Southern exposure

In November 2001, I was in my banker’s office, watching idly as he played with a pie chart on his computer. The colourful sphere represented my RRSP portfolio, which needed to be “rebalanced” (in banker-speak), especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 disaster. My more aggressive investments had been leaking – not by much, but it was time, my banker said, to move them into something safer. As he changed an alarming wedge of pink into a soothing segment of green, I happened to mention that I wanted to spend the winters in Florida when I retired. “Hmmm,” he muttered, busily crunching numbers. “Allow $15,000 (Cdn) a year for accommodation in the U.S., a six per cent average return on your investments, factor in your Canada Pension and Old Age Pension, and your annual income will be around $20,000, starting at age 65 and continuing until you’re 85.”

Hardly a princely sum, but I could probably live with it. Still, with my cavalier health habits, living to a ripe old 85 seemed unlikely. Suddenly, even 65 seemed a long way off (six years). I had an impulse to just take the money and run. “What if I sold my house?” I said. “Could I retire now?” Ha! That put a different spin on thin. “Lemme see now,” my banker said, rising to the challenge. “We’ll allow a $200,000 profit on your house, and that’ll be your main income stream because we don’t want to touch your RRSPs until we have to. Yup, it’s doable.” Stuff to chew on and digest slowly, I thought. Doable, but I was in no particular hurry.

One year later, a little prematurely in my opinion, I found myself “wintering” for a six-month stint in Florida after being downsized. I reckoned I wouldn’t have without the willfulness of a daughter determined to get her ol’ ma off to sunnier climes before she got too feeble to enjoy them. So there I sat in a pleasant, rented, two-bedroom, two-bath mobile (rhymes with “noble”) home in Central Florida, enjoying the clement weather and the friendliness of the natives, but still a little shell-shocked by the way events had unfolded.

Just before I left for Florida in late 2002, I put my Toronto house on the market, but yanked it off again when I got only one lukewarm offer in the space of two months. At the time, it seemed ludicrous to be flogging a house in the throes of a Canadian winter. And I had to pay extra insurance because the house was empty. Hmph. That didn’t seem fair. “What do other people do in this situation?” I asked my insurance agent. “Well,” he replied carefully, “they usually aren’t in this situation. They remain in the house until they sell it. And they sell it quickly so they can buy another house.” Live and learn, eh?

The return on investments such as RRSPs is never what you hope for, but it’s moot anyway because banks won’t let you have your RRSPs. Well, they would if you insisted, but they’ll go to any lengths to keep you from making a move that’ll have the tax man salivating into his beer. “That’s all very well,” I said to my banker, “but I thought the whole idea of buying RRSPs – requiring a lot of sacrifice on my part, I might add – was to sock away money for your retirement.” Apparently not. “Write more articles!” he said. This is retirement?

I applied for my Canada Pension, but the amount paid into my bank account each month was on the sketchy side – an American friend draws a Social Security cheque that’s easily five times that, allowing for the exchange rate.

Nor is it particularly cheap in Florida, exchange rate notwithstanding. Rents are comparable to those in Canada (mine was $600 US a month), and consumer goods and utilities are pretty much on a par. Then there’s that whopper of an added expense, supplemental health insurance – essential if you don’t want to go bankrupt in case of a medical emergency. Mine was pushing $800 Cdn for the season, pricier than the norm because I smoke. Medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes would have spiked it higher.

More math is involved when you’re planning an extended stay in the U.S. Our country’s medicare program (much admired and envied in the U.S.) will cover you for a certain number of days. I discovered that even a stay longer than 31 days can affect your fortunes – literally. One of my GICs matured, and I set about transferring it from the financial institution where I bought it to my regular bank. My banker suggested putting it into mutual funds – overall, that’s been a relatively lucrative endeavour for me – then he discovered that due to new regulations on both sides of the border, I was not allowed to do so. The money could remain in an RRSP, but it would have to be in the form of a cash deposit, GIC or the like. Well, with my lack of financial acumen, I didn’t much care, but this restriction could hamstring snowbirds with more entrepreneurial spirit.


Next page: pets add a little complication

Got pets? In the U.S., this turns out to be no big deal. As long as they get rabies shots 30 days before your departure, you can bring them into the country with no problem. Customs officials are supposed to look them over to ensure that they’re in good health, but when my daughter and I crossed the border, there were no questions asked. The guy didn’t ask to see the rabies certificates. In fact, he didn’t even look in the back seat, where our furry loved ones lurked. When it comes to border crossings and there’s a guy in the booth, it doesn’t hurt to have a beautiful 22-year-old daughter driving your car.

