Winter in Alberta doesn’t change much. Some days, the only solace from –30 C temperatures and skin-searing wind chill is the warming embrace of the nearest mall. Fortunately, we can do something about it. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have bought property down south and who head for balmier climes when the mercury drops. According to the Canadian Snowbird Association, the U.S. Sunbelt states are top draws for Canadians property shopping outside the country. And while real estate price freefalls have delivered U.S. bargains, Canadians are also purchasing in Mexico and Central America, lured by tropical beaches and less-familiar cultures. Here we present a Westworld-exclusive guide to six of those sun-kissed propertybuying spots – our picks based on appeal, pricing and security for foreign buyers. Plus, check out our expert tips for avoiding pitfalls en route to realizing your dream of a fleece-free winter.
Top spots: Lakeland, Florida Keys,Central Florida/Orlando, Naples.
Emerging areas: New Smyrna Beach, Lauderdale by the Sea, Galt Ocean Mile.
Popular buys: condos, high-end trailer homes.
Sample prices: US$195,000 – waterfront 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,100 sq. ft. condo, Galt Ocean Mile area. US$349,500 – 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 2,106 sq. ft. detached house with pool, Naples.
Cost, litre of gas: $1.
Crime: some inner-city issues; few concerns in popular vacation spots
Health care: excellent clinics and hospitals.
“This will be my southern writing studio between December and April. No snow, just wonderful sunshine with Disney World and the St. Pete beaches an hour away,” says Ontario resident Dave Hunter of his trailer home in the cozy Lakeland area. Florida is the number-one Canadian snowbird destination and, aside from plummeting home prices (property values have dropped by 40 per cent in the past five years), the Sunshine State boasts world-renowned theme parks, wave-licked sandy beaches and accessible hiking and kayaking. Not to mention the subtropical appeal of the Everglades and the spicy nightlife of Miami. Property taxes are comparatively high, but the record-low home prices help offset this. Hunter, the author of the Florida guidebook Along Florida’s Expressways, paid just $10,000 for his fully furnished residence. While many such bargains abound, Hunter advises caution. “Be wary of bank foreclosures. There is much litigation over the title of many of these properties.” Instead, he suggests visiting communities in the area you’d like to live and checking local bulletin boards for properties being sold by owner.
“We were able to conclude our purchase the same day it was listed,” he says. According to Summer Greene, presidentelect
of Florida Realtors, Florida condos are perennially popular with Canadians. “Canadians seem to prefer southeast Florida, especially Hollywood Beach, Galt Ocean Mile and Lauderdale by the Sea because of the proximity to beaches and shopping, and
extremely competitive pricing,” she says.
Top spots: suburban Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek.
Emerging areas: urban Phoenix, Yuma.
Popular buys: condos and townhouses in gated communities.
Sample prices: US$85,000 – 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,022 sq. ft. condo in a gated community, Phoenix. US$212,000 – 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,991 sq. ft. detached house with a pool, Mesa.
Cost, litre of gas: $0.87.
Crime: few concerns in vacation spots and popular buying areas.
Health care: Health care: excellent clinics and hospitals, with easy access for Canadians.
The Grand Canyon State eases to a comfortable 20 C in winter, perfect for a round or three of golf at one of hundreds of courses. And the southern Arizona landscape – desert basins and low, rocky mountains stippled with cacti, flowers and shrubs – makes for a beautiful backyard. But the big draw here is rock-bottom home prices, which have dropped by around 50 per cent in the past five years. For $250,000, the price of a condo in Calgary, you can get a 3,000-square-foot home with a pool in suburban Phoenix. Property taxes are also low, amounting to around 0.8 to 1.5 per cent (depending on the county and municipality) of a home’s purchase price. But what do you need to know before selecting your Arizona bolt-hole?
