Giving it the pool monty

Fancy stripping off for a few lengths in the privacy of the back garden? Felicity Cannell has the specs on building your own lido
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The Independent Online
A swimming pool in the back garden. It sounds wonderful doesn't it? But the reality could be less about relaxing, sunny days lolling in the shallows and more about relentlessly grey English summers and headaches of maintenance and running costs.

If the idea appeals, however, don't write it off before you even investigate. Nowadays this particular slice of luxury doesn't have to break the bank. Pools are available to suit every budget, from do-it-yourself kits to custom-made indoor pools. A decent sized outdoor pool should cost no more than an average family car.

In-ground swimming pools (those actually dug into the earth as opposed to self-supporting structures which are constructed above ground) come in two basic formats - a plastic shell supported by concrete slabs with a replaceable liner; or concrete, supported by steel rods and finished with tiles. The latter is the more expensive. Plastic liners have a lifespan of about seven years, longer if they are not overheated or overdosed with chemicals. They can then be replaced for about pounds 150. Concrete pools can last a lifetime.

George and Gail Kerr, of Fawley, Southampton, decided to invest in a pool after renting a holiday villa in Florida and noting that their children were more interested in spending time in the villa's pool than at Walt Disney World. Their neighbours back home were also considering a pool so the two couples linked up to try and get a better deal. Their DIY liner pools cost pounds 3,000 each, with additional building materials (paving stones around the edge and so on) totalling around pounds 700. George Kerr, who works shifts, now enjoys coming home during the day and using the pool on his own. His youngest child learned to swim in it almost immediately.

Planning permission is not needed for an outdoor pool unless the house is in a conservation area or an area of outstanding natural beauty, or if it is a listed building, and pools can be cleverly incorporated into steeply sloping gardens as well as flat lawns. But ground conditions are important. To test for suitability, dig a hole. If it does not collapse or immediately fill with water, it should be stable enough.

The hardest part is the preparation. Excavation is expensive and disruptive. Getting a JCB into the back garden is no mean feat in itself, and you and the neighbours will certainly know about it when its there. "People often forget this aspect of building the pool," says Hedley Thomas of Clearwater Swimming Pools in Oxfordshire. "Landscaping can easily cost pounds 5,000, with the digging and disposal of soil and running mains services to the pool. That is a significant part of the budget."

And so the costs pile up. If you have the time and inclination to do- it-yourself (though not, presumably, with a spade and wheelbarrow) a block and liner pool can be installed for as little as pounds 5,000. If you can't face that and would rather sign a cheque and go on holiday for six weeks to come back to the finished item, pounds 12,000-pounds 15,000 will cover all costs - materials and labour - for a decent liner pool. A concrete and tile pool will cost pounds 28,000-35,000. Covers, underwater lighting, water jets, diving boards and chutes are all extra.

Running costs are a particular cause of concern. "As soon as a customer asks about running costs I get nervous," says one manufacturer. "It often means they can't afford it and are trying to persuade themselves that they can. If you buy a luxury car, you don't ask how many miles to the gallon it will do!"

For those of us normal folk who do need to know such details in advance, running costs for a decent sized pool (28' x 14') should be around pounds 40- pounds 50 per week for the months it is in use. This will cover heating, which can be gas or electric, equipment maintenance and cleaning.

The decision on where to buy your pool and who installs it is crucial. Mr Thomas's advice to prospective purchasers is to never buy from a brochure. Instead visit three or four private pools already built by the contractor you are considering and at least one of these should be over six years old to check for quality.

Reliable after sales care is important and ask about this in advance. No water pump is going to break in December - it will break in July, the busiest time of the year, and if the sun is out for the first time in two weeks or you've fixed a pool party for tomorrow, finding that a repairman can't come out till Tuesday won't be much use.

Finally check out a prospective company's financial position by actually running a credit check - they will almost certainly do one on you!

If you have reservations about handing over money up front to a builder, use the stakeholder account scheme operated by the Swimming Pool Trades Association (Spata). All good pool companies should be members of Spata, the watchdog for pool standards. Spata will hold money in an account which is only released on satisfactory completion of the work. An independent arbitrator is on hand to sort out any wrangles. Spata also produces a guide for anyone considering a pool, including advice on ownership and a checklist to ask the contractor.

Pool companies will arrange finance but banks and building societies are usually happy to extend mortgages to cover the cost. Despite the old belief that a pool is a hole to chuck money into, these days they are regarded as an asset that will add to a property's value.

Andrew Clack of Centurion Properties in Essex considers that pool purchasers will generally recoup the cost in the increased value of their properties. "Some people love them and some people hate them, but if the plot is a reasonable size to leave a decent amount of garden after the pool is built then it will add value." But, he adds, "only if the house is desirable enough to warrant a pool. A bog-standard semi won't be enhanced very much".

Spata: 0800 525692