Take a realty check

I vividly remember sitting in front of my computer in Toronto in August 2004, watching live streaming video from the local NBC station in Fort Myers as Hurricane Charley was trashing Florida’s Gulf Coast. They had a camera and crew set up in a condominium just down the street from our house. My heart sank as the storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico poured into the parking lot of the building, flooding it to the top of the first floor. “That’s it” I said to my wife. “Our place will be underwater.”

As it happened, we were spared. The surge retreated before it reached our property. But it was many stomach-churning hours before we got that news from neighbours who had ridden out the storm despite mandatory evacuation orders.

Three more hurricanes – Frances, Ivan and Jeanne – followed Charley that year. Yet Visit Florida Research reports Florida’s sun and semi-tropical climate still drew 85.8 million tourists in 2005, 2.1 million of them from Canada.

Winter visitors are enthralled by the state’s balmy breezes, swaying palm trees, abundant bird life, white sand beaches and first-class golf courses. Many decide to stay, makinFlorida one of America’s fastest growing states. During the decade from 1990 to 2000, Florida’s population grew by 23.5 per cent.

The state’s massive publicity machine has made the name Florida synonymous with “paradise.” What’s not to love?

Actually, a lot! There’s another side to Florida you should know about before you plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a piece of this expensive dream.

As a long-time visitor and a nine-year property owner in Fort Myers Beach on the Gulf Coast, let me tell you about the dark side of paradise.

In the winter, Florida weather is calm, dry, and tranquil. Yes, there can be the occasional cold snap when a high pressure ridge pushes down from Canada. But most of the time the climate is idyllic and seductive.

Summer is a different matter. Most Canadians don’t experience it because they’re out enjoying their own country, unaware of the sweltering heat and dripping humidity that makes an afternoon round of golf down south a test of stamina. They don’t experience the booming thunderstorms that roll in off the Gulf of Mexico almost every afternoon. And they are safely out of range of the hurricanes that have battered Florida with depressing regularity in recent years.

As a Canadian property owner, you may think you won’t need to worry about this sort of thing since you’ll be safe in Vancouver or Toronto or wherever. In fact, the psychological strain is almost as bad as actually being there when the winds roar.

Forecasters predict we’ll see even more and stronger hurricanes over at least the next decade. Before you buy that Florida place, ask yourself if your heart is strong enough to withstand the stress hurricanes bring.

Canadians complain their home insurance rates are expensive. Believe me, you don’t know what expensive really means until you start paying out to protect your Florida place.

Many residents of the state have to carry three separate policies: a standard homeowner’s policy, a flood policy and a windstorm policy. The premiums can add up to more than $4,000 US a year, depending on the property and its location. And that’s assuming you can find someone to insure you.

After hurricanes Charley and Wilma, State Farm Insurance imposed a 40 per cent premium increase on barrier island residents in Lee County. That includes such popular Canadian destinations as Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

Some insurers were so badly mauled by claims from the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 they have pulled up stakes and left the state. Others will not write policies within certain high-risk areas. Most firms that do write such policies place a strict limit on the number they will accept to keep their potential liability with manageable limits.
The situation became so bad the state was forced to create an insurer of last resort to provide coverage for property owners who could not get it anywhere else. It’s called Citizens Property Insurance and provides more than $200 billion in coverage to some 800,000 policy holders, about half of whom are in south Florida.

The rates at Citizens are higher than those of private insurers because the company really does not want your business. But many people simply have no choice.

Property taxes
More than a decade ago, Florida residents decided to protect themselves from rapidly rising property taxes. They did this by sticking it big-time to everyone else who owns property in the state. As soon as you buy that Florida dream home, you’ll join the growing list of folks who contribute billions of dollars a year to maintaining local services and infrastructure.

Floridians achieved this tax nirvana by approving an amendment to the state constitution known as the Save Our Homes exemption. It puts a cap on their property tax increases of three per cent or the rise in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. As a result, the owners of adjacent properties or condos may pay wildly different tax rates. Our tax bill is about four times that of our next-door neighbours because they are permanent Florida residents and we are not.

If you’re still determined to buy despite this, here’s a tip: don’t believe the property tax figure that is quoted by the real estate agent. The tax will immediately rise to the current market value once the sale closes. Find out how much that will be before you sign the papers.

Florida has bugs – lots of them. That wouldn’t be so terrible if they would stay where they are supposed to be – outside. Unfortunately, they really want to be inside with you and they’ll do everything they can to share your little slice of paradise.

Giant roaches, euphemistically called palmetto bugs by Florida veterans, will find ways to squeeze into even the most tightly sealed residences.

Pesky no-see-ums will fly through screens as if they weren’t even there in search of a warm body to chew on.

Fruit flies will invade your wine glass if you don’t drink quickly enough.

Swarms of termites will munch on your foundation.

Ghost ants will skitter across your kitchen counter.

Outside, fire ants will build an ugly mound on your lawn and then try to eat you alive if you get near it.

Wasps will jam the motor on your boat lift with mud.

Mole crickets will gorge themselves on your grass roots.

It’s no wonder pest control companies do a booming business in Florida. Unless you’re willing to share your life with all manner of undesirable insects, you’ll have to hire someone to keep them at bay, and it won’t be cheap. Depending on your property and whether you need lawn care, you’re looking at anywhere from $50 US to $125 US a month, 12 months a year. Add it to the budget.

Other critters
As if the bugs weren’t enough, Florida has a grand selection of other critters that are just waiting to harass innocent Northerners.

For example, alligators lurk in those attractive ponds that landscapers dig to add water views to the huge developments that are turning the state into one big gated community. They’ve been known to gleefully gobble small dogs so don’t let the schnauzer out at night.

Ever hear of palm rats? Neither had we until they climbed up a tree and found their way into our attic. More profit for the pest control folks!

How about wild hogs? After Hurricane Wilma, dozens of them roamed through the Cross Creek community in Fort Myers where some friends live. Some were said to weigh up to 500 pounds. The damage they caused rooting through lawns for food was described as being akin to a visit from a bulldozer.

In some parts of south Florida, iguanas have become a major pest, eating flowers, digging burrows that undermine seawalls, hiding in basements and leaving their droppings in the most inconvenient places. The problem has become so bad in the Gulf Coast community of Boca Grande that a country commissioner has proposed a special iguana tax be levied on residents to pay for controlling them.

And would you believe that peacocks have become a nuisance in the town of Bokeelia on Pine Island? “They wander around like stray dogs,” one resident told the Fort Myers News-Press. “They poop everywhere, call each other day and night, and they scratch our cars.” No one will take responsibility for getting rid of them so the flock just keeps on growing. One real estate agent decided that if you can’t beat them, join them, including in a property description, “Bird watchers will love this home – peacocks actually roam the neighbourhood.” That’s fine, until they poop on your step (and you step in their poop).

The bright side
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like about Florida. The moon rising over the bay behind our home is a wondrous sight. The grandchildren love the pool and the beach. Watching a forecast of snow and freezing rain back home as the temperature here heads into the 80s on the Fahrenheit scale is satisfying. And we don’t complain about the increase in our property value.

But anyone considering buying in the state should take off the rose-coloured glasses. It’s not all fun and sun. There is a dark side, too. Be wary of it.