smart spending

Pros can light up your holidays, at a cost

Buy vs. lease

Companies take different approaches regarding the decorations themselves.

Finkle's and Minotti's customers buy lights and other decorations from the respective companies.

"Some accounts will have their own decorations and we'll add to it," says Finkle. "Others will buy everything new."

Christmas Decor offers its clients a leasing program.

"If they own the lights, they have to buy them again when they wear out," says Stephens. "Some people might tend to stretch them, and it could become a safety issue. As part of the new program we launched this year, when the product wears out, we replace it automatically."

Taking care of the rest

Once your display is designed and installed, there's the maintenance. Most holiday decorating companies offer at least a limited repair guarantee. This is a big appeal for those who've spent hours trying to figure out which light blew out the entire string or had to climb back up on the roof to right a wind-toppled sleigh.

"We have such a short time frame, a lot of these lights are only on for 30 to 60 days, so we want to make sure they're working every day," says Finkle.

The maintenance might also include some troubleshooting.

"The worse situation I ever saw was this woman who had an outlet tied into her microwave," says Minotti. "Every time she turned it on, the lights went out." A little detective work and examination of her dinner schedule helped them correct the connection and keep the lights on for the rest of the season.

In January, the companies return to dismantle the displays and, in most cases, stow them. If storage is important to you, be sure to check with the decorator. Not all offer off-site warehousing.

Costs of keeping up with the holiday Joneses

So what's all this attention to your home's exterior decorating going to cost you?

Your utility bill obviously will be a bit higher. Minotti estimates that the typical Austin-area customer sees an average electric bill increase of around $30 a month.

As for the decorating itself, expect a minimum-order requirement, generally around $200 to $500. Because of the popularity of the services and the limited time to install holiday lights, companies don't want their lighting technicians spending a lot of time on relatively small projects.

Finkle says the average cost for customers in the Omaha area ranges from $800 to $1,500. "The first year is more expensive because of the cost of buying the decorations," he says. But costs also can go up later, he says, if someone starts out small and decides to expand his decorations in subsequent years.

Stephens says his company's average installation across the United States is $1,300 to $1,500. Of course, you can spend as much as you'd like, especially if your Christmas spirit and the desire to be the neighborhood holiday showcase converge. "People really like to decorate for the holidays," says Stephens. "Once they get rolling, some don't stop. We've seen some residential installations run in excess of $50,000."

Finkle wouldn't divulge what it cost one of his more extravagant customers to decorate their place. He did say, though, that Creative Decorating installed 100,000 lights on a Nebraska house. "It was a stone home, so we used hot glue to put them up in the mortar between the stones," he says. "When we take everything off it's January or February, and nice and cold, so the hot glue is hard and the lights just snap off."

When Marci Henna's family moved into their new Austin home, they didn't go to that extreme, but they did want to make the residence's inaugural Christmas a spectacular one. Got Lights wrapped the Henna homestead in 7,500 lights.

"We went whole hog," says Henna. "You could have seen us from Mars."

Extraterrestrial snooping aside, the decked-out house was a great way to showcase the new abode and served as complement to the numerous holiday parties the Hennas hosted for local charities and business clients.

Judy and Wally DeRoeck cite seven reasons they've hired Longhorn Lighting, the Austin-based Christmas Decor franchise, to decorate their home's exterior for the last five years. "We have seven little grandchildren, and they love it," says Mrs. DeRoeck. "It's not inexpensive, but it's very much worth it."

And as for their neighbors, Mrs. DeRoeck wishes they shared the same holiday decorating spirit. "My neighbors should not be jealous," she says. "My neighbors should be doing it, too. It's just so festive and fun, I just wish everyone would decorate."

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