June 19, 2015
By John Petrocelli
Installing a backyard pool gives you the freedom to vacation—every day—without the hassle of packing for a long commute. In fact, today’s backyards can be equipped with all the amenities you would find at any five-star resort, including pools, hot tubs, open-air dining areas, fire-pits, barbecues, fireplaces, entertainment centres (e.g. TVs and music), along with outdoor furnishings.
Although pool ownership can be rewarding in this sense, for some the initial purchase and construction process can be daunting—that is, if you are not properly prepared. If you are thinking about installing a pool and/or complete backyard entertainment centre, this article will give you an idea about what to expect. With the right information, this could be one of the most rewarding investments you will ever make for your family’s health and happiness.
Gone are the days of using the telephone book to see which companies have the biggest advertisements. The combination of more resources (i.e. the Internet) and a larger number of companies to choose from has changed the way you make your purchase decisions. Rather than visiting multiple pool builders, the Internet allows you to do most of your research prior to meeting with the company you feel most comfortable with.
Blogs or chat forums can also be a good resource as many neighbourhoods have online groups where they discuss a variety of subjects, including good and bad experiences with organizations or companies they have dealt with. Many pool company websites will also contain reviews from past clients who were satisfied with the quality, service, and overall experience. Additionally, there are several websites that provide online reviews and rank pool builders based on the scores they receive from previous clients.
Another place where you can find a reputable pool builder is through the Pool & Hot Tub Council of Canada (PHTCC). It represents the interests of the top pool companies in Canada which abide by a code of ethics and conform to the highest standards of workmanship and service. Employees of member companies also meet strict business criteria (i.e. have adequate liability insurance and worker’s compensation coverage).
Industry manufacturers can be another good resource. Some of these companies even have links to professional or certified builders who install their products. These builders must meet a certain criteria before they are listed on supplier websites. In fact, some even require a project inspection and proper technical training before they are listed.
Pools, Spas & Patios is another good resource. The magazine’s ‘Backyard Service Finder’ not only offers a way to find a pool builder in your area, but also provides other great ideas for your backyard in terms of pool styles, finishes, decking, and landscaping. Finally, one of the best sources is a personal referral from someone you know. If they had a good or bad experience with a particular company, they will likely tell you all about it.
No matter how you research or narrow down a prospective builder, keep in mind you are essentially buying the company, not just the pool. That said, it is always best to deal with a pool builder that has been in business for a long time as this indicates they are reputable. You do not want to roll the dice with a company that has only been in business for one or two years with only a few pools under their belt.
Last, but not least, make sure the company is properly insured. The average pool builder should have a minimum of $5 million in general liability insurance coverage, while larger companies should carry more than $20 million in commercial general liability coverage. A builder should have adequate insurance to reflect his/her exposure to their specific circumstances and risks. If an accident should happen and the builder is underinsured, and the claim exceeds their coverage, you will likely be next on the hook.
Once you meet with the builder you have selected, make sure he/she is knowledgeable and does not push you into making a decision on the spot. Be wary of anyone who uses pressure tactics to get you to sign a contract immediately. A good pool builder will come to the preliminary site meeting to collect information to put together a quote based on your wants and needs and the specifics of your property.
It may take approximately a week to put together a proposal for a typical backyard project and possibly longer if it is a large-scale job. If you get a quote on the spot, do not expect it to be accurate. An accurate price requires scaled drawings and measurements to reflect true details and quantities. Some large projects can only be budgeted in the preliminary phase and could be higher or lower by $50,000 without a proper landscape design. That said, it is extremely important to be honest about your budget. Do not start this process unless you have agreed on a budget with your spouse and/or family. Just as important, make sure the builder can work within your budget and they demonstrate proof they can handle the entire scope of work requested.
A builder does not want to know your budget so they can be sure to spend every penny, but rather provide you the most you can get for what you can afford. The builder’s design and recommendations will be focussed around this number and he/she will do their best not to exceed it without your involvement or input.
