Last year, Amore Pools was all over the media and for all the wrong reasons. Owner, Brian Washburn and his wife, Chrystal, were charged with a variety of offenses, including money laundering and identity fraud.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the pair collected huge deposits from homeowners for building inground pools but never finished any of the jobs.
Amore Pools Accused Of Defrauding Customers
The FDLE claims the couple cheated scores of locals out of over $2 million by using Chrystal Washburn’s pool contracting business, Amore Pools.
With projects scattered over hundreds of miles, customers affected reside in Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Okeechobee, Martin, and Palm Beach counties.
In October 2021, the couple was arrested and charged with a variety of offenses, including faking documents to register the company, collecting money from at least 150 victims, and failing to complete the jobs.
On Tuesday, both the prosecution and Brian Washburn’s defense attorney made their opening statements. Brian Washburn’s counsel contended that this isn’t a case of fraud, but rather of a failed firm run by his wife, Chrystal Washburn.
“Wife Was The Contractor” Claims Husband’s Lawyer
“You’ll not see one contract with Brian Washburn’s name on it. Not one. Chrystal Washburn signed all the contracts because she had the license. She’s the contractor – not him,” Edward Abare, Brian Washburn’s defense attorney, said.
Prosecutors presented witnesses from the FDLE and a building authority from the city of Port St. Lucie to testify that the license and permit application paperwork supplied to the city by Amore Pools were fake.
Brian Washburn’s attorney did not dispute those conclusions but stated that the paperwork demonstrates Chrystal Washburn was the only owner of Amore Pools and that his client had nothing to do with the company’s business or finance sides.
“They want to paint Brian Washburn with the same brush that they painted Chrystal Washburn with. But the law, here the law that Judge Vaughn gives you – again, the only possible verdict, in this case, is that he is not guilty of any of these charges,” Abare said.
Husband Facing 16 Felonies
A total of sixteen felonies were filed against Brian Washburn, including falsifying information on his contractor’s license application, working as an unlicensed contractor during a state of emergency, participating in a coordinated fraud scheme, misappropriating personal identification information, money laundering, and insurance fraud.
Amore Pools Owner Facing a Long Prison Sentence
A total of 180 witnesses have been identified by the state as “victims” in court documents, although it is not yet known how many of those witnesses will give testimony during the trial.
Court filings also indicate that if convicted, Washburn may face a sentence of at least 18 years.
Investing in a Luxury Pool & Backyard
Investing in a luxury pool and backyard is high on many homeowners’ lists these days. It goes without saying that planning the right landscape and hardscape elements to go with your swimming pool is the proper way to ensure a harmonious outdoor living environment.
To get a better sense of the investment homeowners are willing to make we reached out to two industry professionals that are at the very top of their games, Jason Brownlee and Chad Christenson. The landscape architect and pool builder both work hand in hand collaborating on high-end sophisticated custom swimming pools and outdoor living projects.
The Designer – Jason Brownlee
Although considered by many to be one of the top landscape architect firms today; Brownlee’s path started out like many in the industry, working for someone else. After receiving his degree in 1998, Brownlee immediately went to work for an architectural drafting firm.
“I was doing urban renewal and sustainable design,” said Brownlee, “It was interesting work, but I personally hated every minute of it. I was stuck in a back room and being told what to do and couldn’t really be creative. I started doing some residential work on the side and found a passion for that quickly.”
Being a high-end design consultant isn’t a typical role for someone of Brownlee’s background. Architectural drafting is very cerebral work in comparison to being a design consultant which does require an outgoing, extrovertive, and energetic personality. While the design aspect came intuitively enough, Brownlee admits that coming out of his shell enough to be able to converse with clients was definitely a learning process for him.
“To be able to read people, discover what makes them tick, what they want and why; that all helps me in determining what kind of space I’m going to create. It’s been a long process in learning how to get that out of my clients,” explained Brownlee.
The Builder – Chad Christenson
Chad Christenson on the other hand came from a background in construction. Getting his first experience while working for his uncle who was a home builder in Texas, he developed a passion for construction at a young age. After receiving a degree in Construction Science, Christenson began working for Turner Construction out of Atlanta, GA. A similar story to Brownlee, Christenson quickly decided that working for a larger firm wasn’t the ideal career path for him.
