As you sit there mulling a retirement in the South, approximately 1,000 people are already on their way to Florida today with all their household belongings. Should you join them?
Like many baby boomers approaching retirement age and hunting for a warmer climate to call home in their golden years, my wife and I scouted cities and towns in Florida for a possible landing pad -- so I had some skin in the game (we decided on elsewhere).
But Florida isn’t all about the beaches, Disney World and the massive retirement community known as The Villages. I interviewed experts and residents for tips on what you need to know about moving to Florida. So grab an OJ and dive on in. The water’s warm, but...complex.
Florida goes boom(er)
Expect lots of company if you retire to Florida. There are already more than 3.5 million Florida residents 65 and older, all looking over their shoulders at the newbies heading their way. In the 2010 U.S. Census, Florida’s overall population was 18.8 million, including 3.5 million people 65 and older. And by 2030, Florida will have a population of 23.9 million, with 6 million of them age 65 and older -- nearly twice the size of the current senior population.
Depending on where you land, you may be surrounded by people who look like you: old. Okay, old-ish. That was my experience during a recent out-of-season vacation along Florida’s Treasure Coast (Atlantic side). Restaurants, grocery stores, bars and more -- all filled with seniors.
“Everything is geared toward retired, older people,’’ one resident, a January 2012 transplant from upstate New York who owns a home in Fort Myers Beach (Gulf side). “All the commercials are about things like walk-in bathtubs, insurance, Lifeline, i.e. ‘I've fallen and I can't get up.’ So many volunteer activities are during the workday. It's like they don't think people move down here to work.”
Florida’s not always the sunshine state
If you’ve visited Florida infrequently and for short periods of time, you probably don’t know the full scope of Florida weather. Thunderstorms are frequent and intense, and Florida is virtually tied with Oklahoma as the lightning capital of the U.S. Oklahoma averages 83.4 flashes per square kilometer, with Florida close behind at 82.8 flashes per square mile.
Florida's Orange County, where Orlando calls home, and Seminole County average roughly 160 flashes of lightning per square kilometer -- the most in the U.S. Three of the 17 lightning deaths in the U.S. in 2020 were in Florida, which was tied for No. 1 with Texas in that category.
And Florida is often in the bull’s-eye for hurricanes. The Atlantic hurricane season is a long one: from June 1 to Nov. 30 – half the year – peaking in August through October, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. In October, Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms to hit the U.S. in 50 years, killed at least 20 people and devastated towns in Florida's Panhandle. Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida in September 2017, caused $50 billion in losses, with most of the damage caused by wind. State lawmakers recently said they expect Hurricane Michael losses will exceed those of Irma's.
The other side of the argument? Lots of sunshine and warm temperatures.
Florida’s a lot less taxing
Moving to the Sunshine State could save you a lot of money in taxes. Florida, one of our 10 most tax-friendly states for retirees, has no state income tax. That means no state taxes on Social Security benefits, pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement income. It also has no inheritance tax or estate tax.
But snowbirds who maintain a second home in a colder state can’t just tap their heels together to claim Florida as their primary state of residence. You’ll need to show that you spend more than half the year—183 days—in Florida. But don’t expect state tax auditors to take your word for it. For starters, keep a diary or log showing the number of days you spend in each state during the year, says Tim Steffen, director of financial planning for Robert W. Baird. Here's what else to do:
Steps for retirees to prove Florida residency
- Register to vote in Florida, and if you receive a jury summons, perform your civic duty;
- Apply for a library card;
- Change your driver’s license and car registration;
- Establish relationships with health care providers in your new location;
- Open an account at a local bank, and keep receipts of ATM withdrawals;
- Shopping locally is also a good idea: State tax auditors sometimes review credit card records to determine where you were during the year;
- File a Declaration of Domicile with your local county court.
Homes are in short supply in Florida
Sure, you can find luxurious waterfront homes for $1 million or more in many Florida communities, but the median sale price on a single-family existing home in Florida so far in 2021 was $314,900, up 16.6% over 2020, according to data from Florida Realtors Research Department and local Realtor boards-associations.
But still ... Florida homes are affordable, compared to the national average. The U.S, average median sale price on single-family existing homes is $347,400.
Affordable, yes, when you can find one. Florida, like elsewhere in the country, is low on inventory in this seller's market.
