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When Richard and Betty Ann Smith retired 15 years ago, they moved from East Brunswick, N.J., to Easton, Pa., and decided to start spending the winter months along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. From January through March, temperatures there are in the 60s and 70s — a climate the Smiths find much better for staying active than the winter weather in Pennsylvania.
“We go for golf, we go for fishing and we go for socializing with our winter friends,” says Richard Smith, 79, a retired Presbyterian pastor. “All along the coast, the snowbirds migrate, and they fill up the coast area in the winter.”
The Smiths, like others who have retired, found a new freedom as snowbirds — people who migrate to warmer climates each year usually sometime between December and January. As temperatures dip throughout the U.S., snowbirds head south to escape the winter wind, ice and snow of northern states. Health reasons such as pulmonary issues motivate some, while others simply prefer warm weather. And according to yearlong residents of those sunnier climates, the snowbirds who used to come just for winter are now starting to stick around longer.
“There is a growing number of people who are becoming snowbirds and who are staying longer,” says John F. Brady, founder of TopRetirements.com, a website that focuses on retirement issues. “Boomers – a large segment – are tired of winter and the hassles that come with it.”
In addition to Alabama, other states that have been popular snowbird destinations are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas, according to Homeaway.
Picking a snowbird destination — and deciding how long to stay there each year — depends largely on finances and tastes. Brady and his wife, Roberta, 65, who is a mystery writer, split their time between Madison, Conn., and Key West, Fla., which has become their primary residence. Others, like Washington, D.C., attorney Alan Tawshunsky, 64, continue to live most of the year in their home in the colder climate. Tawshunsky has spent the past three winters in South Florida, where he works remotely in his own law practice. “I prefer the milder weather in Florida to D.C. in the winter,” he says.
Lora and Kenn Krouse began leaving Athelstane, Wis., 23 years ago for Gulf Shores, Ala., when they retired from Procter & Gamble. Kenn Krouse says making new friends is a key part of being a snowbird. “You just start talking to people and pretty soon you got a new friendship started,” he says.
Getting ready to migrate to warmer climes takes some practice and preparation. If you think you might want to try to be a snowbird, here are a few things to consider:
- Decide whether to rent or own. If it’s your first time in a warmer climate, it may be better to rent first to see how you like the area. If you’ve already vacationed in a region before you retired, you may already know you want to spend the winters there. Typically, future snowbirds might spend time vacationing in a location, then rent for a month or longer, even in several different locations before deciding where to rent for several months or eventually buy, says Kenn Krouse. You can try out the place by renting, for example, through Airbnb or VRBO.
- Decide which location will be your primary residence. This will be a concern only if you own property in both locations or are thinking of purchasing a second home. Eventually, you may spend more time in the warmer climate and will need make it your primary residence. “We’re [now] Alabama residents,” says Kenn Krouse. Having bought a home in Gulf Shores, they changed their primary residence to Alabama 10 or 11 years ago. According to IRS policy, you can have only one primary residence at a time. If you own or live in more than one home, you have to apply a “facts and circumstances” test to determine which property is your main home. The most important factor is where you spend the most time, but there are other factors — including your U.S. Postal Service address and the address on your voter registration card, your federal and state tax returns, and your driver’s license or car registration.
- Consider how you will obtain and pay for medical care. To find a physician in your snowbird area, you can ask for recommendations from friends and family there, or check with your insurance company for names of physicians in your new location. For those 65 and older, Original Medicare covers you in any state. “It gives you the complete freedom to go anywhere you want,” says Charles Dinerstein, a senior fellow at the American Council of Science and Health. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you typically have to go out-of-network and may pay higher deductibles and copayments, Dinerstein says.
If you’re not yet 65 and/or you have commercial health insurance, check your health insurance policy to determine the terms of your coverage. Commercial policies typically will cover you while you are living out of your home state, but your out-of-pocket costs will most likely be higher, Dinerstein says.
- Prep your northern residence for your absence. If it’s a single-family house, make sure you keep the heat high enough or turn off the water to prevent freezing pipes. No additional insurance coverage is needed when you leave your primary residence for an extended period, according to Allstate Insurance Company spokesperson Ben Tobias. Consider hiring a snow-removal company to maintain the property, installing solar-powered exterior lights and asking a neighbor, friend or relative to keep an eye on the property, Tobias says. Also, make sure your bills reach you: Decide if you will forward your mail, plan to pay online, or pay in advance.
- Obtain the necessary homeowner’s insurance. If your second home or vacation house has a mortgage, your lender might require you to get homeowner’s insurance. But even if the bank doesn’t require it, you might want to think about buying insurance anyway. It can be smart to maintain insurance coverage for the structure, contents and your liability in case someone is injured on your property in your absence, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Homeowner’s insurance for a secondary home can have different terms than your primary home’s insurance policy. How often the home is occupied can be a factor. Insurance for second homes can be written on a “named perils” basis, which means the policy covers losses for situations described in the policy such as lightning, explosion, theft or smoke damage. To learn more, visit the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website.
- Consider travel insurance. Snowbirds “are trying to get away from the snow but on occasion may get caught in it,” says Matt Popowski, a spokesperson for Allianz, a travel and specialty insurance company. Travel insurance, depending on the policy, can cover weather cancellations, nonrefundable tickets, change fees, and delayed or lost baggage. It can also include hurricane coverage for situations such as mandatory evacuations.