Deciding to obtain his General Contractor’s license, he returned to building homes with his uncle, this time in Destin, FL. “Shortly we realized that every single house we built had a pool and every single pool contractor we hired was a disaster,” said Christenson.
That was an aha moment for him. “Eventually, I went out on my own and started a construction firm and a pool company. I knew that if I could make the process better, even more folks would want a pool in their backyard,” said Christenson.
Relocating to Nashville, Christenson purchased a small pool company and has grown his business substantially over the years. Today, his firm Watermark Pool & Spa has built a reputation as one of the top luxury pool builders in Tennessee.
The collaborative energy between Brownlee and Christenson is undeniable. “As a designer, working with someone as competent as Chad is at construction is great because it frees me up to just be creative,” said Brownlee, “I don’t have to hold back something that I think is cool because of doubts about whether or not we can pull it off from the construction side.”
For all the high-end homes in Nashville, it’s not a market traditionally known for investing in pools and spas. The two are working to change that and the perception of what building a luxury backyard should be.
The trouble that many high-end homeowners run into has more to do with conceptualizing what to do with the blank canvas that is their backyard. A fact that both Christenson and Brownlee both acknowledged. Consequently, it’s a topic that Brownlee spends time explaining to his clients when designing a custom outdoor living environment.
Are You Considering Investing in a Luxury Pool?
For those considering investing in a luxury pool, Brownlee poses a simple question.”If you are investing 5 to 10 million dollars on a home, and the intricacies from the interior to the cabinetry to the flooring – everything is top-notch; why stop when it comes to the pool? You didn’t go to Walmart for your cabinets so why spend the bare minimum when it comes to the backyard?” said Brownlee.
These days, homeowners in Nashville don’t appear to need much convincing to invest in a swimming pool. The market for outdoor home improvements and new pool construction is up substantially. Moreover, Brownlee and Christenson find themselves busier than ever before. Helping homeowners execute their grand vision for that investment is a process they know all too well.
Planning For Success – 3 Things To Consider
“The three things that I always look at are the house, the site, and the client,” said Brownlee. “I’m evaluating things like the architectural style and character of the home, sightlines, and other factors.”
“When evaluating the site, I’m looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m looking at what the asset limitations are and what makes the site special. There may be things we wanted to screen or disappear altogether. Where that connects with the house is important,” explained Brownlee.
“I want to meet with clients at their home and immerse myself in their world to get a feel for who they are,” said Brownlee, “It’s important to learn about their family, tastes, lifestyle, pets, everything. I want to find out what makes them tick.”
Bringing It Altogether
“Learning about the house, site, and client all come together to guide that process. Those three parts create the emotional theme for their outdoor living space and become the moral of the story or plot of a good movie,” said Brownlee.
Creating harmoniously well-designed outdoor living spaces that capture the essence of those stories is a clear differentiator. It’s what separates Brownlee from many other designers. Having an in-depth knowledge of construction is also something that fosters easier collaboration between builders.
“Jason understands the construction side. He knows what is possible but also knows how to push the envelope really hard,” said Christenson, “He’s the kind of guy that likes to find a problem and solve it with hydraulics.”
Some of the pools and outdoor living areas that Brownlee and Christenson collaborate on together are nothing short of breathtaking. It’s the wow factor of their projects which justifies their ability to charge top dollar for their services. Quite frequently, it’s a gamble that pays off very well for homeowners as well.
Where The Math Adds Up
“Everyone from California seems to be moving to Tennessee,” said Brownlee, “this client was a $2.1 million spec home outside of Nashville in Franklin. Nice but spec – the same builder had 3 identical homes in the same sub-division.”
“We added maybe $1.2 million to the backyard to do the pool, landscape, and hardscape. He’s sitting at about $3.5 million all-in on his investment property,” said Brownlee.
A Case Study on How It Paid Off
“As Chad is getting ready to put the final touches on it, there’s a knock at the door with an offer of $7.5 million cash and the client literally doubled his entire investment based on what we did in the backyard.”
Brownlee’s story certainly is a great case-study on how investing in a luxury pool and improving the outdoor living space adds comfort and value to a home. It’s also a good barometer of how outdoor living amenities can move the needle on a high-value property.
