—Why owner-builder gunite pools often pose surprising hurdles and hidden costs
Are you thinking about building your own pool? Are you considering becoming what’s known as a pool owner-builder?
A gunite swimming pool can provide a beautiful, functional, permanent addition to your home. But it also represents a major financial investment.
Depending on factors ranging from backyard conditions to the design’s complexity, a custom pool is a big-ticket project costing thousands of dollars.
For this reason, some homeowners look for ways—even extreme ones—to save money on this purchase. You may think you want to join those homeowners who have bravely bypassed expert pool builders and served as owner-builders for do-it-yourself inground pools.
Many industry experts will tell you, more often or not, the desired savings don’t come to fruition. Owner-builders often face unexpected obstacles during and after their “home-made pool,” and they also end up with outcomes that don’t live up to their original backyard dream.
Exceptions when DIY pools make sense
Some owner-builders do not save money building their own pool. Or they do, but they do not achieve the same—or even equal—quality outcome as a professional pool builder.
But some owner-builders can succeed. In those cases where the planets all line up, the DIY pool approach can pay off. If so, you could realize cost savings and come out with a great finished product.
One factor comes down to where you live. In some markets around the country, specialized owner-builder consultants can be hired. In some states, these consultants must be licensed.
For a fee, these specialists will serve as your guide. They will help you choose and hire subcontractors and as coordinate some aspects of construction. They may use their expertise and industry relationships to help you lower some costs and potential risks. They may also provide advice on selecting appropriate pool equipment.
Another scenario that works in favor of an owner-builder is construction experience. Now, expertise in another field of construction never fully translates to a specialty project like a swimming pool. Certain phases of pool building are unique and not found in other construction fields.
However, if you have some construction chops, they will certainly help when taking on a major DIY project like a multi-phase inground pool.
Another favorable factor is having strong technical aptitude and project management capabilities. Plenty of trade information about pool construction is available online. If you have the management savvy, attention to detail, and the hours and patience to study up on pool construction techniques, a DIY project will be easier to handle.
Even without a consultant or the skill set outlined above, the owner-builder approach could work to your advantage.
Say you hit the DIY pool trifecta: You plan to build a simple pool, have a backyard with zero or few building obstacles, and live in a market—such as Phoenix—with an ample supply of professional pool subcontractors.
With a concerted management effort on your part, a DIY project under these ideal circumstances could come out well and keep your budget to a minimum.
However, for most homeowners, the planets do not align with such perfection. Backyards contain challenging conditions that drive up costs. It’s difficult for the average person to achieve the same result and ultimate pricing as do professional pool builders. At the end of the day, the overall value is missing.
Unlike building a backyard shed or replacing the kitchen cabinets and flooring, an inground gunite pool is far from simple. The project is a major, multi-phase endeavor requiring a series of specialty trades and strategic coordination between subcontractors.
Now, perhaps you have the courage, strong commitment, and either the skill set or ideal conditions described above. If you are ready to take on the DIY quest, you should—at the very least—understand what you may face on the road ahead.
Doing so will help you make an informed decision if a DIY pool will likely meet your expectations for quality and price.
Let’s look at ten areas of owner-builder risks and challenges. Learn what to expect and watch out for with your subcontractors to prevent surprise costs, extra hassles, liability, and a less-than-satisfying end product.
#1. Planning responsibilities
Before construction even begins on your pool, you need to design it and produce a construction plan. You probably have some specific style ideas and features in mind.
But to produce a functional design that meets local codes, deliver the functionality you seek, and fit appropriately in your backyard, you will want to hire a freelance pool designer for this task. Most use specialized 3D virtual pool design software.
In many urban areas, swimming pool projects require a building permit. If true for your local planning department, you will need to prepare and submit a permit application.
Typically, the application requires plan drawings to scale, engineering specifications for the pool shell, specs for the electrical system, and the plumbing plan. In many cases, it must also include the calculations to support each specification.
As an owner-builder, it will be up to you to find a qualified draftsman and pool engineer. The right professionals will be able to produce the calculations and drawings, and they will properly package the information into a permit application that complies with the particular municipal agency.
