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Becoming a Pool Builder, A Freshman Pool Companies Perspective

Read how one group of new pool builders dealt with starting a pool construction firm during the pandemic.

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Becoming a Pool Builder, A Freshman Pool Companies Perspective

One year after starting a new pool construction company, freshman Austin pool builders Lakeside Custom Pools have learned one of the most vital lessons about building pools. That lesson is, under-promise and over-deliver. Having decided to open a new pool company during one of the most difficult times in recent memory, we wanted to get their perspective about what the challenges have been like becoming a pool builder during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Friends Join Up to Form Their Own Pool Company

The company consisting of Ryan & Lauren Gunhouse and their friend and partner Kelly Peel, have been operating in the Austin, TX market since early 2021. The three had decided to start a pool construction company servicing their local area of Bee Cave, Texas at the start of the Covid-19 and have been building pools all through the pandemic.

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“We all came from different pool companies and met at another pool company,” said Construction Manager – Kelly Peel, “we saw some imperfections. The pool industry here in Austin kind of gets a bad wrap. It starts with consumer trust or lack thereof. We wanted to deliver a high-quality product in a timely manner and decided that if we can’t do it where we were at, we would do a better job on our own.”

Pool builders across the nation have been experiencing logistical delays getting product. There have also been manufacturing shortages and price increases on virtually everything needed to build and maintain a pool. For many, keeping customers satisfied during this time has been a challenge. Thousands of pool builders saw their profit margins take a big hit with the recent price increases, especially those who fix cost their pricing.

Observations From a New Pool Builder

For being a brand new builder in a busy market while facing all of these uncertainties, the waters have been pretty calm over at Lakeside Custom Pools. The company has been actively engaging with customers to make them aware of what has been going on and says disruption has been nominal. “To be honest, it’s been kind of smooth,” said Peel, “I’m a firm believer that if a pool builder tells the customer that Covid-19 was the reason why their project was delayed, then that builder may need to check their moral compass.”

Inground Pool Builders - Lakeside Custom Pools are making a reputation as a freshman pool company to watch in Austin, TX.
Inground Pool Builders – Lakeside Custom Pools are making a reputation as a freshman pool company to watch in Austin, TX.

“We say that because building a pool the right way and doing it efficiently really boils down to scheduling, planning, and communication,” said Gunhouse, “what we’ve done to get ahead of the 8 ball is get things lined up before we ever start so that the project runs smooth. This means getting pool equipment. We had the opportunity to invest in ourselves and buy a bunch of equipment early on so that by the time we needed it we had it.”

On Selling Past Capacity To Build

One of the most important factors Kelly Peel credits with their initial success in the Austin market is to cap the number of sales they make and not exceed their capacity to build. “Most important is not biting off more than we could chew and taking on more projects than we can complete at one time,” said Peel.

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Good communication is essential to being a top pool builder. Photo Credit: Lakeside Custom Pools
Good communication is essential to being a top pool builder. Photo Credit: Lakeside Custom Pools

Setting customer expectations is vital to the success of builders moving forward into what appears to be a repeat of 2020 and 2021 in terms of demand. How builders approach communicating with homeowners this summer could definitely affect future growth. Seeing that many pool sales are made through referral, under-promising and over-delivering appears to be the strategy to rely on when communicating with customers. This includes telling hard truths about how long a swimming pool will take to build and pricing a pool accurately.

Average Build Time for Pool Construction is Increasing

“Right now our average build time, and keep in mind every project is different in the scope and scale, but our average build time is 12-13 weeks,” said Peel. “Investing in our customers is what we’re doing by buying a lot of this equipment on the front-end. This way there are no slow-downs or delays during the construction process as we approach the finish line with the project.”

One thing builders have learned through the years is that you can build a great-looking pool and still wind up disappointing the customer. There is an old saying ‘Perception is Reality’. The client experience has as much importance as the end product. Even more so when equating that to future referrals. How the customer felt about the pool building process and their builder will definitely correlate to them being brand ambassadors for that builder. Conversely, if the experience was a negative one, that builder can almost assuredly factor that customer experience costing them some business down the road.

