John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, once controlled 90% of fossil fuels in the U.S. As America’s richest man, Rockefeller was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He was one of the first “snowbirds” to migrate from his home in Westchester County, New York to Florida for the winters, beginning in 1914. He liked it so much that he purchased an estatein Ormond Beach called The Casements, where he passed away in 1937 at the age of 97.
Since then, “winter visitors” have been known both fondly and/or pejoratively as “snowbirds” for their penchant to leave their snow-covered northern homes for warmer climates for the duration of the winter. As the huge demographic of American and Canadian Baby Boomers aged toward or in retirement, the snowbird lifestyle became increasingly popular in sunny vacation destinations such as Florida, Arizona, Texas and California. Why include Canada? CanadianMortgageTrends.com reports that Canadians purchased over $5 billion (CAD) in U.S. real estate in 2021.
Along with Canada, the National Association of REALTORS states that China, India, Mexico and Brazil were the top five countries of origin buying U.S. residential sales dollar volume. Their top destinations were Florida, California, Texas, Arizona, New York and North Carolina. At just over $1 million, Chinese buyers had the highest average purchase price, and nearly a third – 31% – purchased property in California. These are primarily investment properties, with an unknown number being used as second homes.
While there’s no accurate estimate of how many U.S. homes are purchased as second homes for snowbirds, what is known is that today’s seniors are much more active, adventurous and healthier than their predecessors. As SnowbirdAdvisor.ca puts it, it’s no longer about shuffleboard and early bird specials. These young-at-hearts are “heading to more exotic locations like the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Portugal – and even as far as Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.”
Several factors make it easier for snowbirds to rent or own second homes in the U.S. and abroad. Airlines make it easy to travel to destinations that are actively working to attract snowbirds. Technology makes working from nearly anywhere feasible, as well as staying in touch with family and friends via face-to-face online apps. Online home rental services such as VRBO and Airbnb allow winter visitors to rent a second home instead of buying, as well as provide rental income to those who purchase second homes in the area. In addition, Ibisworld.com says that global property management specialists, or home watch services, as they’re known in Canada, grew 2.1% annually between 2017 and 2022, reaching $109.4 billion in 2022, all with the goal of making second-home ownership as turn-key as possible. All of these factors are also making it easier for pre-retirees to straddle two homes in different climates.
If you’ve been wanting a second home in a sunny location, you have multiple options that are either affordable or luxurious. Some snowbirds sell their big homes when they become empty nesters and downsize to a smaller home, so they can afford to buy a less expensive or small home in their destination state. Wealthier snowbirds want the same level of luxury they have in their winter homes, and tend to purchase homes in gated communities and resorts for their exclusivity, high-end amenities, and access to shopping, restaurants, and glamourous night life. Many keep yachts in marinas year-round so they can enjoy deep-sea fishing and other water sports of their choice, sailing, parties, and privacy.
If you’re planning to buy a home overseas, get a referral to a top real estate professional who specializes in serving foreign nationals. Each country has its own regulations for buying and occupying property, including how long you can stay on a visa, and your favourite destination may not allow foreigners to purchase property.
Some retirees solve the issue of expense by buying a motorhome and driving it to a sunny climate where there are scenic snowbird-friendly RV parks to hook up utilities, enjoy amenities like walking trails and swimming pools, and make friends with other RV travelers. Many reserve spots at the same park every year where they’ve built a friendly community of friends who travel south annually for the winter, too.
The main point to remember is that snow birding is a lifestyle choice with many compromises. VacationsMadeEasy.com suggests that leaving your home for three to six months is a big job. You have to get a friend or neighbour or a property manager to help you keep up your primary home, including winterizing the home, maintaining utilities, getting the snow shoveled, and making repairs. Your checklist also includes changing addresses with Canada Post; updating your insurance to include a period of vacancy; packing medical, tax and insurance documents; and transferring your prescriptions so you don’t run out of precious medications.
One expert advises that you consider three major points: the additional costs of a second home, the cost of commuting between homes, and the added expenses of maintaining your lifestyle. You can offset some of these expenses by renting out your summer home when you’re not using it.
You should visit several places before you decide to commit to buying, to make sure your sunny home offers the activities, ambiance, and amiability you want.
GlobalTravelerUSA.com published a survey of the top ten U.S. cities for snowbirds. Of these six are located in Florida, with Texas being the most budget-friendly. They include:
Choose wisely. Where you buy and the type of home you choose may become permanent. Many snowbirds end up living in their southern homes and go back north only to visit family and friends. Now, that’s living like a Rockefeller.