We had a great conversation with Brownlee and Christenson that went more in-depth on investing in a luxury pool and backyard. Listen to our entire discussion on the Pool Magazine Podcast.
Ryan Hughes on Creating Outdoor Living Spaces
Ryan Hughes has built a career out of working with some of the most discerning homeowners in Tampa, Florida. Having established a reputation for creating exceptional outdoor living spaces, Hughes continues to set the bar higher and higher in the industry. We had the opportunity to catch up with him at the International Pool & Spa Expo in Dallas recently. During the course of our conversation, we got to learn a little bit more about his process for conceptualizing resort-style backyards for high-end custom homes.
Transitioning To An Elite Design / Build Firm
Stepping into a thriving landscape design business, for Hughes, the pathway towards becoming an elite designer really began in earnest when he rebranded his family firm from The Hughes Group to Ryan Hughes Design / Build.
While widely known as an expert in the field of pool and landscape design, the award-winning designer is also a licensed pool builder holding a State of Florida Certified Pool Contractors License. Hughes explained that the rebranding process was an essential turning point that allowed him to reach the next level and connect with more affluent homeowners.
Designing Outdoor Living Environments For The 1%
“We create better lifestyles through innovative outdoor living,” said Hughes, when describing his firm’s mission statement. As the go-to designer for the elite 1% in Tampa, Hughes says creating a better experience for customers is paramount.
Hughes, who certainly didn’t start off building million-dollar backyards, says that it was a lengthy learning process to get to that point in his career. “In 2008, I got a chance to sit down and reflect on why I wasn’t connecting with the top 1%,” said Hughes, “I realized a few things, for one, I was focused on design and construction and I wasn’t focused on the client experience. I didn’t even know what that meant. I needed to educate myself on how the top 1% buy,” he explained.
“I also realized something even more important,” said Hughes, “and that is the (profit) margins. The margins I had prior to 2008 were from my father’s business or what I had learned from other folks in the industry. If you’re trying to do something exceptional you can’t mimic other people,” explained Hughes who said that it’s not enough to be able to sell to the 1%, you also have to be able to build these projects profitably. The second point is the more difficult aspect, which builders have a tendency to struggle with.
Scaling For Growth During The Pandemic
Like many in the industry, Ryan Hughes Design / Build has grown in the last two years in part due to the increased demand from consumers looking to enhance their backyard during the pandemic. With the virus curtailing travel and limiting the number of options on where to put those discretionary dollars, homeowners are reinvesting in their homes. Being confined to the home during this time put a renewed focus in the minds of consumers to create an outdoor living experience that the entire family could enjoy.
“The economy already started to heat up in 2017 so we were already preparing for some pretty big growth, we were ready for it, and then, of course, Covid hit and we got a little nervous,” said Hughes who recalled some hard discussions with his wife during the depths of the pandemic.
Covid-19 Creates A Deciding Moment
“We were discussing whether we wanted to expand or retract and we said ‘let’s keep going’ and started recruiting even faster than we were,” said Hughes, “Wow, did we time that right, because then all of a sudden things went the other direction with Covid and the demand has gone through the roof.”
Hughes, who is busier than ever says he currently has a two-year backlog to get through what he has already sold. “The leads are still coming in,” said Hughes, “we’re up to a six-month wait time so if someone signs a design contract, they’re waiting six months before we can even start the design.”
How Industry Price Increases Have Impacted Fixed Cost Pricing
Like many, Hughes was impacted by the recent surge in price increases. During the pandemic, a perfect storm of factory closures, workforce cutbacks, logistical delays, and a deep freeze in Texas which took a large percentage of equipment out of circulation, helped set the stage for increases across the board. An explosion at the BioLab plant which is responsible for a large percentage of dry chlorine products sold in the U.S. contributed to increases from the chemical side as well.
“In the early parts of 2021 we were victim to price increases,” said Hughes, “we do fixed cost contracts with our clients so we had to honor them, but because I keep the margins high, I was able to do that. I didn’t have to go back to a single client and say that we were over budget and needed more money,” he explained. “There was probably around 6 months and 8 or 9 projects that we did for practice because the margins crushed us.”
