What Do You Get With A Low Bid Pool Contractor?
Let's assume you need to hire a pool contractor for either a new pool installation or a major repair or renovation. You contacted a few local companies, some of which got back to you, and you received a few estimates. One of the estimates that you received is much lower in price than the others. You are aware that straight away this is a red flag however you met with the contractor, and he seemed to know what he was talking about. Plus, you really would like to spend less money if this is a viable option...so is it? Why is this one price so much lower than the others? Is it OK to go with the cheap quote sometimes even though the conventional wisdom is to disregard any disproportionately low estimates?
How can one estimate be so much cheaper than others for the same scope of work? If a pool contractor is giving you a quote that is much lower than all of the other estimates you have received then this is more than a red flag. This is a giant, bat-signal like beacon. I can think of few things in life that would be a worse risk than going with an excessively low pool bid. The reason why is due to the highly technical nature of a swimming pool installation coupled with the fact that everything gets buried so you never actually get to see how it all goes together, save for a few days during the actual installation. Trust me when I say there are a lot of ways that someone can put a few dollars back into their pocket by building a slightly inferior product. In most cases this is actually not even a malicious act...simply someone operating with only the minimum trade knowledge or experience, or possibly no experience at all, who just does not understand how to do it properly. This happens more often than you would possibly believe in the pool industry.
Before you proceed with any estimates - If you have received a low bid for your swimming pool project then before you can make any decisions you must seek out at least two more additional bids. Initially when you have a large pool project you should set out to receive three competing estimates. If one of those three is suspiciously low, then you must seek out at least two more competing bids. This will give you a total of five bids with which to compare prices. I know this will take a lot of work on your part as pool companies are notorious for being difficult to reach and meet with during the busy pool season. Still, this is the due diligence stage of your pool project. With one low bid you must seek out two additional bids to be certain that you have an accurate representation of the local market. It is not uncommon to see pool companies bidding high on projects once they are busy. If a customer bites then they will make room in their schedule for a premium job. By getting five quotes you will be certain that the low bid was low, or the other bids were high. You must be able to answer this question in order to make an informed decision on your pool project.
How Can One Price Be So Much Lower?
Most of the time the price can not be so much lower. Either the scope of the work was not defined well, or misunderstood, or the products that are being sold are not comparable. This is where things get really tough for pool owners and prospective pool owners. You asked for a quote on a pool job, and you got one. So how much different could it be? To answer this question requires an understanding of technical process. Every aspect of construction revolves around defined technical processes. For example there are National code regulations for how to do just about every technical thing you can image from installing electrical wiring to plumbing in a new sink and drain. In every case there are established standards to which you can compare your specific installation. In the world of swimming pools this does not exist, or only barely exists as of yet.
How many different ways can you build a pool? To put this in perspective I think a better way to look at this would be to say are any two pools built the same? For someone unfamiliar with pool building I always use the comparison of a car to explain the technical nature of the situation. Imagine if you would, that there were zero regulations for building and selling cars. No government safety checks, no minimum standards of quality, longevity, fuel economy, or even technical process. Some cars would come with lights and signals, mirrors and windows and others would include none of these things. Some cars would be made from stainless steel, some from aluminum, some from tin and probably even one or two made mostly out of wood. Imagine in this crazy scenario how difficult it would be to find and buy a good quality car for a fair price. It would be nearly impossible unless you are a mechanic yourself and pour over the technical aspects of what they are building and what you are buying. If you had to buy a car from some random person who says he can build a car...would you choose one that was drastically less expensive than all the other estimates that you received? How many ways could one car be less technically sound than another. A million? A billion? A brazillion?
Permits - The pool build starts with permits. Does your estimate include the permits or is the contractor expecting that you are going to be taking care of that for them? Are permits even required for the type of work you are having done? Many pool builders like to fly under the radar so to speak and will install pools without any permits. Be sure to look into whether you should have a permit, and if you need one who is going to get it. Also who is responsible for checking with your utilities to make sure it is safe to dig in your backyard?
Engineering - Does your pool project come with any engineering plans or site inspections? What about soil testing to make sure that your pool is going to be built on stable and uniform ground? Almost all residential pools will not include engineering. This is crazy to me. I did a lot of commercial pool installations and I was used to working with the engineers, and the companies that I had trained with all used engineers for each pool build, so to me engineering for residential pool installation is normal. As a contractor this would usually cost between $1000 and $1500 and would include either one or two site inspections so the engineer could sign off that the pool was being built according to the designed plans. Perhaps this is overkill for an entry level vinyl pool installation, but for any kind of concrete pool installation I would insist on having a swimming pool engineer design, inspect and sign off on the project. If you have a low bid you can pretty much count on that it does not include any engineered drawings or specifications. You are then completely relying on the competency and integrity of your builder.
