Could Florida be on the cusp of a rebound?

Pool permits pulled this summer — especially on the state’s hard-hit west coast — showed modest yet steady gains vs. 2009 figures, suggesting to many that the bloodletting of the past two years could be subsiding. 

“We definitely noticed a larger volume of calls this year from people interested in buying,” said Bruce Greene, sales manager of Gulfstream Pools & Spas in Tampa Bay.

“I think more permits were issued for two reasons,” he continued.

“No. 1, people still want to buy pools, and they’re tired of waiting. And second, people are still buying foreclosed homes and short sales for cheap, and a lot of those homes don’t have pools. So they’re taking the money they’re saving and putting one in. I also think more people understand where they are financially, and they’re re-evaluating what they can realistically get in their backyards.”

Greene, who estimated Gulfstream’s new-pool business jumped 20 percent over last year, probably fared better than most in 2010. Permits issued from July to September increased approximately 10- to 12 percent over the previous year’s numbers, according to statewide data tracking services.

But the familiar challenges remain — chief among them still-scarce financing.

As always, location may be the key.

The majority of counties that showed significant jumps in 2010 were located on the Gulf Coast, including Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties; in Lee County, 259 more permits were issued through the first 10 months of this year than in the same period of 2009, said Wendy Parker Barsell, executive director of the Florida Swimming Pool Association.

“That part of the state was so overbuilt and got hit so hard in 2009, there may just have been more room there to recover,” she said. “So, yes, some pockets are increasing significantly. But at the same time, some counties still are facing big challenges.

“Ultimately, I’m not sure what you can say for the state as a whole,” she added. “It’s encouraging that it’s up in certain places, absolutely. But it’s probably just as much a matter of where you build.”

Unfortunately, the contracted market hasn’t managed to weed out many of the so-called fly-by-nighters.

Multiple pool builders report that unlicensed activity and questionable competition remain prevalent.

It’s especially noticeable at the high-end, said Larry Stoen, sales manager at Hackl Pools in Lake Worth, Fla. Today, more volume builders than ever are bidding on higher-priced projects, he explained, and trying to entice buyers by offering more for less.

Trouble is, they’re rarely able to deliver.“You’ve got all these other people breaking into the market — people who haven’t had experience with glass tile or vanishing edges, things like that,” Stoen said. “The level of quality there is certainly suspect. The bad guys haven’t gone away.”