- - Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Obama family may have been on to something when the president and his wife purchased their young daughters a backyard swingset upon moving into the White House.

In this age of video games, social networking and 24-hour television, these backyard play sets may be just what the doctor ordered.

If the goal is to get the little ones outside and away from the screen, then experts say there are a myriad swingsets to choose from these days. From basic sets with the must-have swing and slide to more expansive sets that include a climbing wall, zip line and playhouse, the options seem endless.

John Gray, owner of Outback Play Systems in Chantilly, sells Rainbow Play Systems, the popular premium brand purchased by the Obamas.

“There aren’t many premium sets out there,” said Mr. Gray, who added that the Rainbow brand is well-known for its quality wooden play sets.

“Essentially what you have is a couple of different levels of quality products on the market,” he said.

While Mr. Gray said the top-tier products are universally American made and designed for adults as well as children, there are midgrade products that are still robust but have weight restrictions. He added that there are “cheaper made” big box store sets that are imported and don’t stand the test of time very well.

The Metropolis and the Tarantula sets are among the largest sets Outback sells. Both sets feature four slides and several covered clubhouses on top.

Mr. Gray said he has noticed a trend toward bigger sets over the years. The first wave of play sets was pretty small, he said, and children typically grew out of them by age 6 or 7.

“What’s interesting now is that a big part of our business is replacing a lot of small play sets that people bought. A lot of them are replacing sets with a better quality or a larger-scale set,” he said.

Mr. Gray said many families purchase a set when the children are very young and often have a hard time envisioning the kids when they are 7 or 8. He suggests purchasing a play set that can accommodate the children as they get older, or a set that easily can be expanded.

He added that parents sometimes want a set that they can play on with their children, so they upgrade to sturdier sets.

Karen Franklin, sales consultant with Ridge Cabinet Co. in Mount Airy, which sells swingsets, agrees that families in search of a swingset should think about future needs.

“Pick a set that your family can grow with, not just what may suit your family now,” Ms. Franklin said.

In addition to becoming more elaborate, Ms. Franklin said that construction of backyard play sets has changed over the years. She said they’ve gone from being made of metal to wood to maintenance-free vinyl and poly sets.

Ridge Cabinet sells vinyl and wood play sets, but when it comes to the most popular, it’s all about being active.

“Families look for tree houses or tower swingsets with slides, rock walls and climbers,” Ms. Franklin said.

The costs for play sets vary and can range from about $1,000 for a simple set to more than $25,000 for a set with all of the bells and whistles.

Mr. Gray said his most expensive sets are about $40,000, but it’s not uncommon to sell sets that are $15,000, $20,000 or $25,000. Despite the price tag, Mr. Gray said even the recession didn’t stop families from making these backyard purchases.

“The best year we had was in 2009,” he said. “When the economy was in the toilet, our customers became very family-centric. They may not buy a car, but they focused their attention on their kids.”

Once it’s time to put the home on the market, it’s up to the owner to decide whether the swingset will convey to the new owner. While a prospective buyer with children may take delight in it, others may prefer to buy a home with an empty backyard.

Realtor Margaret Woda said she advises sellers to “neutralize” their home before putting it on the market.

“Sellers should do everything they can to make the property a blank canvas where prospective buyers can image their own family living, and that means removal of the seller’s personal memorabilia, religious symbols and play equipment,” she said.

It’s been her experience that play equipment doesn’t add value to a property and actually can be a drawback.

“If a prospective buyer happens to have children the right age for the equipment, they may think it’s ‘nice,’ but they won’t pay more for the property,” Ms. Woda said.

“My advice to anyone installing a swingset in their yard is to make sure it’s one they’re willing to take down when they put their home on the market for sale,” she said.

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