A plan rendering using 3-D software helps you better visualize your future swimming pool.
#2. Higher construction costs
While you have no pool builder making a profit on your DIY project, portions of your anticipated construction savings may never materialize.
One key reason why: Owner-builders pay more for the same services and subcontractor work than established pool builders. It’s a fact of life.
As with anything else in business, who is going to get the better deal: the steady, volume customer—or some random customer with a one-time project?
Before the first shovel of soil turns, you will be paying more for construction plans and engineering than a professional pool builder, who most likely uses volume subscription services for these requirements—saving them hundreds of dollars per project.
By the time you pay full-price retail for; engineering, and construction plans, you may already fall behind the 8-ball on costs.
When it comes to subcontractors, you will also pay more than a pool builder. First, you have no leverage or volume to obtain the best pricing.
Second, subcontractors usually charge more for “DIY hand-holding”: As an inexperienced owner-builder, they expect you to need extra attention for explanations, design changes, construction plan revisions, scheduling changes, and other matters.
Furthermore, pool builders have the expertise to avoid or minimize waste and the games subcontractors play. From gunite overbreak costs to job-site pull-off fees, they can find a number of ways to increase their final bills with “unforeseen” charges.
Gunite/shotcrete application will be one of the major project costs.
#3. Sub-par craftsmen and outcomes
Owner-builders rarely achieve the best-finished projects because they don’t have access to the best subcontractors and craftsmen.
In any local market, the top-notch crews are not working for DIY homeowners. Instead, they are fully engaged by their regular customers—professional pool contractors.
To efficiently operate their company, as well as attract reliable workers, any subcontractor requires a steady flow of work. The good ones keep busy with established pool builders and the volume of work they provide.
Quality subcontractors are rarely interested in taking on a single, random project—even less so for an inexperienced homeowner whom they don’t know. And if it’s anytime during a busy pool season, forget it; they have a full pipeline of work from their regular clients.
In fact, if a subcontractor is available to work for an owner-builder in spring or summer, it’s virtually a red-flag—and should trigger a closer inspection of the company’s references.
#4. Missing unity among crews
As a pool undergoes its various construction phases, there are hundreds of points of interconnection between the various specialty trades.
One hurdle with which owner-builders may contend relates to the harmony between these crews—or rather, the lack of it.
When a pool builder serves as your general contractor, they use a regular set of subcontractors with whom they do repeat business (or a combination of in-house crews and a set of subcontractors).
Typically, pool builders also manage each project with on-staff schedulers and superintendents. These staff members coordinate the various subcontractors and how each one works with one another.
Although crew members work for separate subcontractors, they do work for the same pool builder client. So they become familiar with one another. As a result, they work better as a team—versus a random assembly of subcontractors.
Over the course of performing work on hundreds of projects for the professional pool client, each subcontractor knows what to expect from the one that came before them. On each project, they also know what’s expected of them by the next subcontractor crew.
What also helps promote a cohesive construction process is the pool builder’s staff. They are there to ensure coordination and hold everyone to standards.
With these regular relationships and master coordination, construction progresses more smoothly. Crews working in harmony contributes to the quality of the finished project.
As an owner-builder, you will be serving as your own general contractor. You will be hiring a number of specialty contractors to perform each phase of your pool build.
It’s less likely that crews from these different subcontractors will be accustomed to working with one another. For example, the plumber may routinely leave the task of filling in plumbing trenches for the deck installer.
However, when this deck installer works with an unfamiliar plumber, he arrives on the job assuming that the plumber had completed the trench backfill—only to discover they did not. That’s when friction—and problems arise. And there’s no pool builder to serve as referee.
Crews troweling fresh concrete for a pool deck.
#5. Finger-pointing upcharges
In a typical pool builder operation, subcontractor crews work on jobs with the same crews from another subcontractor. Crew members become accustomed to each other’s regular work and building practices. This familiarity helps produce a more efficient process with better outcomes
But on an owner-builder project, the crews must work on the same project with individuals they do not know or do not know well. The odds increase for miscommunication and the blame game.
