Living Space: Warm up this winter in your own backyard spa

Relaxing in a hot tub is a great way to wind down year-round and can even promote better, more restful sleep.

Say what you want about the kitschiness of a hot tub, ski resorts know there's no better way to warm up and soothe aching muscles after a long day on the slopes. Since it's a good bet winter will be sticking around for a while, why not fight the frosty monotony with a toasty dip in your own backyard spa?

The benefits

Hot tubs are wonderful if you exercise frequently, and they can be used into the summer months. The warm water can ease soreness. In fact, people with arthritis often report better relief from hot water than pain relievers. Almost everyone agrees that relaxing in a hot tub is a great way to wind down from a hectic day. Time in a hot tub can also ensure better, more restful sleep.

In some states, your doctor can write a prescription for a hot tub to help you deal with certain medical conditions. In Texas, a prescription will exempt the hot tub from sales tax. Check with your health insurance carrier for details.

Hot tub or spa?

To the layman, spas are typically called hot tubs. In the industry, though, hot tubs are called spas. Spas are a lot like cars; you can get them in models ranging from the most basic to models with lights, stereo and special massaging seats. Once upon a time, hot tubs were time-consuming to keep and maintain but now require minimal maintenance.

Where to buy

Your local spa retailer should be your first stop. Often, retailers can match prices offered on the Internet, and if they can't, see if they'll service your spa if you have problems.

There are no bargains on the Internet if you can't find someone to do repairs. Some hot tubs can be purchased, delivered and installed; all you have to do is fill and plug in.

Make sure you understand exactly what the company will and won't provide before buying a spa. It's also essential to buy a hot tub cover. Splurge and get the lifting mechanism so removing the cover is easy. Another nice splurge? Lighting. You'll be able to enjoy a nighttime dip easier; plus, you'll be able to see better getting in or out of the spa.

If you plan to put a spa on your deck, double-check before buying to make sure the unit you want is not too heavy and think about how it will look. A hot tub doesn't have to be a huge, bulky hunk of plastic plopped down in the middle of the backyard.

There are lots of ways to customize a spa to make it more attractive. Surrounded by landscaping or built into the deck, your hot tub can become a focal point. Consider adding a fire pit or fireplace nearby to create a cozy winter retreat.

Kathryn Weber is a home and decorating columnist and publishes the Red Lotus Letter feng shui ezine. For more information, contact Weber through her website, redlotusletter.com.