Every Challenge Creates Oppportunity
“We’re doing some creative things now,” said Hughes, as he described how he is dealing with any further anticipated increases. “With every challenge, there is always an opportunity. One of the things my father taught me as he went through the inflation in the ’70’s, he said if inflation hits, buy inventory,” explained Hughes, “We bought a very large warehouse and I just talked to Jandy; we’re buying as many pumps and heaters as we can fit.”
In explaining the strategy against hedging against inflating prices, Hughes said, “If things keep going up in price, we may actually make money because we’re buying it at today’s prices. I think doing fixed cost pricing in this environment is risky, but we’ve somewhat mitigated that with what we’re doing.”
Creating a World-Class Client Experience
As one of the foremost experts in his field, we asked him what the 1% want in their backyards. We wanted to know what features and design amenities are trending with high-end homeowners in the Tampa market. “It’s a tricky question,” said Hughes, “because we do things a little differently. We don’t go out to a client and interview them and ask them what they want. We try and find out who they are.”
The Secret To Satisfying Your Client: Over Deliver
“It’s about creating a world-class client experience and how do you do that? You over-deliver,” said Hughes. “If you don’t have the right margins, you can’t over-deliver. That is the number one lesson that I can share with builders who want to get into the multi-million dollar market.”
Hughes says that blowing away the client’s expectations is the secret sauce that has propelled him. He feels that this above all is the differentiating factor that has made him the designer of choice on so many high-end projects throughout his career.
Connecting With The Clients Lifestyle
In trying to create that profile for the design process, Hughes stresses the importance of connecting with the client’s lifestyle. “We interview them to find out what kinds of things they like. Where do they eat dinner? Where do they travel? What kind of car do they own? What kind of wine do they drink? I ask them to describe in detail the kind of party they would throw.” said Hughes.
Custom Tailored Versus Off The Rack
For that exclusive 1% clientele, bringing in a high-caliber design firm to connect with their lifestyle is the equivalent of going in for a finely tailored custom suit rather than buying off the rack. Hughes says he places enormous emphasis on building that profile when planning an outdoor living project.
Telling The Customer What They Want
“We’re asking them who they are and then tell them what they want,” he explained, “No one comes to us and says ‘I’d like a vanishing edge pool with a side of fire bowls. They just don’t know and maybe what they’re asking for doesn’t even fit their lifestyle. We’re very in touch with the trends, but it is our job to tell them what is applicable for their project.”
“We try to figure out which elements contribute to that lifestyle component,” said Hughes, “if someone is looking for that over-the-top party environment, there’s going to be more fire, more color-changing LED lights. The acrylic windows may come into play, but it all depends on the client.”
“To make the backyard an experience, you have to create a feel that connects with the client.”Ryan Hughes – Ryan Hughes Design / Build
Creating The Right Atmosphere
“A lot of people talk about architecture and art but what’s the end result, it’s about a feeling,” said Hughes, “When you go to a really cool restaurant, you don’t talk about the architecture. You say ‘wow, this atmosphere is amazing.’ The same thing holds true if you go to a boutique hotel and spend thousands of dollars a night on a room, it’s about the atmosphere and the vibe you get from the experience.” said Hughes. He indicated that those elements collected during the profiling stage often dictate what that vibe and feel will resemble in the overall design plan presented to the client.
Space Planning Around Functionality
Hitting all of the personalized notes that create a truly custom-tailored experience for the homeowner is a process Hughes is all too familiar with. He indicated that many builders approach the space planning around the pool which is the opposite approach he takes when planning an outdoor living space that caters to the customer’s lifestyle.
“We start with functionality,” said Hughes, “We don’t even really start with the swimming pool design. We start with the overall space planning and create the destinations. So we say we’re going to have a lounge area here, and a social firepit there. We’re going to add an outdoor kitchen and a dining scenario as well. We’re mapping that out before we even start to conceptualize what the pool is going to look like,” explained Hughes.
Expansion Into The Orlando Market
With a few new exciting projects coming out this year, Hughes is focused on expanding his footprint in Florida. “We recently expanded into the Orlando market and we have a couple of big lazy rivers over there. Our average lazy river is around 200 feet, this one we’re doing is 300 feet long. It has some really interesting water features and a cantilever pavilion that goes over the river. As you go through the river it’s got a water column that Crystal Fountains manufactured for us that’s going to put 500 gallons a minute of water down on you as you’re tubing through it. This one has amazing lighting, acrylic, and fire. It’s got everything that we’re known for but on steroids.”