Florida Realtors Chief Economist Dr. Brad O’Connor said inventory is tight. notes that Florida’s current housing market is a strong seller’s market, with fewer new listings and a very tight inventory (active listings), particularly for single-family existing homes.
“The statewide inventory of active single-family home listings, which Florida Realtors has been tracking since January 2008, is currently at an all-time low," says O’Connor. "At the end of February, single-family inventory was down 56.3% compared to a year ago. Most of this decline has been a result of our ultra-high rate of sales."
You'll need plenty of insurance in Florida
The risk of hurricanes makes insuring your home in Florida much more complex and expensive than it is in many other areas. Expect to pay a higher deductible for hurricane damage -- generally, 2% or 5% of your coverage amount for damages caused by a hurricane. Try to keep enough money in your emergency fund to cover those potential expenses.
It’s important to find out about a house’s insurability before buying it, so you don’t end up with annual premiums that are several thousand dollars more than you were expecting to pay. In addition to a standard home inspection, get a wind mitigation inspection before buying a home. The inspector will check for special construction features that help a home withstand high winds. “The cost to insure a home without wind mitigation features could be four times higher than a home with wind mitigation,” says Chris Heidrick, an independent insurance agent in Sanibel, Fla.
If you live in certain flood zones, your mortgage company will require you to get flood coverage; floods aren't covered by a standard homeowners policy. You can get coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program. You may also be able to find flood coverage from private insurers, which may have higher limits than the federal program. Ask your insurance agent about your options, or find out about private insurers selling flood coverage at the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s Flood Insurance Resources page.
The availability of coverage and cost of premiums can vary a lot by insurer in Florida. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation has a great Rate Comparison Tool that provides premium estimates from insurers in your county. Among the insurers listed on the comparison tool is Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, a nonprofit created by the Florida legislature to provide insurance to property owners who can’t find coverage from private insurers. You can find an independent agent in your area who works with many companies and knows the local marketplace at TrustedChoice.com. Also see the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s Hurricane Season Resources for more information about your rights, insurers selling coverage in your area, and resources to help you find a policy and get your claim paid.
"Homeowners insurance in general can be tough to get when you live on a barrier island,” one Florida transplant told me. “No one wanted to insure us, so we had to use the default state insurer."
Florida has lots of creepy, crawly things
Florida is its very own ecosystem, and the state’s various creatures may do more than make your skin crawl. They might also eat into your budget.
For instance, dealing with termites is just part of the routine for Florida homeowners. Of the top 25 U.S. cities with the most termites in 2021, Florida scores five: Miami, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tallahassee, according to pest control company Terminix. “Because there is no real winter season in most of Florida, termite treatments or a termite program can be valuable for homes made of wood,” says Century 21’s Perry. A termite inspection by a pro ranges from free to $350, and the cost for treatment of termites in a 2,500-square-foot house ranges from $1,250 to $5,000.
Then there are the rats -- on the beach, in the trees, and perhaps on your roof, too. Yes, they are the same rats you know and loathe; they've just adapted to the climate and are called, among other things, palm rats and roof rats. Rat control can cost homeowners upward of $300 a year.
As a Floridian, you’ll also have to keep an eye out for alligators, panthers and pythons. Oh my. Florida has an estimated 1.25 million alligators of the approximately five million in the U.S., and you might encounter them slinking across a golf course, gliding in backyard swimming pools or skirmishing with a horse. “Beware of Alligators” signs are posted at lakes, lagoons, parks, ponds, golf courses and elsewhere throughout Florida. Alligator attacks are rising partly due to rising temperatures, development, and people visiting their habitat more frequently, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission experts say. Alligator attacks have increased from about six each year in 1971 to about 10 per year from 1987 through 2017, according to the FWC.
Panthers, the state animal of Florida, are another tale. While there have been no documented panther attacks on humans, they do dine on pets and livestock.
And Burmese pythons, which aren’t native to Florida, are growing in numbers in Everglades National Park -- and showing up in homeowners’ pantries, cars, laundry rooms and other spots.
Life’s not always a beach in Florida
There’s often a major misconception about Florida as a retirement destination: Many think the state is one big beach. An easy-to-reach beach.
Not so. Those world-famous theme parks? They’re in Orlando, in the middle of the state, an hour or so car ride to the beach.
