to relax no matter where they are in the pool.

"I haven't done [a bench] all the way around the pool yet," she says. "I have done them in the shallow end and I have done what I would call a pool cove, which is a little bump-out with a bench in the deep end. And adding lighting and changing the coping, those are major things for people because it gives them a whole new look. It looks totally different when you do that because a lot of the older vinyl pools, they definitely have dated coping."

A Growing Market

One of the reasons many builders are so keen on renovations is that potential customers are all current pool owners. Some may be looking to update a relatively new pool with a new liner and coping, others may have moved into a home with a pool that hadn't been used in a while and needs a major-league makeover. All, however, have at least something in the backyard that they'd like to improve upon.

Lenz says that's one of the reasons All Seasons now does just about as much renovation as it does new construction, and that about a year and a half ago, the company made prospecting for renovations a priority.

"With the new-housing market slowing, we knew the potential for building new pools was going to take a bit of a downturn," he says. "So having the existing client out there that's already sold on the concept of a pool and simply selling them on what we can make the pool become for them, it's usually an easy sell. With selling a new pool, you have to make them understand the benefits of owning a pool. These people already know that."

Mulvaney's company also does a lot of renovation. Of the 110 to 115 liner replacements Custom Pools does per year, roughly 10 percent qualify as major renovations.

"Those projects are a very big investment," she says. We do a lot of inbetween ones, too, where they'll just do the coping or just add a few other things. They're not tearing everything out, but they're definitely upgrading the pool."

These mid-level rehabs might include deck jets, fountains, or one of Mulvaney's favorite new products, the Inter-Fab T7 diving board, which incorporates a sheeting waterfall at the end of the board.

"With stuff like that you can do a lot of nice things that aren't a budgetbuster but can make the pool look a lot nicer," she says.

Lenz shares Mulvaney's enthusiasm for some of the newer products that can give pools a custom look without the associated costs.

"A little over a year ago we did a $175,000 addition to a 9-year-old pool that was nothing but water features. That's an extreme case," he says. "But we do a lot of work with Inter-Fab and their prefab fountain structures. We're also getting into some of the artificial rock, like the Rico Rock-type products.

"For just a little extra they can make that pool into something that's going to give them an eight-month backyard instead of a three-month one."

Tear It Up

Whenever you're doing a renovation, especially a major one, managing customer expectation is crucial. It's a messy job, and the more they know about the steps involved, the more comfortable they'll be during the weeks you're working on it.

"What I've learned in my years in the business, is if people have an immaculate yard, it's going to pain them to see it get torn up," says Matt Gohlke, president of Gohlke Pools in Denton, Texas. "And we will tear it up — there's just no other way to do the project."

One of Gohlke's recent renovation jobs was for a family with just the type of immaculate backyard he's talking about. The fact that these customers were also friends of his only added pressure, he says.

"Their yard was just perfect," he says. "And the pool didn't really look that bad, either, but it needed updating. I told them, 'We can improve the look, but we're going to do some damage to the yard. It'll grow back, but in the mean time it might be painful.'

"As salespeople, we want to get every job, but it's important to tell the truth, even if sometimes it's not what people want to hear. They want to hear that it's going to look beautiful and that we won't leave a mess, but most of the time that's just not the case. We'll clean up the mess, but every day after we leave it won't look really good."

Three or four months after the project, the customers had a refurbished pool that bore little resemblance to the functional but rather uninspired one that had been there. The painted white plaster on the original pool had given way to Pebble Tec's Pebble Sheen aggregate, Tishways spilled from the new gunite spa into the pool and a raised beam anchored the backside of the pool.

"The guy is thrilled," Gohlke says. "I think setting him up ahead of time and showing him what it was going to look like while we were doing it really helped. It was important to let him know that and to tell him the best thing they can do is shut the blinds and open them again in a couple of months!"


New Opportunities 

Though it’s certainly true that the newer a pool, the less likely you’ll be hired for amajor renovation, there are newer products that can vastly improve recently built pools,says Dan Lenz, service manager for All Seasons Pools & Spas in Orland Park, Ill. Most often these updates center around ease-of-use rather than aesthetics.

"The pools that were built even as little as 10 years ago were built without a lot of the technology that's available to make things easier for them," he says. "Our renovations, as well as our new construction work, incorporate things like chemical metering systems, cartridge filters, automated cleaning equipment — whether suction- or pressure-side cleaners or infloor cleaning systems — and salt chlorine systems.

"Years ago almost every concrete pool, especially around here, was a painted pool where every three or four years the pool needs to be recoated. A lot of our renovation on concrete or gunite pools in the area is upgrading the finish to an aggregate finish like Diamond Brite or Pebble Tec or one of those types of technologies. That also goes to the aesthetics somewhat, but in our mind it's more toward the ease and long-term benefits."

In addition, digital control systems which "automate everything," according to Lenz, and can be tied into a home's existing automation systems, add convenience for customers.

"We've been working a tremendous amount with both Pentair's and Polaris's digital control systems," he says. "It's really a great benefit. It's always a fantastic feeling when you finish a project and you come back around maybe a year later and talk with the people and they always comment on how easy it is now to take care of the pool."


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