How Pool Builders Are Creating Better Client Experiences

Paramount to creating that client experience is good communication and accountability. “It takes some builders a little time to get through permitting, or the communication may be off,” said Ryan Gunhouse, “It’s really about getting back to people in a timely manner and holding yourself accountable. Once you say you’re going to do something, hold yourself to that. We definitely pride ourselves on how fast we get things started. There’s good communication through every single phase. The build process is going smooth as long as we’re communicating well and setting expectations.”

Project management can be a daunting process for some pool builders but is a key ingredient.
Project management can be a daunting process for some pool builders but is a key ingredient.

Having hands-on visibility of all project phases means a better end product for the client. During the height of pool building season, ensuring that the process is running flawless means designing and permitting pools, scheduling construction phases, and overseeing proper execution at all job sites. It’s can be a daunting process for some builders who have to be a ‘Jack of all Trades’ out in the field. It’s a process that the team at Lakeside Custom Pools splits up so that they can divide and conquer their pool build schedule.

“Ryan gets the designs and all of the sales done. Lauren handles all of the permitting which is very difficult in the Austin market,” said Peel, “oftentimes I tell her to stop permitting so fast because then it transitions over to me and I handle construction. We’ve got three owners who are all OCD and perfectionists,” said Peel, “we all care a lot. Our names on everything and having each of us have a hand in it, there’s not many pool companies can say that to where they are dealing with the owners at every stage in the build process.”

Pricing a Pool During The Pandemic

“The typical price point of a pool last year is nowhere where it is today, a lot of that is Covid demand and people being backed up,” said Gunhouse, “what’s happening is there are so many people in the market looking for a pool. It’s also a hot real estate market, especially here in Austin, TX it’s been insane. Our phones are blowing up daily. The way that we’re keeping up with all of this influx of leads and referrals is to effectively communicate why the price is what it’s going to be. It’s really kind of helping us kind of balance out the amount of volume that we’re getting with the people that are actually able to build at the moment. Allowing those customers to prequalify themselves is helping us keep up.”

As the Austin market heats up for inground pools, builders are managing demand and working at capacity.
As the Austin market heats up for inground pools, builders are managing demand and working at capacity.

With a large influx of new homeowners in Austin coming from the California market, there has been even more demand for inground pools. This wave of migration to Texas is helping create a white-hot market for pool construction services. Consequently, it’s also been a similar case in regions like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Keeping up with that spike in consumer interest while being a builder that keeps their word, will ensure longevity for continued interest long after the pandemic has come and gone.

The advice from freshman pool company, Lakeside Custom Pools is sound. Keeping promises, going above and beyond to over-deliver, and setting proper client expectations throughout the process with good communication being the key ingredients. Applying that type of mentality is essential for pool builders to form long-standing ties with the communities they intend to serve.

Listen to our entire interview with Lakeside Custom Pools on the Pool Magazine Podcast

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Editor in Chief of Pool Magazine - Joe Trusty is also CEO of PoolMarketing.com, the leading digital agency for the pool industry. An internet entrepreneur, software developer, author, and marketing professional with a long history in the pool industry. Joe oversees the writing and creative staff at Pool Magazine. To contact Joe Trusty email info@poolmagazine.com or call (916) 467-9118 during normal business hours. For submissions, please send your message to submissions@poolmagazine.com

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Pool Design Trends With Kelly O’Leary

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Pool Design Trends With Kelly O'Leary

As we move well into the 2020’s era of outdoor living design, customers value a more modern design aesthetic in the backyard. Pool design trends are changing rapidly. Homeowners put a premium on a well-designed and contemporary outdoor living area. Moreover, they’re looking for ways to be able to utilize the backyard as a multi-purpose space for entertaining.

To speak more on the subject of what today’s homeowners want, we reached out to up-and-coming custom pool builder Kelly O’Leary of OLeary Pools & Design in Houston, TX. In a very traditional market known for freeform lagoon-style pools, O’Leary says that today’s homeowners in Houston are looking for something else. Consequently, he’s noticed a trend emerging as a growing number of homeowners have begun looking for designs that complement the aesthetic of their modern home and lifestyle.

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Pool Design Trends Shifting Away From Freeform Pools

“We’re shifting away from those traditional kidney bean-shaped pools with rock grotto waterfalls that have been more predominant in this area. Those are just done over and over again,” said O’Leary, who is working with clients willing to push the envelope.

