April 17, 2012 — There are people that “hate” Florida, and there are those that “love” it. Surprisingly, the people who don’t have a strong opinion seem to be a smaller group. In Part 2 of this article we’ll get into which region might appeal to different folks better than others, but here in Part 1 we would like to provide a “Florida Retirement 101” crash course. Our objective is to help you understand this very large and popular state, which is diverse in more ways than you might think. You still might not like the idea of Florida, but at least you will know more about it.
First, a few facts
The 2010 household population was 18,800,000, the 4th most populous in the U.S. Median age is 40.7, higher than national average. Some 21% of the population is 62 and over.
Part of Florida’s geographic diversity comes from its unusual shape – it is both tall and wide. So tall and wide that it takes over a day to drive from Pensacola to Key West. Its different regions tend to attract different kinds of people, offering another kind of diversity. Florida is the 22nd largest state, has the longest coastline in the contiguous states, and the only state to have a coastline on the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. It is a very flat state, which is one of the things that people tend not to like about it (Mount Dora, at 185′ is one of its “loftiest” towns).
Florida’s median home value in early 2012 was $120,600 (Zillow), about 20% lower than the U.S. median ($145,000 – Zillow, or $163,500 – NAR). According to Zillow.com the priciest metro in the state for homes is Naples ($199,000) and the most inexpensive is Ocala ($84,200).
From a tax viewpoint Florida is very friendly to retirees. There is no state income tax. There used to be a tax on intangible assets (stocks, etc.), but that has been eliminated. Sales tax is 6%. Florida has a homestead law, Save Our Homes, that protects full-time residents from property taxes above the rate of inflation. One of the few economic negatives about Florida is that in many areas near the coast, property insurance is very expensive. Many private insurers have pulled out of the market after several bad hurricane seasons, leaving the non-profit Citizens Insurance Co. as the insurer of last resort. You can find more facts about Florida in our FL Mini-Retirement Guide.
Weatherwise, it is a well-known fact that Florida is pretty warm in winter and hot in summer. Along the coasts you can count on very high humidity. In the interior it will be less so. Hurricanes are a problem everywhere in the state, but worse along the coasts. Winters in the north around Tallahassee and Jacksonville will have an occasional frost, but generally warm up enough in the day for any outdoor activity. As you move south winter temps get higher and higher. Key West is the only true frost-free city in the continental U.S. – yes, even Miami has seen a few snow flakes on the rarest of occasions.
The Diverse Regions
One measure of Florida’s diversity and its attractiveness to retirees is the number of FL towns we have reviewed at Topretirements – 99. That is close to double the number reviewed in California (53). Florida is quite representative of the U.S. from an ethnic and political basis. It has every ethnicity and political stripe – in fact many of its residents, young and old, have moved here from somewhere else. As Florida votes in our Presidential elections, so usually does the rest of the country as a whole. We break the state into 8 regions, which are discussed below:
First, in Florida’s Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico you will find towns like Panama City and Pensacola. Both are relatively low key, lower cost, and very popular with retirees. Panama City has a reputation for attracting spring breakers in the springtime. Since there is several large military bases in the area, many military retirees have decided to retire here. There are great beaches here and numerous bays – fishing and boating are topnotch. At the start of the Panhandle in the “Big Bend Area” is Tallahassee, a completely different kind of place.
A college town, it is home to both Florida State Univ. and Florida A & M. Also the state’s capital, it is considered one of the more liberal enclaves in the state (although people who view themselves as conservatives will find like-minded people too). Though not on the water, it is only an hour’s drive to very peaceful areas of the Gulf, such as Apalachicola. The real estate market is relatively stable and slightly below the state median price. Traffic can be bad. Winters are mild. Although there is an occasional frost, the prime vegetable growing season is winter.
Northeast Florida – Jacksonville to Daytona Beach
Jacksonville is one of Florida’s 3 big urban areas, along with Tampa/St. Pete and Miami. This one tends to attract the youngest residents. There are huge suburbs and new developments. Some of these include neighborhoods for families with children, along with others designed for the 55+ crowd, an approach that is attractive to many who want to retire near their grandchildren (See Fleming Island Plantation in Orange Park). Going east from the city, Jacksonville Beach offers many little neighborhoods on the beach. Jacksonville has a great airport and some of the country’s top medical facilities. As one goes south along the beach you run into very wealthy enclaves like Ponte Vedra, home to many famous and/or wealthy people.
Historic St. Augustine is an interesting, if touristy town. Palm Coast is a massive development originally started by ITT in 1969. Now a city, it is one of the largest developments in the country. It has multiple neighborhoods and developers, and attracts families and retirees for the recreation, newer homes, and attractive prices. At $120,000, 2011 home prices were lower than the Florida median. Finally there is Daytona Beach, site of the famed speedway. The city on the beach has somewhat of a checkered reputation as first a destination for spring breakers and now for motorcycle conventions.
