As a child, Naomi Lieberman enjoyed watching Cleveland become a winter wonderland, a blanket of white powder framed by frosty windows. “I used to love the snow,” she says.
Naomi, now 80, married Herbert and raised two children in Mayfield Heights. As the years passed, she no longer romanticized snowy days. She wasn’t a kid anymore, and she didn’t like the cold. “It was getting harder and harder to spend the winters here,” she says.
In 1986, when Herbert retired at age 64 from his job as a builder and building manager, the Liebermans seized the chance to escape. Like thousands of other Clevelanders, they decided to become “snowbirds” and fly south to spend the winter in tropical weather and return with the spring thaw.
As first-time snowbirds, the Liebermans were faced with many questions: Where should they go? How long should they stay? Should they rent or buy? Who would take care of their home while they’re away? What should they do about doctor visits and prescriptions?
Now, the Liebermans and other veteran snowbirds have those answers and some practical advice. They agree that following a few basic principles — like easing into the lifestyle and forging new friendships — can help make for a seamless transition.
Though there are snowbird enclaves in almost every warm-weather state, most Cleveland snowbirds have historically flocked to Florida, following Interstate 77 south. Of the estimated 818,000 people who visit Florida for at least one month each year, more than 50,000 are from Ohio, according to the University of Florida. That makes Ohio the third most common home state of Florida snowbirds, trumped only by New York and Michigan.
Ohioans have fled the state in winter since at least the 1880s, when Henry Morrison Flagler, a partner in the Standard Oil Co., took the great fortune he’d amassed in Cleveland to St. Augustine and Palm Beach, Fla., and began building railroads and hotels for vacationers. Like Flagler, Clevelanders today prefer coastal towns such as Delray Beach and Palm Beach to the east and Naples and Panama City Beach to the west.
Cleveland clubs in some Florida towns give Northeast Ohioans a way to ease into snowbird social life. The Palm Beach County Cleveland Club, with 130 members, meets the first Wednesday of the month between October and May at the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach. The club hosts get-togethers, plans special events and follows Cleveland sports teams, throwing parties for big games at bars such as Bru’s Room, a chain of South Florida bars owned by former Ohio State Buckeyes and Miami Dolphins linebacker Bob “Bru” Brudzinski.
“There’s something about Clevelanders that we like to stick together,” says club member Rita Weiner, 74, a former ice-cream store owner who retired from Beachwood to Boynton Beach with her husband, Gerry, 75. “Clevelanders will always be faithful to Cleveland.”
With its rising insurance rates, Florida is facing some competition from other snowbird destinations such as Arizona and North Carolina. But the sheer number of Clevelanders in Florida — not to mention the Cleveland Indians and The Cleveland Orchestra heading to Winter Haven and Miami, respectively, each winter — still attract new Ohio escapees.
“It seems to help [the transition] where family members or friends migrate together or follow one another,” says Eva Kahana, a Case Western Reserve University sociology professor who studies the elderly.
Successful snowbirds, especially the long-term ones, learn to love their adoptive state. Howard and Eleanor Major of Auburn Township spend more time in Florida than in Cleveland these days. After years of visiting family in Florida, the Majors bought a home in Palm Beach in 1986.
That’s typical of a snowbird’s progress toward permanent relocation, says Kahana, who is nearly two decades into an in-depth study of aging adults at a Clearwater, Fla., retirement community. About 15 percent to 20 percent of the subjects have been from Ohio.
“Being snowbirds helps [seniors] develop a social network and to become integrated into life in the Sun Belt,” she says. That keeps seniors from being isolated after their move. “Contrary to popular beliefs, those older adults who move do not feel cut off and readily make new friends.”
Building a reliable group of friends down south shouldn’t be difficult, but it does require some effort.
“You have to be outgoing,” recommends Weiner of Palm Beach’s Cleveland Club. “I’ll never forget: We went into a restaurant one time and saw a man sitting with an Indians cap on. We went right up and introduced ourselves.”
You can usually measure how long a person has snowbirded on a suntan scale. The more years you’ve been a snowbird, the tanner you’re likely to be, because you’re apt to spend more time each year down south. New snowbirds often ease into their new winter life by spending a month or two away. Experienced snowbirds, acclimated to the lifestyle, often stay six months or more.
Novices should take it slow: Rent first, or stay with friends. “It can be helpful to explore residential options in steps,” says Kahana. “Many start with visiting friends, later become snowbirds, rent for a while and then purchase a condo or home.”
If you’re looking for a one- to three-month rental, contact a real estate agent in your target location six months prior to your planned departure date to find the best selection, says Leslene Sharpe of Keller Williams Realty of the Palm Beaches.
Monthly or seasonal rentals are more prudent than purchasing a home right away, but they’re pricier than year-round rates. An average two-bedroom property in Palm Beach Gardens rented annually might cost $1,200 a month, says Sharpe, but that same property, rented for a season, might cost $1,800 to $2,000 a month. A two-bedroom apartment in a resort-style community can be ever pricier: $1,200 to $1,800 a month for annual contracts or $3,000 to $4,500 a month seasonally.
Like a hotel room, a seasonal rental carries no long-term hassles such as maintenance and upkeep. So even some old-school snowbirds are choosing to rent.
“We have snowbirds that have come here for 10 years religiously but still won’t purchase,” says Sharpe. “They feel it’s more affordable and less of a hassle.”
