MANATEE -- When Sharon and Jim Larkin moved to Bradenton from Pasco County last year, they bought a home that didn't have a pool.
It was the first time in three decades they'd been without their own swimming hole in the backyard. They didn't like it.
"Our last pool came with the house, and we never used it," said Sharon Larkin. "But, honestly, the house didn't look right without a pool."
Their choice to spend $52,000 to build a pool is hardly out of the ordinary for Manatee-Sarasota homeowners. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota area ranks as the fifth-largest residential pool market in the nation. It boasts the second-largest number of residential swimming pools in the state -- an estimated 1.25 million, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Pool and Spa Professionals.
During the past year, Manatee County issued a five-year high 984 permits for residential and commercial pool construction and renovation projects. Sarasota County notched a similar peak, with 441 new residential pools built in 2013.
Local pool builders say their sales are booming along with an improving housing construction market. They characterize most of their customers as working-class, middle-income families or retirees looking to build a fitness component and outdoor entertainment into their homes. Some homeowners build pools as add-ons to their homes after they buy them, while others have them built as part of a home package through a homebuilder.
Whatever the reason, home swimming pools are part of Florida living, says Wendy Parker Barsell, executive director of the Sarasota-based Florida Swimming Pool Association. Last year, the industry organization tracked about 16,000 pool construction permits in Florida. New pool construction alone is worth over $600 million a year in the state.
The comeback in the local market is dramatic. Pool construction is up more than 100 percent since 2009 in Manatee and Sarasota counties. For Palmetto pool builder Anchor Pools & Spas, this has translated into a stream of steady work. With nine employees, the company has done 50 pool construction or renovation projects this year. While that's nowhere near the 200 the company did in 2005, when it had 28 employees building in tract developments, it's a big improvement over the recession years when business was off by 60 percent.
Anchor co-owner Bill Tolson said his 34-year-old company is building many of its pools for "the average Joe" who wants the feel of a tropical resort in the back yard. Anchor no longer builds pools for housing developers, but has found a good market without them.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand," he said. "People are more comfortable spending the money."
Smaller pool builders are also seeing more business. Randy Holbrook, owner of DuWet Pools & Spas in Bradenton, said demand is so great he has hired five new employees this year to add to his workforce of 20. His company has built or started construction on 25 pools so far in 2014 and has done a number of pool remodels.
The volume of work is similar to what Holbrook saw when he started his company in 2004.
"I'm up, altogether, 100 percent from last year," he said.
Pool builders say the amount of work they are getting is good, and there aren't complaints about there being too much. Greg John, owner of Pool Works in Parrish, said the pickup in the market has allowed him to do all his work in Manatee County, rather than traveling for it. In leaner years, his company built pools anywhere between Apollo Beach and Sarasota.
But lacking a waiting list for pool construction projects, John said he's still charging about the same amount of money for an average pool as he has for years, about $40,000.
"To me the market hasn't gone up that much," John said. "I can't seem to raise prices."
Other builders report raising prices somewhat to cover the increase in the cost of materials and labor. Basic in-ground pools, which typically measure 14 feet by 28 feet or 12 by 24, tend to start near $35,000. Extras, including spas and water features, can add thousands to the price.
It is possible to get an in-ground pool for less, but it usually means buying it as part of a package deal with a home. That option is so popular that Lakewood Ranch homebuilder Pat Neal started his own pool company, Waterscapes Pools & Spas, in 2009 to build pools for his homebuyers. Owning Waterscapes also allows Neal to control the quality of the pools and their construction schedule.
About 30 percent of the people who buy Neal homes in the $250,000 to $450,000 range also purchase pools, Neal said. For those purchasing for more than $450,000, the percentage of pool buyers jumps to 70.
Adding a pool, Neal said, makes a home feel more roomy.
"We sell it as an extra living space," he said. "It's a complete new living area for entertainment."
Other homebuilders see it the same way. Among the 97 builder members of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, the growth of swimming pool sales is apparent. Alan Anderson, the group's executive vice president, said members report that pool sales are growing with home sales. Those builders partner with pool companies to assemble home products that have extra market appeal.
"It enhances their ability to sell the product," Anderson said.
Some builders expect their business to continue to grow. Holbrook, who built the Larkins' pool, said he's getting so many homebuilders calling to have pools installed that "everybody's struggling to keep up and struggling to grow."
With local homebuilders having announced that they will put up thousands of new homes in the next few years, he predicts much more work to come.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.