“The biggest challenge was our inexperience with the area, but also pre-planning and organizing all the paperwork,” recalls Edmontonian Patricia Caffaro of buying her three-bedroom condo in central Scottsdale. Use a local realtor to navigate the balmy but unfamiliar landscape – particularly one familiar with the health of the homeowner’s association [similar to a strata], if your prospective property is governed by one. Phoenix-based realtor Bob Miller, specializes in selling to Canadians. He says the main difference between buying in Arizona and buying back home is the escrow process. “In Canadian real estate transactions,you are represented by a lawyer, whereas here everything is done through title companies,” he says. Your realtor should be able to connect you with a reliable title company. If the property you’re considering is a foreclosure or short sale (a pre-foreclosure sale by owner), you’ll have to work with a title company assigned by the bank. Foreclosures and short sales make up around half of the properties for sale in Arizona, and while there are some great deals, there are also caveats. Take the home’s condition. In a traditional sale, buyers can renegotiate the price or request repairs if an inspection turns up, say, faulty wiring. But foreclosures and shorts sales are take-it-or-leave-it. “Most of them end up being as-is purchases,” says Miller.
Top spots: Gulf Coast, Houston, San Antonio.
Emerging areas: Hill Country, Austin.
Popular buys: single-family detached homes.
Sample prices: US$247,500 – 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,060 sq. ft. condo, South Padre Island (Gulf Coast region). US$220,000 – 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 2,174 sq. ft. detached house, Houston.
Cost, litre of gas: $0.85.
Crime: some inner-city issues; suburban areas generally safe.
Health care: top-notch clinics and research hospitals, especially in major cities.
“If you’re buying in an area like San Antonio, you can leave the snow shovel and windshield scraper at home,” says Texasbased realtor Bob Leonard, who grew up in Niagara Falls and often works with Alberta oil industry clients looking for homes in cowboy country south. But the Lone Star State promises more than just T-shirted winters. Alongside its cosmopolitan cities, 1,000-km coastline and charming Hill Country region (a wooded, winery-dotted area of central Texas), are neighbourly people. “Texans are genuinely welcoming to newcomers,” says Leonard. “And everything is more affordable – including housing, groceries and utilities.” It’s important to be savvy about the state’s ownership rules, says Houston-based realtor and relocation specialist Christi Borden. “We have fee-simple ownership [which means ownership of both the land and its buildings], regardless of nationality. And buyers need to understand that we collect taxes on profits from home sales over $300,000,” she says, adding there are also variable local property taxes, but no state income taxes here.
Top spots: Ambergris Caye.
Emerging areas: Cayo, Placencia, Caye Caulker.
Popular buys: beachfront condos and villas, waterfront land.
Sample prices: US$309,000 – 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,000 sq. ft. beachfront luxury condo in Ambergris Caye. US$359,000- new 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, fully furnished ocean-view villa in Placencia.
Cost, litre of gas: $1.19.
Crime: low crime rates in tourist areas; higher crime elsewhere. Check the travel reports and warnings on the Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade website ( CFAIT).
Health care: basic hospital treatment widely available and accessible for foreigners, but specialist treatment scarce.
“Most of Belize is still much undervalued, but waterfront areas are highly popular,” says Calgary-based property entrepreneur Bob Dhillon, who promotes a resort-studded region of Ambergris Caye. Just off the coast of Belize, this Caribbean paradise with a giant barrier reef easily hooks iceavoiding Albertans. The practical appeal? English is the official language of Belize and its land title system is the same as Canada’s. “Prices vary depending on construction, age, waterfront proximity and type of complex,” says Dhillon, whose book, Business and Retirement Guide to Belize, is a handy primer.
“Buyers often use [properties here] for vacations, renting them out as a resort function the rest of the year – an escape as well as an investment.” While Belize has simplified processes for overseas buyers, you still have to do your homework here. “Hire a seasoned real estate lawyer and a reputable real estate broker,” advises Dhillon. Well-known companies such as Remax and Coldwell Banker operate on the ground in Belize and can provide trustworthy local assistance.
Top spots: Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta/Riviera Nayarit, Cancun, San Miguel de Allende.
Emerging areas: Punta Mita.
Popular buys: waterfront condos, homes in gated communities.
Sample prices: US$210,000 – 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,220 sq. ft. furnished, oceanview condo, Puerto Vallarta. US$339,000 – 3 bedroom, 2-bathroom, 2,238 sq. ft. detached home in a gated community, Cabo San Lucas.
Cost, litre of gas: $0.79.
Crime: few major concerns in tourist areas; high crime in other areas. Check the travel reports and warnings at: voyage.gc.ca.
Health care: good basic facilities and access for foreigners, particularly near large cities.