That certainly isn’t the only high-end project Hughes has going in the Orlando market. “There is an indoor pool that we’re doing. It’s a 100-foot lap pool on the side of the house and adjacent to it is a Koi pond that runs the entire length separated by only by acrylic so you’re literally going to be swimming laps in the pool with the fish.”
The average price for one of Ryan Hughes’s builds has certainly gone up since he transitioned to focusing on the client experience. These days the size and scale of projects he works on have gone up in correlation with the prices he charges. “In ’08 we were at that 250-350k range, our average job cost now is around $1.5 million. Our projects in Orlando are $3-5 million residential projects. The size and scale have really gotten fun.”
Watch our entire interview with Ryan Hughes at the International Pool & Spa Expo
One on One With Pool Remodeling Expert Chris Bowen
A rising star in the industry and definitely one to watch is pool remodeling expert Chris Bowen, the President of Bowen Pools in Flower Mound, TX. While already gaining the respect of his peers within the pool industry, Bowen has also been rapidly becoming a favorite with homeowners in the local Dallas / Fort Worth area.
One of the Top Pool Remodeling Firms in DFW – Bowen Pools
Recently voted Best Pool Builder (Best of Denton County 2021) – and one of the Pool Pro Mag 30 under 40, the 31-year-old has come very far and has had an almost meteoric rise to become one of the top pool remodeling firms in the Dallas area. Developing an impressive portfolio of pool construction and high-end pool remodeling projects; Bowen Pools is fast on its way towards achieving the type of notoriety that usually comes with having been in the industry for decades.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Chris Bowen and wanted to hear about how he got his start and how he’s positioning for new growth. We also wanted to get a pulse on what he sees going on in his local market and his opinion on the status of the industry down in Dallas, Texas. As one of the top pool remodeling firms in town, Bowen has unique insight as to what is going on in the industry right now in his neck of the woods.
How Chris Bowen Got His Start in The Pool Industry
With a young family and limited resources, Bowen started his pool service company back in 2017. He began with a single service account working out of the back of his family’s Honda CRV. With just a $500 seed investment he sunk into equipment, Bowen set out to conquer the DFW market.
From Nothing to Something in 5 Years – An American Success Story
Inside of as many years, Bowen had built the service side of the business up to over 250 accounts. That’s a respectable feat giving the fact that he’d been working for someone else’s pool company only five years ago. In essence, Chris started Bowen Pools virtually from nothing and has come very far in a short amount of time. It’s the type of success story that resembles many others we’ve heard. Bowen came up through service and successfully made the leap to construction.
Focusing on Pool Remodeling & New Pool Construction
This year however has been a challenging one for many. Bowen Pools clearly is no exception to the rule in terms of those impacted by rising prices. This summer, Bowen elected to make a major change in his business. He stated he intends to focus more on pool remodeling and new pool construction. “We sold the service side of our business in August of this year,” said Bowen. He told us he had been struggling with rising chemical costs all year. This summer he decided to sell that division of his company.
Dealing With Rising Costs & Unpredictable Delays
“We were definitely getting killed on the pricing side of it,” said Bowen in response to why he was motivated to sell his service company. “We’ve had shortages and price increases on everything,” said Bowen, “Hopefully when that plant down in Louisiana comes back online prices will level out.”
However, the grass doesn’t seem to be much greener on the construction side of the pool industry. In terms of rising costs, materials are at an all-time high. We asked whether he had begun to push back on previous estimates he had given, to which he replied “That’s been the hardest part. We lost quite a bit of money earlier in the year.”
Setting Expectations With Customers
Being a family man himself, Bowen says that having to tell his customers that their swimming pool or their pool remodeling project is going to cost more is something that he dreads. “We’ve had to go back to clients to renegotiate, but at the end of the day I need to put food on my family’s plate too,” said Bowen.
Pool Remodeling Expert Chris Bowen Weighs in on What’s Going on in the Industry and in DFW
In his off-hours, Bowen networks online and is peers with many different builders in the industry. He often communicates about what is going on through a private group chat they’ve established. Bowen says that one constant topic of conversation this season has been the unpredictable price increases. He says both service and construction trades have seen huge price hikes from manufacturers and distributors.