When they do, the owner-builder will almost always pay for it—in both dollars and aggravation. A subcontractor might argue that a construction element by the previous trade crew was done incorrectly. They may claim they must be re-done to “upgrade” the work to meet standards.
Let’s look at the gunite phase as a case in point. When your guniter shoots the pool, say he fails to ensure the walls are plumb (perfectly straight).
Now, when your tile & coping installer arrives, he wants extra money to correct the guniter’s poor workmanship. You have already paid the gunite company, and now they are not interested in returning your phone calls.
When one of these subcontractors ask for more money to “rectify” an issue before they will proceed with their regular scheduled work, their judgment call may or may not be reasonable. But whether it is or not, the subcontractor might use this argument to enhance their profit margin at your expense.
Without a pool builder to serve as general contractor and referee, it will be in your hands to address. Will you have the expertise to argue with two specialty tradesmen about the proper spacing of the steel rebar in your pool’s deep end?
How about if the excavator set the pool’ elevation? Whether the plumber used the correct pipe size to deliver adequate filter flow with creating energy-gobbling excess back pressure on the pump?
#6. Pricing pitfalls
What’s worse than having surprise expenses pop up in the middle of a project? To cover the unexpected costs, you may even have to reduce or eliminate other features that you really wanted.
Now, unexpected costs can arise even if you work with a reputable pool builder. However, these costs are both limited and specified in your contract. A good example here is if your builder encounters rock or hard-pan soil in your backyard and needs you to pay for heavy rock-busting equipment.
However, what many owner-builders do not understand is that it’s the Wild West when it comes to the pricing they receive from subcontractors. It’s not unheard of for them to employ pricing methods that are not all-inclusive.
Frequently, owner-builders will face added charges. One example is standby time for concrete-delivery trucks for projects using ready-mix shotcrete. On the other hand, the pool contractor with volume business has already negotiated away standby upcharges.
Heavy earth-moving equipment digs a pool, and a dump truck hauls away the excavated earth.
#7. Marginal service
In nearly all industries, steady customers receive better treatment not only on pricing, but for scheduling, availability, extra services, and overall effort.
After all, any business gives its best treatment to the customers who will come back to you time and time again.
Certainly, a good firm strives to treat all customers well. But let’s be real: For special needs like faster service or addressing an obstacle, most will work harder for customers with whom they have continuous dealings.
The same holds true for the pool industry. In fact, since pool construction is fraught with unknowns that must be dealt with after construction begins, this reality may be even more pronounced.
Odds are that you will experience significant delays in scheduling. Most subcontractors service several pool builders, and these builders are what comprise the majority of their business.
As such, the pool builder will always get priority on their schedule. Owner-builders will be last on their list. In the busier months, they may not even be willing to take on your project at all.
Without a steady, long-term relationship, you’re essentially disposable to the subcontractor. It is also easy for a subcontractor to just add charges when you make an additional request or some issue arises. Or, it may cost you nothing—because they simply refuse your request for that extra accommodation.
After excavating the hole for a pool, crews install a network of steel rebar.
#8. Exposure to claims
Make no mistake about it: A DIY project means you are the general contractor.
As the GC on an inground pool, you will be hiring not one subcontractor, not two subcontractors, but as many as 10. That means exposure to multiple companies, their employees, their suppliers, and any government entities that regulate their activities.
Even when hiring a professional pool builder, it’s prudent to check out their liability coverage. You want to be sure that the contractor has insurance that will protect you.
To do so means obtaining copies of their coverage certificates and making sure they are current and that the policies are for appropriate dollar amounts. As an owner-builder, you will need to do this multiple times with each and every subcontractor you hire.
You could face liens, claims from suppliers, employees, and regulatory agencies for matters such as payroll and sales taxes and workers’ compensation. Even if a claim is totally unjustified and unreasonable, you will still have to spend the time and effort having it dismissed.
Are you familiar with these kinds of business, insurance, payroll, and financial issues? More critically, do you know how to ensure that such a claim—even if entirely unjustified—is properly satisfied so it won’t come back to haunt you? And do you have time and stomach for addressing them?
