Pool Demand Exploded in the US During Covid—Even in Chicago

When Jennifer Nichols and her husband, Lennon Jones, decided to move back to Chicago last December after a nearly two-year stint in Portland, Ore., a pool didn’t rank high on their priority list for a home. But as they looked at houses in the Old Irving Park neighborhood of the city, a seven-bed, eight-bath home with a 24-foot, above-ground pool was the surprisingly perfect fit.

“It had more appeal to me because of the pandemic,” said Ms. Nichols, a corporate attorney. “If you can’t go anywhere and do anything, at least you can feel like you did something during the summer, like swim in your own backyard.”

Ms. Nichols and Mr. Jones—who in January paid $1.1 million for their home, which has a private gym above the garage—are among a wave of families in the Midwest forgoing public pools in places like fitness centers and hotels in favor of their own private pools out back.

Short Summers Aren’t Stopping People From Buying Homes With Pools

Jennifer Nichols and Lennon Jones purchased this Chicago area home with a pool for $1.1 million.

Jennifer Nichols and her husband, Lennon Jones, with dog Frodo in their backyard

Katrina Wittkamp for The Wall Street Journal

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Jennifer Nichols and her husband, Lennon Jones, with dog Frodo in their backyard

Katrina Wittkamp for The Wall Street Journal

real estate

From aspirational residences to major commercial deals.

The explosion of private pools is a nationwide trend induced by the pandemic. Sales of new residential inground pools grew 24% overall in 2020, a historic increase, according to the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance (PHTA), the largest international trade association for the swimming pool, spa and hot tub industry.

Before 2020, private pools weren’t only relatively uncommon around Chicago, but often detracted from the overall value of homes there, says Jane Lee, a real-estate agent in Lake County, Ill. The weather, which averages above 70 degrees only three months out of the year, isn’t conducive to spending much time in an outdoor pool. It costs between $1,600 and $2,500 annually just to heat an outdoor pool with gas in Chicago, depending on your desired water temperature, according to the US Department of Energy. Before the pandemic, the cost and maintenance of outdoor pools made them a value killer.

“In past years, we were getting estimates for filling in or removing pools prior to going on the market,” said Emily McClintock, a real-estate agent with Baird & Warner on Chicago’s North Shore. Now, she says, pools are a selling point.

Homeowners with no prior experience owning a pool need to know what they are getting into, however. Basic upkeep of a pool averages between $1,200-$1,800 per year, according to digital service marketplace HomeAdvisor, part of Angi (formerly Angie’s List). Utilities and general pool repair—including fixing cracks, lining tears or broken filters, among other problems—can increase the cost to $3,000-$5,000 to keep a pool in good working condition.

Still, it is a line item more homeowners are willing to take on. Ms. Lee says pools are indeed the hottest commodity in the Chicago market right now. In April, a 3,900-square-foot home with a large in-ground pool in the northwest suburb of Long Grove hit the market on a Friday for $719,000. That weekend, it had 27 showings and 15 offers. By Monday, it was under contract for $810,000—$91,000 over asking. “People who have a pool [in Chicago] right now are able to sell faster, for more money, no question,” said Ms. Lee.

Because homes with pools are in much higher demand, Ms. Lee reminds her sellers to stage the pool area in addition to the home’s interior: think fire pits, relaxing chairs and grills. “People want to be able to picture their friends coming there for a nice, cozy night,” she said. Companies such as StagingSet are helping sellers without pools show potential buyers what the backyard could look like with one, offering virtual staging of pools and landscaping. After receiving photos of the home and yard, StagingSet digital designers use software including Autodesk 3ds Max and Adobe Photoshop to do virtual staging and renovations. These digital pools are fully accessorized, too, to enhance appeal. “We have a library of thousands of items from bushes to pillows,” said Will Powers, managing director for StagingSet.

The demand for new pool installations around Chicago is also through the roof. According to PHTA, new residential pool construction in the greater Chicago region was up 15.6% in 2020 compared with 2019. Among other US cities experiencing the most increase in demand, Chicago ranked seventh overall and second among cold-weather destinations (behind New York City ). Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools & Spas, a high-end pool builder in the southwest Chicago suburb of Orland Park and Midwest chapter president of PHTA, says inquiries are the highest he’s seen in his 34 years in the industry. Pools built by his company range anywhere from $90,000 for a vinyl pool to $250,000 for a type of concrete pool called shotcrete; they have also done pools exceeding $500,000.