Contemporary and sophisticated pool & outdoor living area - OLeary Pools & Design
Contemporary and sophisticated pool & outdoor living area – OLeary Pools & Design

“We started to really get clients that were more accepting of contemporary designs and things they haven’t seen before and it began to evolve,” said O’Leary, “you’ve seen it in a lot of the industry. Social media is helping propel that. We see things now at the speed of light. The design changes and trends shift really quick.”

Furthermore, he suggested that professionals monitor places like Instagram and Pinterest in order to stay in touch with modern design trends. “If we’re not always thinking about what’s next and what’s new we’ll get stuck in a rut repeating the same design and have various clients with the same exact pool.”

Some of the more modern and contemporary pool designs featuring infinity edges with weir walls simply aren’t found very often in Houston. The topography of the city itself is very flat so builders look for other creative ways to incorporate sophisticated elements into their designs.

Modern touches like perimeter overflows and raised infinity edges make the pool appear like a sheet of glass. It’s those types of contemporary aesthetics that are a 180-degree approach from the predominantly lagoon-style pools found in many high-end homes throughout Houston.

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Many of the contemporary design aesthetics featuring modern shaped geometry can already be found throughout California and Florida. That these pool design trends have been slow to catch on in places like Houston is something that has begun to change says O’Leary.

“It’s been a learning curve to be able to push new things. Over the past few years, we still have clients that say ‘we love that but not for this market’ or ‘that’s beautiful but may not be right for Houston’.

Austin is a good example, there are some great landscape architectural firms and pool builders there doing really modern things. The architecture of the homes there is very modern and we’re beginning to see that start to bleed into our market here in Houston.”

Modern pool designs are becoming more popular in Houston, TX - OLeary Pools & Design
Modern pool designs are becoming more popular in Houston, TX – OLeary Pools & Design

“Introducing that to this market is a double-edged sword though,” said O’Leary. Much of the architecture in Houston leans toward more traditional Farmhouse, Ranch, Tudor, and Craftsman-style homes. Consequently, finding modern design trends that best suit those style homes and backyards can present a challenge. This is particularly true with homeowners looking to incorporate elements that don’t necessarily suit their outdoor living environment.

“We come across that in the design sometimes, all the details and materials are thought through. Then they begin to change and add things. Once all of their design changes are made it can begin to resemble the yard from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘,” said O’Leary, who told us a story of run-away change orders during the materials selections phase of pool construction. This contributed to a customer submarining their own design with superfluous elements that detracted away from the intended design.

It is something O’Leary has learned how to avoid from happening. Preselecting and limiting the available options on the menu gives clients less to consider. Given too many design choices, customers can easily mix and match elements that don’t necessarily cohesively gel together.

Pool Design Trends With Kell O'Leary - OLeary Pools & Design
Pool Design Trends With Kell O’Leary – OLeary Pools & Design

Introducing modern and contemporary themes seems a question of striking the right balance. Still, O’Leary has become adept at designing backyards that are bringing in contemporary elements that still find a congruent harmony in Houston’s more traditional-style homes.

Drawing inspiration from other designers and well-known landscape architects has continuously helped O’Leary up the bar in terms of the backyards he is building. Collaborating with elites like Randy Angell seems to be the next evolution in the up-and-comers path.

“Being able to work with him is very exciting because he’s one of the best at what he does,” said O’Leary, “it’s quite a bit different because we don’t typically get large master plan projects on that scale.”

Although he envisions more collaborations such as that in the future, Kelly O’Leary is still making a name for himself in a market inundated with high-end pool builders. He has begun to distinguish himself by working with high-end materials and larger custom luxury pool projects.

Pool & Spa Trends - Modern Pool & Spa Design by Kell O'Leary
Pool & Spa Trends – Modern Pool & Spa Design by Kell O’Leary

Stepping outside his comfort zone and taking on more custom work is also helping distinguish him in the eyes of his peers in the industry. On a recent project that caught our eye, he brought in Mosaicist, Ray Corral to design and install a glass mosaic tile interior finish. Certainly, his work has begun to hit the stride most builders take decades to achieve. It’s making Kelly O’Leary one to watch.

Listen to our entire conversation about Pool Design Trends with Kelly O’Leary on the Pool Magazine Podcast.

Photo Credit: Jimi Smith Photography
Pool Builder: OLeary Pools & Design

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The Next Generation of Rising Stars in San Antonio

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The Next Generation of Rising Stars in San Antonio - Element Pool Company

There are a few rising stars in the pool industry that are definitely setting a name for themselves. One powerhouse couple that stands out and is establishing themselves as the next generation of elite pool builders in San Antonio, is JC and Daniella Rodriguez.

