As summer approaches, you may be dreaming of floating in the pool on those scorching afternoons. There are myriad options when it comes to the type of pool you’ll install, and one of the primary factors is whether it’s cheaper to build an above ground pool or an in-ground pool.
Although there are many considerations to weigh, including the size, shape, and material makeup of the pool, it is typically significantly cheaper to build an above ground pool. Don’t make your decision without considering all the factors, however.
Setting the budget aside for a minute, think about what you want your pool to look like and how you expect it to function.
For example, if your goal is pool parties in the backyard where a dozen people can leisurely float while you man the grill, an above ground pool may not suit your needs.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a place to entertain the kids for a few summers, an above ground pool is the perfect solution.
A pool is an investment, especially if you go with an underground option. There’s no magic formula to decide whether that investment will pay you back if you sell the house.
Having a pool may be a strong selling point when matched with the right buyer. However, a pool may also disinterest many other buyers who don’t want a pool.
Your location may be a big factor in this decision. For example, if you live in Arizona or Southern California, it might be almost expected that the home comes with a pool.
In Washington, however, a pool has a lot less value and represents high costs and maintenance for the new homeowner.
Plus, it may take up essential space in the yard where homeowners would rather have room for a garden. Removing an in-ground pool is an expensive endeavor, which could be enough to make potential buyers walk away.
If you have any plans of selling in the next decade, carefully consider whether an in-ground pool will benefit you.
Land Prep Costs
Most in-ground pools are concrete. However, vinyl and fiberglass are also options. Any way you figure it, however, you’ll need a hole where you plan to put the pool. Excavation costs add up, and rise even higher as the pool gets bigger.
Of course, you can go old school with a shovel and endless time, but it’s more likely you’ll hire a team to excavate the hole. This can cost as little as $500 or as much as $5,000 or more.
The average cost of digging a hole for a swimming pool is around $3,000. Another major expense is the disposal of the fill dirt you pull out of the ground. Many people are surprised to receive a bid for $10,000 or more just to haul away the dirt.
While that’s a bundle of money, most people fail to calculate the costs of preparing the ground for an above-ground pool. At the very least, the ground will need to be leveled.
For a pool you purchase and set up, this means removing all sod from the area, flattening any slopes, bumps, and holes, and then filling the space with sand.
If your above-ground pool is larger or you plan to keep it in place for years, you’ll want to put down paver stones or pour a concrete pad for a solid foundation.
Preparing the location for an above-ground pool is much easier to tackle as a DIY project, which will save you significant amounts of money. Even if you decide to have someone pour a concrete pad, it will cost less than pouring a concrete pool.
As mentioned, if you need to hire out excavation or concrete work, costs add up quickly. Not only are you paying for the man hours, but you’re also covering the overhead of transporting trucks and large equipment to the job site.
The material you choose for your pool can also have different effects on the budget.
For an underground pool, concrete is the most expensive. It’s not surprising to have costs add up to $50,000, or even double that amount, depending on the overall design and surrounding area.
Swapping out concrete for a fiberglass pool will cost less, typically running between $30-$60k. Vinyl pools also start around $30K but typically top out around $40k.
Size of the Pool
The size of the pool is a fairly reliable indicator of total cost, at least when calculating expenses by the square foot. Obviously, a larger pool takes more shoveling time, excavating, labor, and materials.
In-ground pools run anywhere from $50-$150 per square foot, so the larger it is, the more those numbers multiply. Above-ground pools, on average, are significantly less. For a basic order in a box pool, you might pay $300 for a 12-foot pool or face total expenses of around $4,500 for a larger, long-standing option.
Shape of the Pool
The shape of the pool is also a contributing factor. For above ground pools, round pools are the least expensive. Rectangular or oval pools cost more.
When it comes to underground pools, the shape is even more important when considering the budget. Custom pools require more time, which of course adds up. Adding an alcove, unusual contour, or island all add to the expense.
Thinking long term, the costs of an in-ground pool will typically be higher than an above-ground option.
Each piece of equipment, from the filtration system to the heaters, is more expensive than the systems needed for an above-ground pool.
Because in-ground pools are more challenging to drain, you’ll want to keep up with all maintenance on an ongoing basis. You may want to pay for professional pool care, which is less likely to be the case for above-ground pools.
Also consider the cost of chemicals, filters, different types of covers, and the electrical expenses to keep the pool heated, if necessary.
Although much smaller on the budget line items, pricing for all your pool accessories vary between in-ground and above ground too.
