A Washington conversation in July:

"It's stifling out there."

"I wish we had a pool."

"Shall we call?"

The dog days of this Washington summer are spelling good times for the area's swimming pool companies.

Hot-weather pool buyers, who take out their wallets only after the temperature rises, come along every summer in the pool business. But last week area pool companies were reporting dozens of people calling every day as record temperatures have combined with economic good times to lure people poolside.

"Our busiest time of the year is always right now," said Richard Flippin, area general manager of Anthony & Sylvan Pools, the Pennsylvania-based pool manufacturer that is Washington's biggest pool supplier. "But last week, we had a tremendous number of people calling. Up to 50 calls a day."

Despite the advice of most real estate agents, how-to books and remodeling magazines, all of which still say that homeowners won't get their swimming-pool money back when they sell their houses, more pools were built in the United States last year than ever before. And the Washington pool market is as healthy as any--more than 2,000 pools are expected to be added this summer alone.

Washington consumers just don't seem to care anymore whether they'll get their money back. They want a pool, well, just because they want it.

"No, getting our money back wasn't a consideration," said Gary Smith, a columnist for theStreet.com, the online personal finance site, who just installed a kidney-shaped swimming pool and separate heated spa pool in his back yard on the Avenel Golf Course in Bethesda. "We just wanted one."

And there's been a slow shift in the attitude of some real estate agents toward houses with pools.

"Real estate books will tell you, No, don't do it," said Sue Huckaby, a top agent with Weichert Realtors in Virginia. "However, I think that a real pretty pool that's nicely landscaped on an upper-end house helps with its salability."

And some agents say pools have become de rigueur for million-dollar-plus houses in the Washington area.

"Anything going for over a million, it's just expected that there will be a pool," said Suzanne Goldstein, a top-selling agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., selling mostly in the District and Montgomery County.

Flippin said business at Anthony & Sylvan's five Washington area offices has increased 30 percent during the past two years. "Consumers have a lot of confidence in this economy," he said, "and they're willing to spend discretionary income on improving their homes."

There are 3.8 million in-ground backyard pools all over the country, according to the Alexandria-based National Spa and Pool Institute. In 1998, 172,184 pools were added to the national supply, an increase of 40 percent from 1994, when Americans put in just 122,583 pools.

The Washington area currently numbers 57,100 in-ground backyard pools, the Institute reports, compared with about 60,000 for the San Diego area and 40,000 for Detroit. Both Detroit and Washington, which are roughly comparable in size, are bigger metropolitan areas than San Diego, however. So San Diego has the most pools per capita of the three cities, but Washington has more pools per capita than Detroit.

"The Northeast is a very good market for pools," said Jack Cergol of the National Spa and Pool Institute. "Economics has something to do with it, that it's the financial center of the United States."

And we're not just talking the old rectangular blue things stuck in the middle of the backyard. Today's pools come complete with automatic covers that roll back into boxes flush with the deck, automatic sweeper-cleaners and chemical systems that leave them almost maintenance-free, and remote controls to heat the spa pool while you're sitting in traffic on the way home from the office.

Today's pools also are heavily landscaped and surrounded by decks made of anything from wood to flagstone to Italian marble. They often feature waterfalls. Many Washington area residents are opting for spa pools with the main pool, either as a separate hot tub with whirlpool jets or as one super-heated, jet-equipped part of the pool.

Do you continue to think of pools as turquoise blue? Out of date! A pool designed today is just as likely to have a gray or black bottom. It's dramatic--and attracts and keeps the heat, which is important for stretching the swimming season. And almost everyone investing in a pool in this area also is installing heaters, which can extend the season a few months.

Pools also are getting smaller and shallower, the sumptuous focal point in a landscaped back yard, rather than a dominating hunk of water. "Smaller is more practical," said Craig Revai, manager of Hohne Pools in Baltimore.

The number of diving boards and slides also is decreasing dramatically, mostly because of safety and liability concerns, pool companies said.

Town & Country Pools of Springfield, an award-winning designer and builder of pools, recently began marketing a "vanishing edge" pool where the water flows over one side and seems to be dropping into the abyss.

"It's a very attractive look," said Fred Flippin of Town & Country Pools, brother of Richard Flippin from Anthony & Sylvan. Town & Country has done one overlooking the Potomac River, and another backing onto woods. They're currently finishing their third, and a fourth was recently commissioned, company officials said. Town & Country, which operates only in this area, reports its business is up 50 percent in two years.

These cool new pools don't come cheap, of course. Town & Country said its most popular size, an 18-by-40-foot free-form shape, is about $25,000 without any extras.