The couple recently appeared together in Pool Pro Magazine’s 30 Under Forty issue with JC Rodriguez being featured on the cover. Their new pool construction firm Element Pool Company has been creating a reputation in their local market for designing beautiful outdoor living environments and exquisitely crafted inground swimming pools.

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Recently featured on the cover of PoolPro’s 30 Under Forty Issue – JC Rodriguez of Element Pool Company in San Antonio

“It was a surprise to be chosen for the 30 Under Forty, we both made it and in fact, Dani was recognized as ‘Rookie of the Year’,” said JC Rodriguez. “I laughed out loud when I heard I won and said ‘no way you’re kidding me’,” said Daniella Rodriguez, who said she couldn’t believe it when she heard the news. “Sure enough, I opened up the magazine, and there I was. It was a real honor,” said Rodriguez.

This type of acclaim is helping establish a footprint for the new firm in a crowded market inundated with pool construction companies. The recognition that Daniella Rodriguez received is an equally encouraging sign that signifies women have begun to claim their rightful place in a largely predominantly male industry. Alluding to this, she agreed, “We have to make elbow room in the industry in order to make a name for ourselves, so I was really happy to step up to the plate for all of us,” said Rodriguez.

Pool Pro 30 Under Forty - Rookie of the Year - Daniella Rodriguez
PoolPro ‘Rookie of the Year’ – Daniella Rodriguez

Rising Stars Make a Dynamic Husband & Wife Team

It’s exceptionally rare to find a couple working together in the field of pool construction. In this regard, Element Pool Company is something of a rarity. The pairing of their skillsets appears to provide a well-nuanced balance that customers in their market seem to greatly appreciate.

At the first point of contact, Daniella often leads off the conversation with customers. “Dani navigates them and helps provide some of the introductory information. We let them know that we’re a little more custom than your drop-in fiberglass pools or cookie cutter concrete swimming pools,” said JC Rodriguez.

Approaching Things Differently

“It’s such a large market in San Antonio and there is so much competition,” said Rodriguez. “A lot of the top builders in the United States are in this area. Huge companies that build hundreds of pools a year. We wanted to make a name for ourselves and realized that a lot of that came from the relationships we’re building with the customer. We saw that we could distinguish ourselves in this regard versus making it a one-off project. Establishing that long-term relationship with the client is what our company is based on.”

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Turning Customers Into Brand Ambassadors

It’s this novel approach toward client acquisition that sets Element Pool Company apart in some regard. Establishing that type of strong referral-based business is a strategy that appears to be working for the couple.

For many consumers, a swimming pool may be the single most expensive thing they purchase for their home. For some, it’s the culmination of a dream they may have had for decades. Pool ownership is the realization of a goal for many and a life-affirming purchase. This is why the experience holds as much importance as the end result itself, in terms of converting customers into brand ambassadors.

“We’re definitely cognizant of the fact that this is a major purchase for homeowners,” said JC Rodriguez, “one of the things I tell our customers is that we’re not going to do just one design and say ‘hey that’s the pool we want to build you, take it or leave it.'”

Changing The ‘Order-Taking’ Mentality

In this high-volume environment, many pool companies have resorted to an ‘order taking’ mentality as they try to keep up with demand. This is a practice that Rodriguez says he is desperately trying not to adopt. “During the height of the pandemic there were a lot of companies out here that were just giving over the phone quotes and virtual estimates. To us it never made sense because you don’t understand the necessities of that backyard,” explained Rodriguez.

“Even through the pandemic we were always interested in getting into the backyard,” said Rodriguez, “If the client stayed in the home, we were on the phone with them the entire time while we were back there.

“Our goal is to always understand what the house and backyard are calling for, as well as what the customers are looking for,” Rodriguez explained that it’s much easier to get a true sense of that customers lifestyle and accurately bid a project rather than trying to supply a virtual estimate.

“A lot of customers have been dreaming about building a pool for a long time,” said Rodriguez, “We want to make sure we get it right. Ultimately, they will be living with it long after we’re gone from the backyard. We’ll make a hundred different design changes if we need to. This way, we’re getting the right design at the right budget. The goal is that when they walk outside they’re ecstatic about their backyard.”