“People who are thinking about a move to Florida should really explore the state,” says Dania Perry, a real estate agent with Century 21 Jim White & Associates in St. Petersburg “Each of Florida's metro areas has its own vibe. The east and west coasts of Florida are very different -- as different as the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. North Florida features vast stretches of rolling hills and countryside.”
You already know the big destinations: Orlando, home to Disney World, Universal Studios and their smaller ilk; Miami, if you want to live out your “Miami Vice” or “Golden Girls” fantasies (whatever floats your boat; we’re in a no-judgment zone); and the Florida Keys for a laid-back lifestyle as far south as you can go in the state.
But other Florida towns belong on your Florida Retirement Planning Tour. I like the vibe of Fort Myers Beach: You’re right on the Gulf (or close to it), there are plenty of 55-and-older communities, yet it remains youthful during the high season, with plenty of young people flocking to the resort area with its boardwalk and bars. We’ve visited in late July and late October and liked it both times.
Sarasota has plenty of beaches, and the small city moves a bit slower than some of the larger towns in Florida. There is a wide array of restaurants and stores in St. Armands Circle, the island shopping center. Another bonus: access to the Sarasota Memorial Health Care system, which is one of the largest medical centers in Florida.
Is retiring to a college town – to teach part-time, take courses (free for folks age 60 or older) or just hang out with the young’uns – a must for you? Check out Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. But bear in mind that Gainesville is deep in the heart of Florida, 75 miles from any beaches.
And one more beach thing: Some of southwest Florida's beaches are experiencing severe red tide this summer, which would make your trip to the shore less than pleasant.
Florida’s tourists can slow you down
Ever since you were a munchkin, you knew Florida as a tourist destination. If you visited Walt Disney World when you were a kid (and when it first opened, as I did), you marveled at the crowds. As a resident, you’ll probably only be annoyed by them.
Approximately 87 million tourists visited Florida in 2020, according to Visit Florida, the lowest number since 2010. But that was during the pandemic, when tourism was down everywhere. In 2019, Florida had 131.42 million tourists, and the state has had more than 100 million visitors a year from 2010 to 2019 converging on the state’s famous theme parks, beaches and destination spots such as the Keys and Everglades National Park.
The high season, when the snowbirds, holiday travelers and spring-breakers all converge on Florida, lasts roughly from mid December to mid April. There’s also summer season, lasting from mid June to mid August, when the kids are out of school and summer vacationers hit Florida. That makes for a lot of people on the road, an annoyance to the locals when they need to run errands.
Florida sunshine can take a toll on your health
Many of you beach bums in the swingin' '70s knew nothing of SPF. It was baby oil, baby, slathered on your tender skin to enhance rays of sunshine to deepen your tan. Little did you know.
The sun on exposed skin was dangerous then and is dangerous now, especially if you're a tenderfoot moving from the Midwest or Northeast to year-round sunshine in tropical Florida. Sunburn can cause premature wrinkling and uneven skin coloring. And too many sunburns or too much sun will cause your skin's texture to change. "The skin can become tough and leathery," according to the Florida Institute of Neuroscience. "You may also notice more wrinkles. The sun can also cause brown, red, yellow, or gray spots in the skin called sun spots." And the most serious result of too much sun, of course, is skin cancer. Your risk for getting skin cancer increases the more sun exposure and sunburns you have.
Sun worshippers are urged to stop sunbathing, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (when the sun's rays are most damaging), and use broad-spectrum sunscreens. And when you are on the beach, sit under an umbrella or some other shaded protection from the sun.
Scammers like Florida as much as retirees
You can run but you can't hide from scammers. You can also retire, move to Florida, and you still can't hide from scammers. That's because the Sunshine State ranks No. 3 in the U.S. for fraud, with 1,123 reports per 100,000 residents in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel Network report.
The most common scams in Florida involved debt collection, identity theft and imposter scams. The latter is a particular scourge for older folks who might become more susceptible to deception as they age and cognitive skills decline. Scammers take on many guises, from romantic interests to government officials, in an attempt to talk would-be victims out of their money and personal information. And the stakes get higher the older you get. The median fraud loss for victims in their 40s is $278, but that figure rises to $635 for victims ages 70 to 79 and $1,300 for victims 80 and older.
The best expert advice: Hang up or hit delete if a stranger calls or emails out of the blue asking you to verify information about your bank account, credit cards, Social Security benefits, Medicare coverage, tax returns and so on. It's a scam.
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