“I don’t know how if you’re in the pool business you’re not affected by all of these price increases,” said Bowen, “We’ve seen prices for materials go up 60-80%.”
What Caused Such Dramatic Price Increases
“I don’t think the Texas freeze helped matters,” said Bowen, “I believe these price increases would have occurred either way.” Referencing a storm Texas experienced in February which caused pool equipment that would have typically gone towards new construction projects to be immediately requisitioned for repair work.
Experts agree that the rush for equipment in one of America’s biggest pool markets may have contributed to hoarding. This in itself would indirectly cause pricing to go up and availability to go down throughout the summer.
Texas Pool Freeze Could Have Been Way Worse Says Bowen
“We got lucky that it wasn’t cold enough to freeze anything underground or we really would have had some back luck,” said Bowen, “but a lot of people lost their equipment this year. There are ice storms like this every other year, but never something quite like this.”
Bowen weighed in on whether winterizing pools in his part of the state would be the new norm. “There’s really not a great way to prepare. You can’t really prepare for them doing rolling blackouts when it’s freezing out. If it starts to happen you can winterize your equipment,” said Bowen, “As far as prepping everything ahead of time, unless you have everything on a generator there’s really not a lot you can do.”
Typically winter storms in that region of the country may disable power for a day or two, however, homeowners were without power for an extended period of time. This prevented people from running their pool equipment in order to keep water circulating during the freeze.
“I lost power at my house for 3 days,” said Bowen, who claims that he stayed with relatives while utilities were down. “We came back home to a busted pipe and some flooding,” said Bowen who indicated that thankfully events like last year’s aren’t a frequent occurrence.
Should Homeowners in Dallas Winterize Their Pools?
Bowen told us he doesn’t foresee a trend in the Dallas / Fort Worth area of folks winterizing their pools.
“Everybody uses their pool so much, “said Bowen, “Those pools get down to 60 degrees. A lot of people still heat them, especially early in the winter through November. People use their spas year-round down here. I don’t think it’ll be a trend to do that (winterize). Only in case of emergencies would it be necessary.”
Demand For Swimmings Pools Will Taper
While Bowen predicts that demand for swimming pools will go down over the next few years, he does not predict prices will stabilize right away. “With everything going on in the ports right now, they’re not going to have the figured out anytime soon.”
As far as pool remodeling projects go, Bowen has never been busier. “We get more calls than ever before for pool renovations, it was big last year but it’s definitely been bigger this year,” said Bowen, who indicated that he expecting the demand for pools may have crested as many predict.
“If everyone rushed out to get their backyard renovated, at some point that has to wind down. We’ll see if that happens next year or the following year, but it’s definitely going to taper off,” said Bowen.
Correlation Between New Home Construction And Pool Construction
We asked whether local real estate market conditions looked favorable in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and if Bowen noticed new homes still being built. Traditionally, there is an intrinsic correlation between new home construction and new pool construction.
“New homes are going up like crazy, it’s just that the prices are being driven very high. I don’t know how high those prices can go before people start getting priced out of them,” said Bowen. He suggested that while this may be common in other places of the country, Texans were unused to the prices homes are now selling for.
What A Cooling Housing Market Means For The Pool Industry
With a booming population, the housing market in Texas is becoming increasingly competitive. According to a Texas A&M University – housing report published September 23, 2021; despite decreasing mortgage rates and lumber prices plummeting 93.6 percent in July, instances of double-digit home-price appreciation chipped away at home affordability.
This information itself gives credence to what Bowen is forecasting about new homeowners being ‘priced out’. A recent Forbes report definitely indicates that housing market is slowing down and has begun to cool. While experts certainly don’t predict a housing market crash, first-time homebuyers could be the worst impacted by a market correction. Experts fear new home buyers could essentially see much of their equity wiped out. What this means for the pool industry is we could see demand go back down to pre-Covid levels quickly as the market recorrects. A lack of available inventory and many of the mortgage relief programs ending may contribute to this happening much faster than expected.
Bowen has eyes on the ground in the DFW market, which just so incidentally happens to be one of the strongest pool markets in the entire country. We’re definitely fortunate to have been able to spend some time chatting with him and get a pulse on what is going on in the Dallas / Fort Worth area.
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