Mid Atlantic – the Space Coast
From Titusville to Port St. Lucie, Florida’s Atlantic Coast tends to be overlooked. The traffic isn’t as bad, and the climate is a bit warmer in winter. Real estate is quite inexpensive, with the median home in Melbourne going for $120,000 in late 2011. The area generally has inhabitable barrier islands that many of the nicest neighborhoods are on. It is quite easy to live very near the water. The bigger towns are on the inland side. A drawback is that in otherwise great retirement towns like Vero Beach it is a long drive to the nearest big airport. Parts of this area were severely walloped by hurricanes in the mid 2000’s. A significant percentage of the people who live in this area are retired.
Moving away from the coast there is the gigantic center portion of Florida, which runs from the college town of Gainesville (University of Florida) in the north to Ocala’s horse country, the major metro of Orlando, and on down to Lakeland, Winter Park, and smaller towns below that. The climate is different in central Florida – humidity is a bit lower and it gets hotter in the summer.
The area is filled with countless lakes – in many areas like Lakeland and Cypress Gardens it often seems like there is more lake than land. The housing crisis has hurt this part of Florida as hard or harder than anywhere in the country. It is filled with inexpensive active adult communities, RV communities, and inexpensive communities of manufactured homes. As an example, the median price of a home in late 2011 was $80,000 in Ocala. Nearer the huge city of Orlando the selection of communities is more varied, going from very low budget to gated golfing communities where all the homes sell for more than a million dollars. For budget-minded retirees, we like this area. Real estate prices are cheap and there are tons of communities to choose from. Check out places like Mount Dora and Kissimmee. Famous active communities like On Top of the World and The Villages are in this part of the state. Many people believe that central Florida is the most conservative portion of the state.
South Atlantic Coast
Stuart is not only a very cute town on the coast, it is reputed to be the northernmost part of Florida benefiting from proximity to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. From here south the coast gets more and more crowded, going through retirement towns like Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Palm Beach, and finally, the huge and most unusual city of Miami. Here in this region the ocean and the beaches are beautiful. One can find any type of community for any budget here. The Century Villages (there are 4 of them) are old-line, very large active communities dotted throughout the region. Those are fairly inexpensive, but it is easy to spend plenty to live in very exclusive communities like Sailfish Point on Hutchinson Island near Stuart.
Middle Gulf – The Nature Coast
The Gulf Coast is surprisingly unpopulated in its northern regions below Tallahassee. The first town of any consequence coming from the north is Spring Hill. It has a lot of communities to live in, most of which are nothing special. It is a short drive to the beach. Tampa/St.Petersburg/Clearwater is one of Florida’s biggest Metros. Tampa tends to be the commercial center, while St.Petersburg’s island location and many nice neighborhoods and beaches make it more relaxed. Although has a lot of interesting neighborhoods rather than 55+ developments, the city is filled with retirees. Home prices are low (about $70,000 according to City-Data.com). Going south from there is Sarasota, a wonderful place to retire for people who are looking for culture, restaurants and a vibrant community. It has active adult developments and nice general neighborhoods. The beachfront barrier islands of Siesta Key and Longboat Key offer a chance to live on the beach but be right next to a city. Sarasota proper has a more liberal outlook than many other places in Florida.
South Gulf Coast
Fort Myers is the biggest community in this part of the state. It is a diverse community in its own right – from a very pretty and restored downtown area to sprawling developments to a very long coastline. Real estate prices are low and traffic in season is high. It has a terrific new airport and active cultural life. Towns around it and south of here offer different attractions. In Cape Coral anybody can buy a house on a canal for well less than $100,000, whereas Punta Gorda is strikingly more upscale. To the south Bonita Springs offers great beaches and plentiful golf. Naples and Marco Island, the last 2 towns before the Everglades start, are the decidedly upscale parts of the state. Naples has a wonderful downtown and beautiful neighborhoods on the beach, plus very expensive active adult communities on the bay.
Starting below the Everglades on the East Coast of the State the Keys begin on a series of mangroves. Narrow Route 1 connects them to Miami over a series of bridges and narrow coral islets, ending in Key West just 90 miles from Cuba. In most places the Keys are less than 200 yards wide, although the principal towns of Marathon and Islamorada are bigger. While great for vacationers who love the beach and fishing, the Keys are better for younger retirees than older ones. That’s because it can be a long way to Miami for healthcare, not to mention the problem of mandatory evacuations that can come in hurricane season. Property values in Key West, the tropical and bohemian paradise, are among the highest in the country.
Funky Towns of Florida: Part 1 (North and Central)
Directory of Florida retirement towns and active communities
State Retirement Guides
Gulf Coast Retirement: Sun, Tax-friendly, and a Lower Coast of Living
Retirement 101 Mid-Atlantic States: MD, DE, VA, NJ
Florida Retirement 101
Dueling Carolinas: NC vs. SC
Dueling States: Arizona vs. Florida
California Retirement 101
Retirement in the Southwest: AZ, NM, and Utah
The Mountain States: CO, ID, MT, NV, UT, WY
The Pacific Northwest: Oregon vs. Washington
Comments: What are your favorite parts of Florida? Do you think we have characterized it accurately. Please provide us with your thoughts in the Comments below.