ABOVE AND LOVING IT; Some Pool Owners Are Doing More with Amenities after Forgoing More Pricey In-Ground Models

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Ray Jack is a pool salesman in Orlando who says he's noticed a trend the past few years: Folks tricking out their above-ground models.

They've figured out they can buy the pool, have it installed and decorate around it -- usually for less than an in-ground pool, Jack said.

So how far are people going to transform above-ground pools into deluxe swimming and entertainment centers?

Many are burying them so they seem like in-ground pools. "Sometimes you see them with decks and tiki bars and outdoor lighting, mp3 players, drink and snack holders and refrigerators," Jack said.

Fleming Island's Jim Boivin knows all about that.

Half of his 27-foot above-grounder is encircled by wooden decking which supports what Boivin calls a "man cave": a covered area complete with couches, chairs, stereo, television and "a beer 'kegerator,' which is right beside the pool."

"I can just sit out there and smoke cigars and watch TV, and it's only 15 feet from the pool," said Boivin, who earns a living as the chief of the Orange Park Police Department.

Boivin said it made sense to go with an above-ground pool.

"I had wanted an in-ground pool, but my wife [Denise] said we would have to cut down too many trees, and it's a lot more expensive," Boivin said. "I fought her for it, and I'm glad I lost."

While the economics of an above-ground pool makes sense to some, they are still a minority in Florida. And experts note that most pool trends -- above- or in-ground, fancy or simple -- have taken a major hit in the economic downturn. Many are waiting for the market to start turning around.

POOLS STRUGGLE IN ECONOMY

The pool industry suffered a double whammy in recent years, said Mark Joslin, vice president and chief financial officer of Pool Corp., a Louisiana-based seller of pool-related products.

The most recent economic downturn exacerbated the pool industry's sales decline, which began during the real estate and consumer credit market collapse in 2006, Joslin said.

"It really worsened in late 2008 and into 2009," he said.

In Florida alone, Joslin said, the market for new pools has contracted about 40 percent in the last three or four years.

But there are also signs of a comeback. Joslin said the decline in pool sales is slowing and growth is predicted in 2010.

Above-ground pools "have faired slightly better" on the First Coast, said John Carlson, operations manager at Recreational Factory Warehouse in Jacksonville.

Possibly due to the lower cost -- ranging from a few hundred dollars up to $6,000 -- above-ground models are more affordable for many who have decided to forgo vacations for fun at home.

COST DEPENDS ON 'HOW FANCY'

Carlson said many people will use the money they saved purchasing an above-ground pool to fix them up so they don't feel like above-ground pools. …