For those who love them, backyard swimming pools have become a lot more than rectangular holes in the ground. They're more like backyard resorts, with waterfalls, spas, and cascades that tumble down faux hillsides and empty into pools made to look like ponds.
That was the Stanley family's idea when workers started digging behind their Harvard house two years ago. ''It's natural to the setting," says Gary Stanley. ''We live in a rural area and we wanted it to blend into the yard."
Any inground pool is going to be costly, running more than $50,000 for the sorts of features the Stanleys decided on. But Gary and his wife, Kathy, compared the expense to buying a vacation home, which they looked into first. Ultimately, they decided that having a pool was ''a lot easier than going away for the weekend," says Stanley. ''My wife uses it all the time. I usually use it after work. Or I stand at the grill and cook. We entertain around [the pool] a lot."
When Deborah and Stuart Levey of Brookline built their 27-by-50-foot pool last year, they opted more for grandeur than for natural beauty. Their pool has Romanesque styling and includes a waterfall at one end, an attached spa, and two small fountains jetting up from an extended seating area -- a section Stuart Levey refers to as ''my beach."
The Leveys' three boys, who range in age from 9 to 16, were part of the motivation for the pool. ''I want them to enjoy the home they have while they're young," their mother explains. ''I want this to be a gathering place for the kids.
''A pool is a lot of work," she continues. ''But it's not a pool unless you have people here to enjoy it." And from the time the Leveys open the pool in May until they close it in October, there is a steady stream of people enjoying it. The three boys almost always have friends splashing around with them or shooting hoops in the shallow end. This past spring, when the air temperature refused to crawl out of the 60s, Deborah Levey merely turned the pool temperature up to about 90, and every day after school the boys came home with their friends and jumped in. The younger boys, in particular, frequently visited with their mothers in tow.
The area around the pool is beautifully landscaped, with a stone retaining wall at one end that accommodates the yard's natural slope, and allows for proper drainage. Though some people build pool houses, the Leveys opted to do without one, though they are planning to install an industrial-size grill to accommodate their poolside entertaining.
Of course, not everyone thinks that having a pool out back is a good idea. Nancy Grissom, an agent with Hammond Residential GMAC in Chestnut Hill, says that so many buyers think of a pool as a drawback that agents will routinely get an estimate for the cost to remove it. (Andrew Clemons of CEI Boston of Walpole, which removes a number of pools each year, puts that figure at between $7,000 and $10,000.)
''Mostly what I run into is people who are not interested in having a swimming pool because of liability issues, such as children falling into them," Grissom said.
Cyndi Kim, a real estate agent who lives in Newton, just had her family's backyard pool filled in after living with it for 18 years. It was never something the family sought. Kim and her husband fell in love with the house, and the pool was part of the deal. Kim's two daughters are now grown, and nobody used the pool anymore.
She was also concerned about safety. ''There are 20 young children on my block and the pool is a liability. There was a fence around the pool, but I had a concern that one of the children would somehow get in," Kim says. ''And living in New England, there's a limited time you can use the pool."
Kim's profession gives her another perspective, too. ''Most people would rather have a backyard for their families than a pool."
Reclaiming the portion of her yard that had been devoted to the pool was no easy or inexpensive matter. First, Kim and her husband had to obtain a permit from the city (not all communities require this). The pool, which was made of gunite (a mixture of cement and sand that is the most popular and durable material available for pools), had to be broken apart and hauled away. Then the sizable hole had to be filled in and new grass planted. The yard also needed a new irrigation system, and even with that, the grass is growing back slowly. But the effort and expense were worth it. ''I'm so glad [the pool] is gone," she says.
Clemons said that not only do families remove the liability threat and get the space back for other uses, homeowners who remove pools can expect to see their property taxes decline.
People who build pools, however, are generally more focused on enjoying them than their effect on property values. And there are ways to address safety concerns.
Bob and Marsha Darvin of Weston, for example, who built their pool five years ago primarily to be used by their grandchildren, opted for a rectangular shape so they could have an automatic pool cover. Their builder, Andy Everleigh of Environmental Pools Inc., says, ''It seems most pools we build are either freeform, natural pools with waterfalls, or rectangles with automatic pool covers for safety. The Darvins deploy their cover, which is so strong you can walk across it, every night.
Meanwhile, they were able to achieve stylishness in other ways. Their house is very contemporary, and the couple wanted the pool to match that tone. It is black, surrounded by a granite patio. There is a waterfall at one end, and a hot tub on the deck. The pool house was designed for entertaining. The doors open wide and a 51-inch flat-screen TV set on casters can be rolled out to the pool. ''[The grandchildren] shouldn't go without TV while they're swimming," he says with a chuckle.
TV is also part of the pool experience for the McCauley family of Tyngsborough. Kevin McCauley and his wife, who have a 16-year-old daughter living at home and a 26-year old son, outfitted their pool with a gazebo and cabana. ''I can turn on the TV in the gazebo and watch from the pool [while I] have a cocktail," he says. ''We have rafts and all sorts of things. My wife likes the [floatable] noodles."
The McCauleys had an above-ground pool for 18 years, and thought often about an in-ground one before finally breaking ground last summer on their backyard paradise. ''I'm in it every day," says Kevin McCauley. ''It's like living at a resort. You'd have to see it to believe it."
The family opens the pool in late May, closes it in early October and uses it every weekend in between. ''Lots of people is lots of work, so we have small groups," says McCauley. ''My daughter uses it a lot" with her friends.
Electronics highlight a different sort of advance in pool living today. Everleigh says some customers are choosing automated, wireless controls so they can set water temperature and turn the waterfalls, cascades, and lights on and off from inside their homes, as well as deploying those automatic safety covers.
Another emerging trend that Everleigh's company has been promoting is salt systems, in which a salt generator converts pure table salt to chlorine to keep the pool water properly chlorinated. The system is more expensive than its predecessors, but according to Everleigh it pays for itself within two years because the salt is so much cheaper than the chemicals necessary for traditional chlorine systems. Clients buy 800 pounds of salt to fill the generator, which should last the season. The salt is also a water softener, so people come out without that familiar chlorine feel or smell. ''It's really a neat system, and it saves money beyond belief," says Everleigh.