“Canadians are principally buying condos here, where their lifestyles dictate shorter visits and the properties are easier to lock and go,” says Puerto Vallarta-based real estate branch manager Victoria Pratt, who is originally from Vancouver. “The Vallarta/Nayarit region probably has more Canadians than any other Mexican destination,” says John Youden, owner of a multiple listings service in the sundrenched resort area. “But lately, Canadians – especially Albertans – are buying high-end properties across the bay in Punta Mita, where they make up a large portion of the expat community.” Since foreigners can’t directly own title in Mexico, they must arrange for a bank trust, which holds the title on their behalf. A Mexico-based realtor – preferably a member of the Mexican National Association of Real Estate Professionals (ampi.org) – can walk you through the process. For Youden, the biggest potential pitfall is ejido property, similar to First Nations reserve lands. “Title [to these properties] can be issued, but it’s complicated,” he says. “When you hear about Canadians having problems down here, it’s frequently because they were involved with ejido properties.”
Top spots: Panama City, Volcán, Boquete.
Emerging areas: Puerto Armuelles.
Popular buys: condos and detached single-family homes.
Sample prices: US$135,000 – 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,190 sq. ft. condo, Panama City. US$197,000 – 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 2,500 sq. ft. detached home in a gated community, Boquete.
Cost, litre of gas: $0.98.
Crime: petty crime is common in some areas, especially Panama City. Vacation spots tend to be safe and well-protected.
Health care: reliable, accessible hospitals. Best facilities near cities.
“Before buying, you should live here for a month,” says Chiriquí local Hector Palacios, who connects area realtors with foreigners dreaming of owning in this southern Central American nation, where winter temperatures average 22 C. “Also, hire someone [$75 to $100, plus expenses] for a real estate tour. They’ll show you around without expecting to sell you anything. Later, you can talk to brokers about specific properties.” Panama is growing in popularity, with Canadians often buying in two areas – bustling Panama City draws the urban fans, while breathtaking sea and mountain vistas – and significantly lower prices – lure buyers to the western province of Chiriquí, particularly the districts of Boquete and Volcán. Good deals are emerging in the capital, and Palacios expects up-andcoming Puerto Armuelles, on the Pacific coast, to be increasingly popular. Part of a former vast banana growing region, it’s being developed by the government and has lovely beaches. “It is a hidden secret with great potential,” he says. Practicalities-wise, there are some key considerations. “Land rights, or title, are the same for foreigners, and property tax is one per cent,” notes Palacios, adding potential buyers should “get second opinions on lawyers’ advice and make sure their broker has a registered licence.” Check the broker listing on the Spanish-language Ministry of Commerce and Industry website: Ministry of Commerce and Industry
International Property Buyer’s Guide
Rent in an area you like and see if you’re really interested after you’ve had an opportunity to view the lifestyle,” says Gordon Pape, financial expert and author of the book Retirement’s Harsh New Realities. Once the romantic attachment is forged, it’s time to get serious. “Identify the purpose or goal behind the acquisition,” says Brett Simpson, a Rogers Group Financial advisor who assists clients with property acquisitions. Is it for investment only, personal use or something in between? Then, determine the financial capacity you have for the purchase.” He adds that transaction costs and exit strategies may be less important if you’re planning to retire to the property, but these are key considerations for investment properties. For Pape, investments are best located in tourist areas where it’s easier to find renters, while retirees may prefer somewhere quieter. Both suggest grilling Canadians who have bought in the prospective buying area, especially for recommendations on local realtors and brokers. “They’ll also be able to tell you about costs you may not have thought of, such as pool maintenance and lawn services, and they may have tips on good properties coming on the market,” says Pape.
Once you’ve chosen your dream pad, you’ll need to pay for it. “Most Canadians buy with cash in the U.S., but many obtain that cash by refinancing a Canadian property,” says Simpson, with Pape adding, “Many U.S. lenders are reluctant to provide mortgages to nonresidents, although some will accept business from Canadians — a broker who has dealt with Canadians should be able to provide names.” If your new residence is not lockand- leave, consider hiring a local to watch over your place – Pape pays $50 a month for someone to check on his Florida property. Taxes might also trigger heart tremours, with wide disparities across the U.S. and further south. Do your homework to make sure unexpected demands don’t arise from rental income, capital gains and income tax withholding. Income from foreign property must be declared in Canada, and anyone who receives rental income from a U.S. property must file a U.S. tax return. “People may wish to consult a specialist in cross-border taxationbefore buying,” suggests Pape.