Depending on the builder, some may even take you on a tour of one of their current projects. This opportunity will allow you to gauge the builder’s quality of work, organization, workers, cleanliness, and possibly even their rapport with clients. The builder should also have a good track record of being truthful about start dates and duration of construction as well as give you a realistic project schedule and promise to keep you well informed and updated.
For larger projects, it is a good idea to work with a company that has in-house design capabilities and is familiar with your local municipal bylaws and permit procedures. This helps in obtaining permits quicker and, in essence, allows construction to commence sooner, and continue without delay due to overlooked details.
Finally, if you are considering two competing proposals, it is important to make sure you are comparing apples to apples. The lowest price may seem like the best choice; however, the higher priced quote may be more detailed and include items that will be required, but have not been addressed or included in the lower-priced bid. If you choose the lower price thinking you are going to save money, you may be disappointed to find out later on you need to pay extra for some of the things that were excluded up front (e.g. landscaping, decking, etc.). A good builder will bring these possible costs to your attention right from the get-go, before the contract is signed.
Now that you have found the right builder, you need to know what you are accountable for as the purchaser as well as what responsibilities lie with the builder.
First and foremost, you should have a general understanding of your municipal bylaws. Even though you want your builder to look after all the details, it is a good idea you have this knowledge as well. This is as simple as visiting your municipality’s website and searching for ‘pool enclosure permits.’
It might be confusing because the pool enclosure bylaw is a legal document, but your builder will provide you with all the forms, fee schedules, bylaw details (which are very common amongst most municipalities with respect to fence heights, etc.), procedures, and timelines. They will also tell you about any special circumstances specific to your property; for example, if conservation or developer approvals are required.
It is up to you to provide a copy of the legal property (required for starting the design drawings and for permit application), sign all permit applications, and pay for all permit and/or other related fees. Work should not commence until all municipal permits and other approvals have been satisfactorily obtained. Doing so can result in a stop work order, fines, or in worst-case scenarios, the removal of your pool or anything else that has been installed where it is not permitted due to a property variance or environmental setback.
It is also your job to talk to your neighbours should the builder need to encroach on their property to obtain access to your backyard with machinery or alter a common fence to meet code. You should also keep them informed on the project’s scheduling and overall progress. Get your neighbour’s consent in writing so it is harder for them to change their mind mid-project.
Once the site plan (i.e. landscape design plan) is complete, you must approve and sign-off on all construction drawings. From this point on, changes should be kept to an absolute minimum. Before construction starts, the city inspector may inspect your fence as it is up to you to ensure it meets code, or is upgraded to meet code before the pool is filled with water. The pool builder can give you an idea as to whether the existing fence will meet code, but he/she cannot guarantee it—only the city inspector can make this ruling.
The builder is responsible for referencing and abiding to all applicable bylaws and zoning requirements (e.g. noise and work start times) as well as being respectful of neighbouring properties and city property whereby keeping them clean and free from damage (with the exception of normal damage expected during construction.
The builder should not cut any corners as it will compromise the quality or durability of the end product. They should also start and complete the project as promised (weather permitting) and work continuously—not taking any unnecessary breaks unless absolutely required (such as concrete curing time, etc.). Finally, the builder should also let you know as soon as possible if any unexpected circumstances are encountered during any phase of the project (e.g. coming across an underground rock or water) that will add costs to the job and, if so, to provide a fair and honest price to fix the problem.
Perhaps one of the most important responsibilities you have is to carefully read over the contract and do not make any assumptions about what is or is not included. A good builder should provide you with a clear and concise contract that details the scope of work described. In some cases, you may unfortunately be surprised or disappointed if you do not read these documents thoroughly.
Equally important to a successful pool installation is ensuring the builder keeps up his/her end of the bargain, whereby the contract summarizes precisely everything that was agreed to in previous discussions. In addition, the supporting documents (e.g. drawings, appendices, terms and conditions, etc.) should also be clear and complete. Collectively, these are referred to as the contract documents. Ideally, drawings should be produced to scale using computer-aided design (CAD) or engineering programs. The landscape design should also be included in the overall contract documents. These are also used to produce detailed drawings for the construction crew to ensure the pool and surrounding features are built to the proper specifications. The builder is responsible for executing the plan and co-ordinating all labour, equipment, materials, and subcontractors.