After 16 years of owning a condo in Delray Beach, the Liebermans sold their property in April. Rising homeowners insurance costs were the biggest reason: Hurricane and general insurance at the complex rose from an average of $2,200 a year to $4,000.
“It’s very emotional, because we’ve been there for so long,” says Naomi. But, considering the expense, she figures they’ll be happier in their new rental this winter, just 10 minutes from their old complex.
Once snowbirds decide to spend several months a year in Florida, it can make financial sense to buy a home and declare residency there. One reason is that the Florida Constitution does not allow for an income tax on individuals. Another is that nonresidents often pay more property tax in Florida than residents do.
Anyone can file for residency in Florida, according to state law, so long as you attest that it is your “predominant and principal home.” And a new Ohio law, passed in January, allows snowbirds who have declared Florida residency to spend almost six months back in Ohio without jeopardizing their tax status. People who own homes outside Ohio can now spend up to 182 days here without being considered residents for income tax purposes. The previous law only allowed stays of up to 120 days.
Accountant Brian Marita, a partner at Ciuni & Panichi Inc. in Beachwood, has dozens of snowbird clients. His advice: Become a Florida resident and get your driver’s license and voter’s registration there. Then, track your days outside of Ohio in a travel log to prove you spent most of the year out of state.
Not all of Marita’s clients heed his advice, at least not right away. “Some move as soon as they retire and immediately declare residency,” he says, “but some of them have emotional ties to Ohio, and it takes longer for the tax situation to overcome that.”
The Liebermans spent five months a year at their Delray condo. Herbert declared Florida residency, but Naomi didn’t. “I don’t know why she never did,” he says. They saved some money in taxes for those 16 years. But, after selling the condo this year, Herbert had to become an Ohio resident again.
Snowbirds who own a home in Florida and choose not to declare residency are hit hard, financially speaking. Florida has an unusual property tax system that, as The Wall Street Journal recently explained, “allows municipalities to set the taxable value of properties at different levels for permanent and seasonal residents.” The result, the newspaper found, is that snowbirds in some communities have paid as much as 10 times more in property taxes than permanent residents. The paper cites one permanent resident of Jensen Beach who pays $271 a year in property taxes on a 408-square-foot mobile home, when, four houses away, a seasonal resident pays $3,007 for a 420-square-foot mobile home of similar age.
Such discrepancies can be a powerful incentive to snowbird homeowners. Howard and Eleanor Major, who purchased their home in Palm Beach when Howard retired in 1986, have made Florida their official residence. Now they only return to Cleveland for the “best months” of July through October. “We prefer to spend time in Cleveland when it’s beautiful,” Eleanor says.
Snowbirding can be tougher than people think, starting with what to pack. Some move their personal items seasonally or mail what they cannot carry. But Weiner says the process can be arduous for her fellow club members. “They find it difficult to pack up and get ready to come down for three months.”
Others, who own their homes, simply duplicate their environments.
“Everything stays here and everything stays there,” says Eleanor Major. “We have two of practically everything when it comes to clothing.”
“Ideally you can just walk out the door, just lock the key and that’s it,” says Howard Major.
Setting up separate-but-equal residences works, as long as you maintain that second home. But when the Liebermans sold their condo in Delray Beach last spring, they had to figure out what to do with all the furniture. Eventually, their children rented a truck to haul it back to Cleveland. “It’s been difficult putting two houses together into one,” says Naomi Lieberman. “We’re still working on it.”
Leaving behind an empty house can worry snowbirds, especially during Cleveland’s brutal winters. Moving from a traditional home into a condominium-style community can alleviate some of those concerns. The Majors, for example, sold their home in Hunting Valley and moved to a condo in Auburn Township.
“We had a century home with continual repairs, and we were always afraid during really bad snow spells,” says Howard, 83. “So we had it checked regularly.” Now, their Auburn condominium association covers their outdoor maintenance and many household repairs. Their house in Palm Beach, a co-op, works in much the same manner. “Now, if we have any problems, it gets repaired.”
Health care continuity is also a concern. Naomi Lieberman has two sets of doctors, one in Cleveland and one in Florida. “But, if I have any questions, I usually contact the ones up here,” she says.
Helping to bridge that gap, the Cleveland Clinic has a clinic, emergency room, hospital and family health center in Weston, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale, and a temporary health and wellness center in West Palm Beach. Plans are being finalized to open a larger medical facility there in 2008.
Dr. Bernie Fernandez, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Florida, says the Clinic’s electronic medical-records system makes registered patients’ records, test results and medication information available to all the system doctors, regardless of where the patient has checked in. “That gives patients a great sense of security,” says Fernandez.
Snowbirds must select their medical coverage carefully, choosing a national plan and not a regional one that won’t offer coverage, or will charge extra, at their temporary homes. Kathy Keller, spokeswoman for AARP Ohio, recommends consulting the advice of the Ohio Department of Insurance’s Ohio Senior Health Insurance Information Program, online at www.ohioinsurance.gov
“Having insurance that covers [older adults] at home and elsewhere is very important, as is making sure that they have with them the prescription medicines they need,” says Keller. “Traveling with complete contact information also is very important. That includes family and professionals you rely upon.”
Taking care of these details can help snowbirds enjoy their time away. But, for many, the trip back home is equally enjoyable. The Majors always feel a rush of happiness when they return to Ohio.
“Florida is flat. It has the ocean, which is great, but other than that it’s a vast wilderness of condos everywhere,” says Howard Major. Cleveland, meanwhile, “has charming places. We miss that. We’re always glad to come back.”