Educating The Customer

As the prices for swimming pools continue to rise, one of the biggest challenges Rodriguez says he faces is educating consumers on what swimming pools really cost these days. “I wish we could still build pools for the same price we were building them a few years ago. Your average pool in the San Antonio market is going to be around 15 feet wide by 30 feet long. These days, for a basic swimming pool without any extra bells or whistles, you’re going to be starting at around the $60,000 range and going up from there.”

One of the pools they built that caught our eye certainly isn’t in the bottom of that price range. This pool features an expansive travertine deck, a spa, premium pebble tec interior, ledge loungers (Signature Collection), and exciting fire bowls with sheer descents by USA Fire Bowls.

A separate conversation area at a lower elevation with it’s own smartly appointed fire table was another great feature. These are all subtle nuances that add to the overall experience. Aside from the basic cost of pool construction, all these factors add to the total price of the project and that’s before ever getting to what’s actually in the pool itself.

When discussing some of the higher echelon features that homeowners are looking for in their pool such as LED lighting, pool automation, and dramatic fire features, “homeowners can easily price themselves into the $400,000 range and up”, said Rodriguez.

Quality pool builders can definitely justify the asking price. During the pandemic, homeowners made it clear they were willing to pay top-dollar for a backyard that truly delivers the experience they are dreaming of.

Providing a premium product combined with a great customer experience is what consumers want. With projects like this one, Element Pool Company appears to be delivering just that. This young but talented pool firm is definitely on our radar now and one to watch in the upcoming years.

Listen to our discussion with Element Pool Company on the Pool Magazine podcast.

Additional Photo Credit: PoolPro

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Financing a Pool & Outdoor Home Improvement Projects

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Financing a Pool & Outdoor Home Improvements

Pool builders often wonder what the best way to originate and answer questions when a buyer is interested in financing their swimming pool and other outdoor home improvement projects. The answer to this question is always a little more complicated than it seems.

You Should Pitch Financing, To A Point

On one hand, you as the builder want to be as knowledgeable and helpful as possible.  Also, it can be advantageous to quote a low monthly payment rather than a high project cost.  On the other hand, you don’t want to give out incorrect information or be perceived as giving a “bait and switch” offer.  It’s a very similar situation to what companies who offer swimming pool financing deal with daily from borrowers with questions about pools.

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The Financing Conversation – Dos and Don’ts

It’s common for people seeking financing to ask about average prices or whether the project seems too expensive, etc.  Greg Powell, President of Viking Capital, has worked with pool builders for over 25 years and explained why the only answer to questions along that line is “you should discuss that with your builder”. 

 â€śThe reason we take this position is to make sure we don’t muddy the waters or give out incorrect information that makes the builder’s job selling the project more difficult. The same applies on the builder’s end when buyers want to know rates, terms, and payments. These questions are truly impossible to answer correctly without having their credit report in your hands and full knowledge of underwriting.”  

Pool Builder Financing Partners – Viking Capital

Estimating Loan Terms & Payments Can Backfire

We live in a world today where everyone believes that they know “my credit score”. They see it on apps, on credit card statements and more. The problem is, that individuals have A LOT of credit scores. There are three major reports, but each has several versions. The scores can vary by 100 points or more depending on which report the lender is using. Also, some loan programs allow for co-borrowers and co-signers which may enable borrowers to have more and better loan options. 

This conversation about financing can be very awkward for a builder and it could make matters worse. The worst thing is to assume their score is what they say, guess at a rate and term, and take a stab at a payment. When that borrower then applies for financing, they have a pre-set idea of what rate and payment they are looking at. When credit comes back and it’s not a 780, but rather a 724, that borrower is in for a shock. It would be just like us telling borrowers that an average pool is 50-75k. It’s such a wild guess that it’s better not being mentioned.

Leverage Your Financing Partner

Viking Capital offers builders a quick and reliable alternative to offer their customers.  When customers apply with us they are contacted by a loan consultant within a few hours for a free loan consultation. It won’t hurt their credit and there is no obligation to move forward.  During this consultation, they are given pool loan options specific to their needs and qualifications.  Yes, they’ve waited a day or so, but the loan options they got are accurate and exact. The guesswork has been removed from the equation and the customer will be ready to meet with their builder with a confirmed budget.

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