A 10 per cent payment is usually required as a deposit to secure your project in the builder’s current or upcoming construction schedule. Do not expect any commitment from the builder until a firm deposit is made as this shows you are ready to move forward as agreed. Payments can be made by personal cheque, bank draft/money order, certified cheque, e-mail money transfer, or debit card.
Never offer to pay cash for your project, it is illegal. The builder is required to charge federal and provincial taxes on all work. Be wary of builders that will accept cash and avoid charging, collecting, and remitting government taxes. You will likely not get any paperwork or receipts and you will run the risk of not having any warranty or recourse in the future should a problem occur.
There is no single way to make a good project go sour other than not paying your builder according to the terms of your agreement. Providing the builder has lived up to his/her responsibilities and has provided the materials and services you agreed to, it is important progress payments are made as per the contract and corresponding project milestones. The builder’s representative will usually remind you as each payment milestone approaches; however, the onus should not lie on them to remind you. It is your responsibility to monitor progress as well and to know when your next payment is due.
If you prefer the builder to walk you through the project at each milestone, make sure this is agreed to in the contract. If there are any issues noticed during the walk-through, make note of them and ask the builder when they will be addressed and/or rectified. Do not hold back payment if the builder agrees to take care of it.
Payment in full is not required or recommended. Be careful if a builder asks you for a large sum of money up front. When dealing with fibreglass pool projects, however, a larger down payment may be required, especially if the shell has to be special ordered and delivered.
In addition to the original contract amount and payment terms, there will likely be some extra work that comes up during the detailed design process or construction. A builder will provide pricing in the form of a ‘change order’ or ‘extra work order.’ These will have all the same terms and conditions as the original agreement; however, they will have their own separate payment terms, which will likely need to be paid in full at signing for minor changes, or 50 per cent down at signing and 50 per cent at completion of the change order work, for larger changes.
Another option is financing, which is slowly being introduced by a limited number of companies, including TD Canada Trust, Laurentian Bank, Home Trust, and Financeit.
One to two weeks prior to the construction start date, a good builder should come to your home and map out the pool and major landscape elements on your lawn with fluorescent paint. Changes cannot be made at this stage as all materials will have been ordered. Minor changes such as moving the pool a foot or so will likely not be an issue.
Before starting, the builder will schedule a pre-construction meeting at your house with the project manager who will be introduced as your main point of contact. A walk through will take place and any last minute details can be discussed. The builder will perform a final check to ensure he/she has all utility locates and then give you a firm start date (plus/minus a day or two).
The project manager will likely spend one to two hours on-site each day, or every other day, depending on the work phase being completed. He/she will keep you informed on the progress, usually on a daily basis, or at least a few times per week as well as be available for meetings during the work day or, if necessary, after hours or on weekends.
During construction, you will be required to provide water, power, and access to all workspaces. Further, adequate street parking will be required as there are a number of trucks, trailers, and equipment that will be used. You should notify the city that work trucks will be parked on the road during the construction of your pool as this will prevent the builder’s vehicles from being ticketed. You will also need to provide a location on your property for construction materials. In some municipalities, unloading of materials on city property is not permitted; therefore, you may need to use your front lawn and pay to have it repaired. In other cases, a road occupancy permit may be required at your expense. Some of the more valuable materials like the pool kit and mechanical equipment (e.g. pump, filter, heater, etc.) will need to be stored on-site until it is installed. Ideally, your garage is the best place; if this is not an option, a fenced backyard will do. Either way, a properly insured builder will have coverage that protects all of these materials from theft or damage.