Having pets is a little more problematic when it comes to accommodation – both when you’re travelling and when you get settled. A friend had suggested staying at Day’s Inns on the way down, a chain of motels that has a pets-welcome policy, and we did so for two nights, no problem. But when you start looking for a place to stay for the winter, the situation gets dicier: a lot of rental properties won’t take pets. My mobile home park allows “one small pet,” but my mid-sized border collie passed muster because, my landlord said, “The breed has a reputation for being so smart.” He’s still waiting for a display of cleverness. As for my cat – well, at first I was advised to keep her “invisible,” but that didn’t last long; she couldn’t resist going outside to prowl in the dense, semi-tropical bush (called “hammocks”) behind our place and torture the lizards and palmetto bugs. It seems whatever the rules down south, they can almost always be bent; everyone’s eager to give you a taste of their famous Southern hospitality.

At this point, I’ve lived comfortably in my mobile for three winters and recently had to come to grips with whether I was going to renew my lease for next year. The park does have a lot of things going for it: pretty landscaping with the requisite bougainvillea, palmettos and cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. It’s on a lake. There’s a funky bar/restaurant just up the road. It’s in the country but only a 10-minute drive from the nearest Winn-Dixie supermarket (proximity to a big-box store is considered an asset wherever you go in Florida). “This place reminds me of a Louisiana bayou,” said an admiring visitor from Toronto, whose only previous experience with Florida was the where-the-boys-are-type zaniness of the coast.

Mind you, the “bayou” is full of alligators – scary when you have pets. And the natives are almost too friendly in this close-knit community: when you’re on your own, people assume you’re lonely and are determined to correct this. I’ve lost track of the number of times the guy next door has invited me for dinner. And, yes, the ocean still beckons with a siren call. With a view to buying next year, I’d considered both coasts but ruled them out – too crowded, too busy, too expensive – then I fell in love with Vero Beach on the Atlantic side, with its uncrowded public beach, no traffic to speak of and – bonus! – loads of parking. Tasteful oceanfront houses spiral upwards from a million bucks, but there are a few modestly priced dwellings in outlying areas. Still, would I take the trouble to hike off to the beach? I’m long past the suntanning stage and I rarely swim. Besides, dogs are not allowed on the beach – anywhere in Florida, from what I understand.

A compromise I’m seriously considering: Lake Placid, named after the town in New York by its most illustrious resident, Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. (I used to work in a library. Could this be a portent?) Just south of Sebring in Central Florida, Lake Placid has plenty of reasonably priced housing, partly because the area hasn’t really been “discovered” yet. “Nothing but cattle and citrus,” scoffed a coast-dweller of my acquaintance.  Well, it has plenty of that, but it’s also a charming little town, which bills itself as the “Caladium Capital of the World.” (The caladium is a plant noted for its showy foliage, not unlike coleus.) Lake Placid is also known for its murals, which decorate 30-some-odd public buildings (there are self-guided tours). The area boasts 27 lakes, both “productive” (full of fish and, no doubt, gators) and “recreational” (meaning you can actually swim in ’em).

Lake Placid also happens to be on the cusp of Florida’s tropical region, which has appeal. Having weathered a relatively cold winter in the sub-tropics, when temperatures dipped to freezing (sorry, I know my complaints sound ridiculous in the context of the Canadian scourge), I have placed warmth high on my priority list. The natives are puzzled by this desire. It gets so hot here in the summer, they welcome the winter’s more temperate clime, and they chuckle at my penchant for wearing sandals (they wear socks and sneakers). “Don’t ya’ll get dirt and sand between your toes?” a friend asked. Well, yes. It’s a Canadian thing.

All is pending until my house in Toronto sells. Turns out I was wise to wait – I get daily bulletins about how the market is “going crazy” back home and how realtors can’t keep up with the demand for houses in my neighbourhood. So looks like I’ll be heading south again come fall, clutching a fistful of dollars (albeit Canadian ones) and with high hopes of finding a cute, tidy little house within sandal-schlepping distance of a Winn-Dixie. Or, even better, a Wal-Mart! I’ve pretty much decided to buy rather than rent again, because – in the spirit of saving the best for last – the one thing that costs less in Florida than Canada (besides gas, although everyone here complains about soaring costs) is a house. Because of the climate, building materials are cheap. They’re practically giving mobiles away, for example. You can pick up a nice one for between $8,000 and $25,000 US (though lot rental/maintenance fees have to be factored in, and they can run upwards from $400 US a month in the more desirable areas). Alternatively, you can buy a traditional house complete with lot for as little as $50,000 US in the less popular spots. I’ll wait and see: there’s a big turnover here, and something is always available.

Next winter, with any luck, I’ll be kicking back in my very own caladium-festooned Florida room, my filthy toes wriggling happily in the tropical breeze.

Read Florida Bound: The Essential Guide for Canadian Snowbirds by Andrew Cumming (Macmillan, 1998), an invaluable nuts-and-bolts resource for wintering in Florida.

Go to, which lists mobile homes for sale or rent by owner, and to, the official homes-for-sale multiple listings website.