Keep in mind that regular homeowner insurance policies will not cover a claim against you if anyone working on your pool has an accident on your property. In some situations, you could be held personally responsible.
Many owner-builder never encounter such claims. But in a worst-case scenario, could you handle dealing with one?
What if you faced thousands of dollars in surprise expenses and possible fines for having missed deadlines for payments you did not even know were supposed to be made?
#9. Yesterday’s news
Ahhhh, the internet. As a homeowner, you can go online and search for hours learning about pool products. You can read an enormous amount of detail about the various phases of pool construction.
However, this acquired book-knowledge is no match for the experience a professional pool builder brings to the table.
Through trade magazines, industry events, and sales calls from industry representatives, full-time pool builders receive current information on the latest products and construction techniques.
Beyond what they learn from reading and industry reps, they gain real-world experience by installing new innovations and test-driving new building tactics. What they learn from this direct experience—repeated dozens or hundreds of times in the field—is impossible to replicate.
Think your owner-builder subcontractors will be current on all these developments? Unlikely. They might be up to speed in their specific field, but they won’t be when it comes to technology.
Unlike pool builders, manufacturer reps do not usually visit subcontractors. And if a subcontractor’s trade is pool plaster, will he bother studying innovations in AOP pool sanitizing systems? And forget about him know which brand’s unit is the most reliable.
Plus, subcontractors generally stay in their lane. They know their trade and their role in the overall project. But they rarely have the “big picture” of the pool design and construction process. Unlike a pool builder, a subcontractor can’t provide you that kind of broad perspective and scope of expertise.
By being your own builder, you risk missing out on pool features you might have really enjoyed. Or, you might choose an excellent piece of equipment—but do not know it’s incompatible with another component. Or, another top-rated product you buy performs poorly in your local climate or with the kind of trees in your backyard.
For homeowners who hire the services of an experienced owner-builder pool consultant, the story can be better. The consultant should provide some guidance and insight on making solid choices for pool design, features, and technology.
#10. Warranty weaknesses
When it comes to product warranties on your pool equipment, you will be fine as an owner-builder. Each manufacturer provides standard guarantees on products such as pool cleaners, sanitizers, and automation.
But it’s a different story when it comes to workmanship. For starters, no pool builder serving as your general contractor is around to provide an overarching warranty on your project. so you will have no structural guaranty—let alone one to transfer to a buyer should you even sell your home.
It will also be up to you to address workmanship with your subcontractors. For construction warranties and getting your one-time hire to address any problems, tag, you are it! If your electric fails or plumbing leaks, you—the one-time customer with zero leverage—will be the one negotiating with the subcontractor to come repair it.
You alone will be responsible for ensuring that all components—from underwater LED lights to the pool pump—used in the project are compatible with all of the other components. Ditto for all of the installation specifications.
If one component is not compatible, or was not installed to standards, a subcontractor or manufacturer will often use such an error—even a minor one—as an excuse to void their warranty or deny responsibility.
Improperly grounded electrical appliances, poorly located gas fume vents, inadequate safety clearances for diving boards and drain fixtures are among the many things that can go really wrong.
You will need a licensed electrician to wire pool equipment and features like lighting and an automation system.
Bear in mind, even quality pool builders sometimes face mishaps by their subcontractors. And that’s with job oversight by expert project superintendents—and the subcontractors pool builders regularly use. So how do you feel about your odds?
Even worse: In the rare case that an error that leads to someone’s injury or death, the event could become your liability—and remains so even if you sell your house.
Will a DIY pool meet or miss your expectations?
If you are intent on the DIY route, be sure to do your homework before embarking on the challenging journey.
Know that owner-builders do face some extra risks. Know that most first-time owner-builders experience some degree of regret. Disappointments come from the outcome in terms of ultimate cost and the finished quality.
Homeowners who travel the DIY path rarely repeat the experience. At their next home and pool project, they opt to focus on long-term needs and satisfaction and less on saving a few dollars. Toward this goal, they hire a competent, professional builder who can deliver better overall value for the project.