The dig - Breaking ground on a new pool installation is an apt way to describe the scene. This usually involves tearing out fences, trees, bushes, grass and generally making a mess of the place. It also includes digging up thousands of pounds of dirt in your yard. So who is going to put the fence back up? Is someone going to replace all the grass that is killed or fix the goat paths from workers running wheel barrows into your yard? What about temporary safety fencing? This should be required by law in all areas to restrict access to the giant, dangerous hole in your backyard during the construction phase. Make sure it is included. If you have a low bid it may not include taking away the dirt that they dig up. This usually costs a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Some pool contractors will dig up your yard and build a giant pile with the dirt which is now your problem. You need to know if the dig includes removal of the fill that they remove. The dig for a new pool can cost $5000 depending on where you live and a low bid contractor may try to save this money for themselves by renting and digging themselves. Experienced machine operators are hard to come by, and expensive, and worth every penny when digging a pool.
All of these questions need to be answered in order to compare products and prices...and all of this is before any part of the pool actually gets purchased or installed. This is all just leading up to having a giant hole in the ground in your backyard. Once the pool starts to be built you will really find the gap of technical differences really start to open up. There are a lot of ways to "build a pool" that will all result in something that looks more or less the same...kinda. Behind the scenes the two "new pools" could be as different as night and day. Consider this example of the technical differences for a new concrete pool installation:
Technical Comparison For Concrete Pools
In order to help you understand the complex technical nature of a concrete pool installation consider this list of questions that I would need to know in order to make an informed decision. As a concrete pool builder obviously I have special insight into what to ask that the average pool owner would not. Even if you had the answers to all of these questions you would not necessarily know how to interpret the answers. This is more to help you to understand just how many ways your low bid estimate might be for less than you are expecting.
Concrete Pools - For a concrete pool you would want to know the thickness of the concrete walls and floor. Does the wall have a bond beam? How thick is the concrete in this location? What gauge of steel was used? What was the grid spacing and tying pattern? Was there insulation installed on the backside of the wall forms for increased thermal efficiency? Was the plumbing installed inside the concrete or outside the structure? Rigid PVC schedule 20, 40 or 80? Or was flex PVC hose used? Poly pipe with barb and clamp fittings? Was the pool pressure tested before pouring the concrete shell? How was it tested, to what pressure and for how long? Was it pressure tested again after the concrete pour? What is the strength of the concrete mix ordered? Was the concrete cured properly with daily hydration? For how long was the concrete cured before proceeding with tile and the interior surface? What kind of equipment is being used? Pump, filter, heater, make and model number for each. How many skimmers and returns are being installed? Same with the lights in the pool. What about the tiles? Is the tile band 8", 10" or 12" wide? Are the tiles ceramic, porcelain or glass? Do you have much color or size selection or will you need to pay extra for tiles you like? Will the steps and edges have nosing tiles? Will these be non-slip? Will they be bull nose tiles on the step edge or will they just be regular tiles set back a few inches from the edge with rounded plaster edges to the step? Will there be a bonding coat installed on the pool shell before the interior surface? What is the interior surface being used? What is the warranty on the interior surface? How about the tiles? Does the pool shell have a long warranty against structural failures?
To be honest, as much as that sounds like a lot of stuff it really is not. This is just the very first things to pop into my mind if I were to consider a new concrete pool installation on my property. It is very unlikely that the quotes that you received will stipulate these items, and certainly the low bid will not specify how they intend to deliver on the installation of your pool. With a low bid you can count on many corners being cut on your installation, at least when compared to more expensive bids. Material selection and quality accounts for some of the price difference between low to high bids however the real cost savings (for the contractor) is in the labor component.
How Labor Costs Affect Low Pool Bids
One of the most common ways that you can arrive with a low bid on your pool project is for the contractor to estimate based on the time it will take them to build the pool or finish the project. This situation can be summarized with one of my all time favorite quotes:
If you don't do things properly they don't take as long
My favorite example of this would most likely be with pressure testing for swimming pools. This is one of those processes that varies wildly from one company to another. It is not simply good enough to ask about pressure testing and if they do it. You need to dig into the technical process that they use to determine an apples to apples comparison between quotes. Pressure testing is a deep subject and one that I have written about previously. If you want to learn more about how different pressure tests are conducted, as well as learn the established plumbing industry standards then read this article on how to pressure test a pool.
