NEW YORK – Oct. 9, 2018 – Pat and Pete Engel of Glendale, N.Y., are seasoned snowbirds, having spent every winter since 1995 in Florida.
"After two bad blizzards within two years, I realized I never wanted to see another snowflake after we retired," says Pat, 79. The Engels rented a place near Cape Canaveral for the first few years, then bought a condo in nearby West Melbourne. Each January, they secure their home in New York and head to Florida until April. Pete, 81, plays golf, and the couple take advantage of outdoor festivals and other warm-weather activities with snowbird friends from all over the U.S. and Canada.
Many snowbirds follow family and friends south, while others experiment until they find the right location and community. Some rent the same place for years; others buy a second home that may become their primary residence in retirement. Whatever your migratory path, successful snowbirding takes preparation and smart planning. Here's our advice.
Rent (early) before you buy
In most places, January through March or April is peak snowbird season. Migrators often book the same place for the coming year before they leave in the spring, and others begin booking their rental as early as August. Early birds get the biggest blocks of time and the most-desirable properties, with features such as an extra bedroom and bath, a good view, updated furnishings and plenty of amenities (such as a clubhouse, pool, gym, tennis courts and golf course).
At Vacasa.com, which lists and manages vacation rentals in 23 states and 16 countries, snowbirds often book properties in Alabama, Arizona, Florida and Texas. Shaun Greer, senior director of real estate, says snowbird rentals tend to be budget-friendlier along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Alabama and northwestern Florida, where winter is a bit chillier than in the central and southern regions of Arizona or Florida. Most property owners prefer a rental contract of at least a month (also the minimum required by many homeowners associations), adds Sindy Ready, a real estate agent in Scottsdale, Ariz.
To expand your search, contact a locally based vacation-rental property manager or a real estate agent, who can help you match communities with your budget and interests, and search sites such as Airbnb.com and HomeAway.com. Besides rent, you may pay fees – say, for booking or cleaning – as well as local and state taxes. Local vacation-rental property managers may be less likely to charge renters a booking fee.
Average rents in snowbird hot spots
Here is the range of average monthly rent (excluding fees and taxes) from January through March in four states popular among snowbirds for typical condos (2-bedroom, 2-bath) and single-family homes (3-bedroom, 2-bath), according to Vacasa.com.
In most cases, homes are fully furnished. Before you sign a rental agreement, find out whether cable and internet service are provided. Do you get an allowance for utilities? What breeds and sizes of pets are allowed, if any? Is any cleaning included? What's the parking situation?
Will you have free access to all amenities?
Don't rush to buy a home
Some snowbirds decide to buy rather than rent but only after they've found the ideal spot to winter. That was the case for Carol and Phil White of Bend, Ore. The couple had tried wintering in Hawaii, southern California and Texas before settling on Phoenix. In 2014, after looking at more than 30 communities, they found a home in Sun City Grand, on the west side of Phoenix. It had everything they wanted: friendly people, good home values, a reasonable homeowners association fee, four golf courses, and lots of amenities and activities.
The Whites paid $184,000 for a 1,580-square-foot home with two bedrooms, two baths and a den, and they pay an annual HOA fee of $1,480. They split their time between Bend and Phoenix. Many of their friends from Bend winter nearby, too. "We have a whole 'nother life down there that we totally love," says Carol, 71.
Best time to buy a home? When you're ready
The best time for snowbirds to buy is usually in the late spring, when much of the competition has gone home. In summer and fall, you'll have fewer options to look at, but the remaining sellers may be more motivated and willing to negotiate. It's helpful to have an agent on the ground who can search for what you want and may learn of prospects before they're listed for sale, says Dawn Rae, an exclusive buyer's agent in Tampa.
The farther from the beach, the less expensive the homes and the less likely you'll be in a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone, which will reduce the cost of flood insurance from thousands of dollars a year to just a few hundred, says Rae. She advises her clients to buy the insurance even if the home isn't in a flood zone – something to consider in any hurricane-prone location.
Across the South and Southwest, home prices have soared and supply is limited. Buyers must move quickly to make a winning offer, agents say. Sellers love full-price, cash offers that will close quickly. If you need a mortgage, get fully preapproved with a lender. In mid-September, the average 30-year fixed rate nationally was 4.5 percent, according to Freddie Mac. Plan to pay cash if you want to buy the furniture, too, because lenders won't finance it.
Mothball your own home for winter
The Engels, who snowbird between New York and Florida, have preparation for their southern departure down to a science. It takes them about two days.
Prevent water damage. To keep your homeowners coverage for water damage in force while you're away, most insurers require you either to maintain adequate heat (55 to 65 degrees) or to shut off the water and drain the pipes, says Ana Robic, chief operating officer for Chubb Personal Risk Services. (Call your insurer to see what it requires.)
To shut off the water, close the main shut-off valve, then open the faucets on the highest and lowest fixtures in the house until no more water runs from them. In lieu of turning off the water and draining pipes, you could have a plumber install an automatic water shut-off valve, which will detect an abnormal rate of flow and shut off the water before much damage can occur. The Water Hero Leak Detection and Automatic Water Shut-Off system, for example, costs $695 plus an hour or so of labor. You can monitor it from your smartphone. In most states, Chubb offers a premium discount when policyholders in single-family homes install an automatic water shut-off valve.
Unplug electronics and appliances. You'll prevent "vampire" usage (electricity drained when a device is turned off but still plugged in), reduce fire risk and avoid damage from power surges. Empty your refrigerator's automatic ice maker and turn it off. If you want to unplug the fridge, completely empty it, clean it and prop open the door to avoid mold. Turn down the water heater to low.
Suspend services for the season
Ask your newspaper for a vacation hold to suspend delivery. Cable and internet providers generally allow you to suspend service from one to