Take the slide, for example—a simple, over-the-edge swimming pool ladder probably comes as part of the pool package. If not, it’ll cost you about the same as a ladder for an in-ground pool, with both seeing wide variations in price depending on quality and style.
A slide, however, will run $4,000 to $12,000 or more for an in-ground pool. That single accessory can easily cost double the price of an above-ground pool setup, so remember each line item makes a big difference in overall expense.
Lighting is another add-on that can add up. Consider whether you’ll want to install underwater lighting in either type of pool. Built-in lighting will be much more expensive in an in-ground pool than a similar solution for an above-ground pool.
Similarly, adding lighting to pool stairs or decks will be more expensive than applying solar lights to the stairs or ladder for your above-ground pool.
Types of Above Ground Pools
There is no single type of pool. Even if you decide you prefer an above-ground option, you’ll still have decisions to make. At the low end of the budget, you can order an inflatable pool for less than $200 and have it set up for the season within an afternoon.
However, if you want something that will stand in place for a few years, you’ll probably want something with PVC or steel supports and a durable liner. These can run $500-$2,500.
You can also invest in a concrete above ground pool that will stand the test of time without the need to remove large quantities of dirt from the landscape.
Building a Deck for an Above Ground Pool
One of the best things about an in-ground pool is that the ground around it is level, so you can have as large of a lounging area as your yard and budget allows. There’s space for games, grilling, seating, and more.
With an above-ground pool, if you want to have a deck around it, you’ll need to build one. While this is still considerably less expensive than pouring a concrete patio around an in-ground pool, it’s an added expense you should consider.
Most people approach a pool deck plan with a wood design. It’s easy to work with, easy to find materials for, and durable. Of course, wood is susceptible to rotting, mold, insect damage, and splinters.
For these reasons, some people prefer composite decking, which costs significantly more but offers lower maintenance and increased longevity. It’s also pest, fire, and mold resistant.
Another dreamy aspect of in-ground pools is the ability to simply walk, jump, or lower yourself into them. For all levels of accessibility, an in-ground pool is easier to use.
Above-ground pools require climbing in with the use of a ladder or stairs. While it may not matter for most people, some homeowners will want to consider whether the cost of making the pool more accessible is worth it.
Can You Partially Bury an above Ground Pool?
If you’re still torn between the two options, there’s a hybrid design to consider. A partially buried above-ground pool takes advantage of a slope for structure and support, while leaving some sides of the pool exposed.
They can also be set partially into the ground rather than completely on top of the ground for greater stability. However, this method does come with some tradeoffs.
Be vigilant about how deeply you bury your pool. While there are benefits to securing it into the ground, the pressure from the surrounding soil can cause the sides of the pool to warp or crack, especially when the pool is empty.
Burying your pool too deep also makes it more difficult to perform maintenance and to hook up pumps and filters. Plus, there are safety and regulatory concerns with an in-ground pool that don’t apply to an above-ground pool.
By keeping your pool mostly above ground, there’s less risk of animals and children falling in or accessing it. Some regional regulations require fencing around in-ground pools for this reason, so keeping your pool above ground eliminates that requirement.
It can also eliminate substantial costs associated with building a fence around your pool.
Note we do recommend using all safety measures, including fencing, pool covers, gates, etc. to avoid accidents.
Ground preparation is easier and faster with an above-ground pool than with a partially buried one. For instance, you’ll still have to dig out and flatten the landscape.
However, when partially buried, you’ll have the additional challenge of building the pool inside the hole and trying to keep it from caving it while you do so.
In short, an above ground pool will nearly always be cheaper than an in-ground pool. However, there are countless considerations to evaluate when putting together the final estimates.
If, in your situation, the costs for an in-ground option are a few thousand dollars more, it may be worth it for the increased value of the property, the use you desire for the pool, and the long-standing durability.
On the other hand, if your pool is a relatively short-term goal and you only plan to use it for a few years, an above-ground pool is the obvious answer.
Similarly, if budget is the only factor, you want to be able to take the pool with you when you move, or landscaping isn’t an option, above ground is the way to go.
Although it’s cheaper to build an above-ground pool in nearly every case, you still might find the budget isn’t enough of a reason to choose that design.
For other situations, an above-ground pool will definitely be the obvious choice. Either way, brush up on Swimming Pool Maintenance and Seasonal Care so you can be realistic about the responsibilities of owning a pool.
Of course, if you’ve recently acquired a house with a pool or have discovered the need to make updates on your existing pool, find out How to Resurface a Fiberglass Swimming Pool instead of replacing it completely.