There is a huge technical discrepancy between how pool builders pressure test a pool system and what the plumbing industry as a whole considers to be a pressure test. Most pool companies that I have worked with do very little to no pressure testing, and those that did pressure test would only do so for perhaps a few minutes per pipe at low pressure before declaring the pressure test to be good. A low bid pool contractor is not factoring any time for pressure testing. They will plan to conduct the pressure test for a few minutes one day and so the time spent on it is negligible. In my experience I would require pressure testing to be completed at two stages of the pool build. One right after the plumbing installation and one right before the deck is installed around the finished pool. I would expect to see a minimum of 12 hours with the system charged under pressures greater than the maximum system operating pressure of 30 PSI. I would also expect to be able to view the pressure test results myself and then sign off on witnessing no drop in pressure over an extended period of time, 24 hours ideally.
With this much time being spent devoted to pressure testing and closing the job site while the system is charged, there needs to be some cost to the pool owner from the contractor. If a pressure test is not being billed for at least eight working hours then you are very likely receiving an inadequate pressure test. So one contractor charges a few hundred to a thousand or more for a pressure test, while another only pressurizes the system for a few minutes, if at all. This is the origin of low bid pool estimates. By the time you break down a new pool installation into all of the integral components: digging, grading, plumbing, electrical, steel work, concrete, mechanical installation, testing, inspections...there are ample ways for the labor cost to vary from one contractor to another.
Without an industry standard to dictate how all pools are to be built, you are completely relying on the skill and experience of your installer, as well as their competency over a vast array of technical trades and skills. Truly, to be a skilled pool builder, you need to have near master level skills in multiple trade disciplines. This is uncommon even amongst skilled trades workers to have multiple trade skills. Pool builders need to have that, at least the good ones, and if you have a low bid estimate for your project you can bet they are not as skilled as the other, higher bids. Once you have advanced skill in multiple trades you simply do not give your work away for cheap any longer. Taking a chance on a less skilled trades person to build your pool is a huge leap of faith. Have you ever tried to trowel a pool? It's really hard. The guys who trowel really well tend to know very little about advanced plumbing dynamics and flow efficiency. Finding a contractor proficient with all of these things can be tough. When you speak with a very large and very established pool builder they will consistently provide you with estimates which are on the high end in terms of pricing. This is because they have experts for each stage of the project to make sure they get good results. These experts all demand high wages, relatively speaking, and this drives up the cost of the pool to you.
What Makes One Pool More Expensive Than Another?
In the above example I explain how large and established pool companies have trade specialists for each stage of the pool build. These workers are expensive and will increase the cost of buying a new pool installation versus a guy who owns a pickup truck that says he can build you a pool. The labor costs are a big component in why established companies will be more expensive typically, but not the only component to be sure. Does the contractor have liability insurance in case there is an accident or unexpected problem during the installation? What about workers compensation for the crew that will be on your property? Building pools is dangerous work and as a property owner I would want to be sure that anyone working on my property has the minimum legal requirements in place. Would you want to become liable for an injury that happens on your property?
New service trucks cost a ton of money and do not last long due to the extreme wear and tear that pool contracting vehicles take. If you want your pool guy to not leak oil all over your driveway then this costs money. If you prefer to see workers wearing uniforms as opposed to ripped and tattered clothing, and you would prefer if your backyard was not treated as a toilet or an ashtray, well all of these things cost money as well. Larger and established companies need to buy uniforms and pay managers to train and enforce workplace policies like no smoking, or not using the customers flower garden as a toilet. Established companies will also have to spend a lot of time and money in training workers. The pool industry as a whole has a lack of skilled workers. This is the number one complaint from all busy pool companies in that where do you find skilled and experienced pool workers? Most companies build these people up in-house. But this also costs money since someone needs to take the time to interview and vet, hire and train these workers. The end result is a total pool package that simply costs more than one offered by a company who does not do any of these things. You just need to ask yourself who it is that you want to build your pool, and what is the value that you place on being comfortable and confident with the process. There are many highly skilled smaller companies out there that still charge less than the big guys due to running a small and highly efficient business, but these would still be in the minority compared to low bid estimates from people with minimal industry experience.
I suspect that the swimming pool industry is the origin of the phrase "doesn't hold water" as any mistakes at any stage of the pool build will be dead simple to spot - where did the water go? Much like buying a house or a car or any other large purchase, you can make a very strong argument for paying a higher price for a quality product versus paying the lowest possible price and taking your chances on what you get. The stakes are simply too big with swimming pools. If you have a low bid estimate for your pool project then you need to get more estimates to compare to, as well as dig into the technical description of what you are getting as much as possible. As a frame of reference, for my entire career my estimates were one of, if not the single highest price that my customers would receive. I would justify this in explicit length by breaking down the pool into technical components and time. I would show where every last hour was being billed. My price was the price to do the job properly...it is up to you what kind of pool you want to purchase. After a lifetime in the pool industry I can easily say that low bid pool project estimates are seldom to never a good idea. Consider yourself warned.