Another important component to proper insurance coverage (as mentioned earlier) is an ‘installation floater.’ This is an extension of CGL and covers you and the builder against the perils that can occur while a project is under construction (e.g. vandalism, wind, or water damage, etc.). An installation floater provides compensation, up to a certain limit, to replace the damaged work or goods.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of working with an experienced pool builder that will handle all project design and permit work is the fact everything will be designed according to zoning bylaws and be shown on the permit drawings. Therefore, if there are any issues relating to the setback of a pool house, for example, it will be caught in the permit stages for the pool when it does not cost anyone anything—not even time. If the pool builder is not doing the landscaping, then the permit applications will likely not include much (if any) details about the landscaping. After a pool enclosure permit is issued and your pool is installed, if the landscaping is designed later and a structure is built in an area it should not be, you can face problems. For instance, a structure installed too close to a property line, or built too large or too high, will need a variance from the Committee of Adjustments. If you are not successful in getting the variance approved, you may have to remove or modify the structure at your cost.
Twenty to 30 years ago, there is no disputing pool projects were a lot less complicated and intricate than they are today. During this time, pool builders simply built pools and maybe installed the odd concrete or interlock deck. There was no such thing as waterfalls, fire pits, pool houses, and fancy automation or sanitation systems. Kidney-shaped pools with a 0.3 m (1 ft) of concrete ‘sidewalk’ around the perimeter were the standard. The pool equipment included a pump, filter, and heater with one clear-flex pipe between them.
About 15 years ago, pool builders started to get into basic landscaping, which mainly consisted of architectural concrete work. Around this time, pool builders started to promote the ‘turn-key’ solution as a way of controlling quality and project duration. Components like gas, electrical, and excavation were pretty much contracted out to specialty or subcontractors. Today’s pool projects have become so complex and detailed the pool builder has become a general contractor, and is now designing and building elements that are much more than just the pool and standard decking. The reality is, even though most pool builders still refer to themselves as a ‘one-stop shop,’ it is coming to the point where sub-contracting is hard to avoid and high-end builders have assumed the roles of project managers. Although most of the work, such as pool construction, stonework, and garden beds are still performed in-house, many pool builders will use subcontractors for the traditional components such as the gas, electrical, and excavation, but now some have even found it is more cost effective and better for quality control to contract out masonry, irrigation, structures, wood decks, and often project design to a third-party. That said, it is mandatory your builder uses subcontractors that have Workplace Safety and Insurance (WSIB) coverage. If you hire a builder that does not have WSIB coverage for his/her workers and/or employs subcontractors without coverage, you could be responsible for all injury claims that occur as a result of working on your project.
For projects that only consist of a pool, it is considered complete after the pool equipment is installed, hydraulically plumbed, and ready to be circulated.
If the project is more elaborate and involves landscaping and other work to be completed by the builder’s crew or subcontractors, then project completion may not necessarily be related to only the pool, but at the time the sod is repaired. In this case, project completion is generally considered once it is substantially complete and useable for its intended purpose. Keep in mind, minor deficiencies may not prevent a project from being used, so they technically fall outside of ‘completion.’ Completion will usually be stated in the contract and tied into the payment terms with the balance of payment.
After the project is officially completed, your builder will begin to wrap up the paperwork and train you on how to use your new pool.
This will typically start with a final walk through of the entire project. At this time, a final deficiency list is compiled and items are categorized as either minor or major. You will also receive all warranty papers along with all manuals for repair and regular maintenance. It is up to you to register all product warranties. This is typically the time when your final payment is due. Final clean-up of the site or the property are also completed at this time.
In the weeks to follow, the builder will be available to answer any questions, as well as assist in arranging any final inspections and co-ordinating refunds of security deposits from the city.
If you are serious about installing a pool (and associated landscaping) this information should give you the confidence to sit down with any pool builder and take the plunge.
John Petrocelli, P.Eng., is president and sales manager of Backyard Getaways Inc., a Brampton, Ont.-based company specializing in inground vinyl-lined, concrete, and fibreglass pools and complete in-house landscape design and construction. His company specializes in 3D design, aquatic and landscape engineering, and complex permit issues. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting www.backyardgetaways.com.
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