In the Chicago market, homeowners typically open their pools in mid-April and close them up in late October, says Mr. Lenz, whose company offers services for opening and winterizing pools, as well as maintenance and repairs. These services, combined with chemical and general routine maintenance costs, can add up to $6,000 or more a year for homeowners, he adds.

If you want your own pool, you’ll have to be patient: A typical lead time for a new pool in Chicagoland pre-pandemic was four to six months in season (summer) or three to four months out of season, says Mr. Lenz. Now, it is 12 to 18 months or more. “Most builders are now booked well into 2022 and many booking into 2023,” he added.

Since Matt and Mishel Schultz moved into their new home in South Barrington, Ill., in August 2020, they have wrestled with the maintenance challenges of owning a pool. VIDEO: Katrina Wittkamp for The Wall Street Journal

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In addition to long waiting times, more problems have arisen as a result of the demand. Chicago home builders and landscaping companies have jumped into pool building without proper training or qualifications, says Mr. Lenz, leading to pools that are poorly built or that don’t function correctly. New homeowners looking to repair existing pools have had trouble finding qualified companies to bring them back to good working condition, too.

Chicago financial adviser Matt Schultz, his wife, Mishel, and their two children were planning to move to Tampa, Fla., for its warmer weather when the pandemic hit. Instead, they bought a $1.175 million home in South Barrington, Ill., attracted to its well-kept condition along with the backyard pool and connected hot tub. They moved in August 2020. Unfortunately for the Schultz family, the pool hasn’t been as usable as they had hoped. Its aggregate finish of tiny pebbles and stones had worn down so much it was dangerous. “We would have kids over last year and they’d come in crying because their hands and feet were bleeding,” said Mr. Schultz. Finding someone to fix the pool, which required a technique called diamond sanding, was “next to impossible,” he added. “It’s been a huge pain.” At a backyard party in July, the pool was still not functioning correctly, with the water temperature stuck at 100 degrees—“not very refreshing,” Mr. Schultz added.

Making a Splash With Home Buyers

The pool inside this Wisconsin home was a selling point for Katie Michalski and Tony Breitbach.

Maya Breitbach, 6, daughter of Katie Michalski and Tony Breitbach, jumps into the family’s indoor pool.

Clayton Hauck for The Wall Street Journal

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Maya Breitbach, 6, daughter of Katie Michalski and Tony Breitbach, jumps into the family’s indoor pool.

Clayton Hauck for The Wall Street Journal

The competitive market has led some Chicagoans to head outside the city to obtain their dream homes with pools. Tony Breitbach, a chiropractor in Evanston, north of downtown, got an itch to move to a farm last spring. He and his wife, Katie Michalski, and 6-year-old daughter visited a 175-acre property in the countryside near Potosi, Wis.—about a 3-hour drive from Chicago—and were sold. They paid $2.45 million for the land , which included an 8,000-square-foot home with an indoor pool rivaling one you would find in a hotel, plus a bunkhouse. The pool is in a window-filled room with 40-foot ceilings and has a connected hot tub. “The pool was one of the big selling points for us. It really made the house one you can use in all seasons,” said Mr. Breitbach.

Though the family still lives full time in Evanston, they are currently putting $750,000 into renovating the Potosi home as a weekend getaway for their family and friends. “Because the pool is indoors, we can use it in the winter as well. That was a big driver for us,” Mr. Breitbach said. “If you would have told me I would own a farm with a pool pre-pandemic, I would say that’s never going to happen.”

The pool was one of the big selling points for Tony Breitbach and his wife, Katie Michalski, when they bought their 175-acre property in Potosi, Wis., about a 3-hour drive from Chicago. VIDEO: CLAYTON HAUCK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ms. Lee says she anticipates that pools will continue to be a big hit around Chicago and that is good news for sellers. In the Midwest, the value-add of a backyard swimming pool is now $15,078. That is a 98% increase in the value of a pool adds to a home in this region compared with its value before Covid, even in a four-season climate, according to a spring 2021 report by real-estate technology company HomeLight.

Buyers may have to spend more, wait longer and work harder to get their perfect pools, but for families like Mr. Schultz’s, it’s all worth it. “Once we figure out how to own a pool, it will be amazing,” he said. “My kids enjoy it, and it’s good, non-TV family stuff. It just takes some work.”

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Mike Hunter

Mike is the owner of the local pool shop. He's been in the business for over 20 years and knows everything there is to know about pools. He's always happy to help his customers with whatever they need, whether it's advice on pool maintenance or choosing the right chemicals. He's also a bit of a pool expert, and is always happy to share his knowledge with anyone who's interested.

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