Among the extras is an automatic cover--recommended only for rectangular pools because otherwise the cover's tracks can't be hidden--for $6,000 to $8,000. The winter cover, which is separate from the automatic cover, costs $1,000 to $2,000. Then there's the heating, the automatic pool sweeper and the automatic sanitizer.

Oh, and let's not forget the deck, which can be made of almost anything you want to pay for, all the way up to granite. You're up to a total of about $50,000 with Town & Country now, depending on which deck material you choose.

Then there's the fence, which is mandatory all around the area to avoid the neighbor's toddler wandering in and drowning. And, of course, the backyard landscaping, which also can cost as much as you want to spend. Oh, yes, if you have trees, it's better to take them down (cost: up to $1,500 a tree) to avoid too many leaves getting in the pool or the water being in the shade.

All Washington area pool companies offer up to 100 percent financing over 20 years to their customers, at rates that depend on the customer's creditworthiness, but mostly range from 8 percent to 10 percent. One company said payments could be as low as $140 a month for a 100-percent-financed pool.

"I don't care what kind of pool you put in, it's not an inexpensive undertaking," said new pool owner Smith, who had pools at his previous homes in Connecticut and Texas.

"But if you have the land to do it, and you plan to be in the house for a long time, you're going to get a heck of a lot of enjoyment out of it," he said.

And it's the enjoyment factor--rather than the payback--that most people who put in pools are thinking about.

Susan Modak of Gaithersburg said she never even thought of putting a pool in until her husband, Amand, just went ahead and did it. "It only took me a minute to come around after he put it in, though," she said. "Now it's so close and easy, I get in it every day. Even if I'm just floating around on one of those floaty things."

The Modaks opted for a 40-by-20-foot "mountain lake" design with no automatic cover, no heating, no diving board and no hot tub. Price: about $25,000.

Both the Bigsbys and the Neenans of Calvert County put in pools so that they could keep track of their children.

"There's not that many places for kids to go nowadays," said Debbie Bigsby, who put in an 18-by-38-foot teardrop-shaped pool with a concrete loveseat in the water at the deep end. The pool goes from a depth of three feet to eight feet under the diving board.

"I wanted to know where my kids would be," said the mother of three children, ages 6 to 14. "The way things are nowadays, you want them close to home."

For Patti Neenan, the mother of three daughters and a son in Churchville, Md., the concerns were similar.

"We just moved to Maryland, and the pool will give me a chance to get to know who the friends are here," Neenan said. "I want their friends to hang out here. I have a teenage daughter, and I need to watch out for her."

Real estate agents still warn prospective pool owners, however, to invest in a pool only if they really want it and if they're planning on living in the house for a long time.

"I caution people, I talk to them about resale," Long & Foster's Goldstein said. "If you're planning on living in the house for at least 10 years, that's one thing. If there's a possibility you'll be transferred in three years, don't do it."

Real estate agents in this area estimate that 25 percent to 30 percent of buyers do not want to buy a house with a pool, so pool owners should realize that, when it comes time to sell the house, the pool will restrict the number of potential buyers.

"It can't be about getting your money back, because you never will," Goldstein said. "It has to be about enjoying it yourself."

Of course, for some houses, it doesn't matter if there's a pool.

"I've heard of people buying a real nice house, like one to two million dollars," said agent Huckaby, "and then just filling in the pool if they didn't want it."

CAPTION: Town & Country Pools of Springfield markets a "vanishing edge" pool, which incorporates a design that makes the water appear to be falling off a hill.

Shoppers Have to WaitBefore They Jump In

If you're sitting sweltering in your back yard, thinking you've just got to put that pool in, don't think you'll be swimming before the summer's over.

Washington area pool companies are reporting delays of one to two months before they can even get started on projects.

The Pennsylvania-based Anthony & Sylvan, the Washington area's biggest pool company, is telling potential customers that it will be a couple of weeks before it can get to their back yard just to provide an estimate.

After the two weeks, the company is reporting a delay of four to six weeks to begin construction because of the backlog of jobs. And then there's the 30 to 45 working days (without rain) to put in the pool. Hmmm, that puts you into about October.

At some other companies, the wait could be even longer.

Hohne Pools in Baltimore can't get going for a month and a half to two months. And it's the same at Springfield-based Town & Country Pools.

"We could start the project in six to seven weeks," said Fred Flippin of Town & Country, "and then it would take us up to 90 days [to build the pool], depending on the project. If you put a heater in, you can still swim this season."

So the time to start planning a new pool is when there's still snow on the ground. But don't think you'll get a better price just because it's winter.

"Our costs don't change in the winter," said Craig Revai of Hohne Pools. "Contrary to what many people think, it's not cheaper to buy a pool in the winter. Some small contractors will cut prices to keep money flowing during slow times, but the big companies don't."