How Much Will A Low Bid Cost You In The Long Run
A poorly designed and installed filtration system will easily cost you more money in running costs over the life of the pool than if you pay more money upfront for higher quality, more efficient equipment. Right off the bat having a more efficient pool can justify the additional costs of a more established builder. If you choose the low bid pool builder for your project then what are the concerns to you, as the pool owner?
The first big concern about a low bid pool builder is that they quite possibly do not run a profitable business. It is possible that they are overlooking part, or parts, of the project which will end up costing more money than they are expecting. This lack of foresight is common in novice builders and typically they will come to you for more money once the project has started. Best of intentions aside, once the money runs out then they will stop showing up at your house whether the pool is finished or not. When you choose a low bid for your pool you risk picking a builder without an established, profitable business plan...and one that is ultimately unsustainable. Pool companies go out of business by the dozens every year, and next year there will be a dozen new pool companies in your town with a dozen new (and liability free) company names. I first saw this cycle in the 1980's in the pool industry and it continues strongly to this day. You can hire a lawyer all you want, but if the company is bankrupt and no longer in business then you will most likely receive nothing in terms of warranty for your purchase. You might not even end up with a pool. Not to be an alarmist but these things do happen and you need to do everything you can to make sure they don't happen to you.
A low bid for a pool installation would probably include a substandard plumbing system. Additionally the concrete used will be minimally thick and have minimal or no steel reinforcement. The backfill used will be cheap, or free, and not the correct material for compaction and water flow. I would expect also that the minimum amount of underlay will be used for any concrete that gets poured and there will be minimal bracing or supporting columns like sono tubes. Any one of these items, if under built for the application, can result in problems that take tens of thousands of dollars to fix. Sinking pool decks, or structural cracks in pools, or buried plumbing system leaks all can spell disaster for your pool in only a few years time. In a risk versus reward calculation the low bid estimate is off the charts in terms of risks, all to save a few dollars which you will most likely end up spending on reduced efficiency of the pool over the time that you own it. I have never understood the logic of going cheap for a swimming pool. It's like buying a discount yacht from a guy in a parking lot somewhere. It's just crazy to do and more likely to end in disaster than being a good deal.
Low Bid Estimates For Vinyl Pool Liner Replacement
Earlier in this article I gave an example of a low bid for a new concrete pool installation. This example is for a low bid for a vinyl liner replacement. If you need a new liner in your pool then you should get a couple of quotes from local contractors. If one of these bids is much lower than the others you should be immediately suspect of how, and why, this quote is cheaper. There is not a lot of margin in a new liner installation these days. I would estimate that most companies aim to make between $1000 to $2000 on a liner installation project depending on the size and complexity. So if you have two quotes for $3500 and one quote for $2500 you should be concerned. Is this person willing to install a new liner for you for a few hundred dollars or less? I would hope not though there are people out there who do that. Many of them actually have full time jobs and other careers and moonlight doing pool liner installations since they are really not all that hard to do. If you want to see an example of how a vinyl pool liner is measured and installed you can read this article about how to install a pool liner.
When you choose a low bid for a liner installation you are really counting on everything to go smoothly with the new liner. In my experience you can get away with installing a liner with little overall experience...so long as everything goes smoothly. As soon as something comes up which is not typical, these installers lack the experience to know how to handle it properly. This is how you get pools that leak from the day a new liner is installed.
Before you install a new vinyl liner in a pool the pool needs to be thoroughly inspected to make sure that certain parts are in good condition. If a repair is needed to the pool, such as the coping, the skimmer, the returns or the steps, these need to be addressed before installing a new liner. All too often I speak with pool owners who have a one year old liner but have a broken skimmer that needs to be replaced. Or cracks or leaks in their steps. Or the coping that retains the liner is stretched, cracked, broken, failing or being pulled away by a sinking pool deck. In order to fix these problems you are probably going to need another new liner. An experienced technician knows to closely inspect the pool plumbing, skimmer, lights, and steps as well as pressure testing the plumbing system before installing a new liner. Sure, this ends up costing you more money, but what you are buying is worth so much more. More times than not when you get a low bid estimate for liner replacement in your pool you are getting the minimum work, with the minimum quality. This does not even factor in that there are various grades, qualities and thicknesses for pool liners these days. A low bid for a liner, you can bet, will include the cheapest possible liner quality. There are some very low quality liners on the market these days and I would be very wary about what exactly you are getting when you buy a new liner for your pool.
When you try to save money on a pool build by choosing the lowest price estimate you open yourself to a world of risk. If you have any doubts about the quality of pool installations these days then take a look at this 50 part pool equipment installation review series that I filmed. This will give you a very good idea just how few pools out there are well designed and well installed. For more in depth information about swimming pools and hot tubs be sure to check out my swimming pool blog page which lists all of my articles in chronological order.
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