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Dear Topretirements: What Are the Pitfalls When Buying a Retirement Home in the Southwest or Southeast?

Category: Retirement Real Estate

May 29, 2019 — We are grateful to Brigitta for suggesting this article on the pitfalls to look out for when buying a home in the Southwest. Here is what she wrote a while back:

“I’ve been receiving your newsletter for a couple of years.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article about the differences in building practices in different areas of the country.  By that, I mean as someone who has lived my entire life on the east coast, I am quite familiar with how homes are/were built going back to the 1700s when my area was settled. I’m also familiar with the types of “pests” and environmental issues, i.e., radon, asbestos, buried oil tanks (for heating) that that NJ homeowners look for.  
Now, I am interested in purchasing a home in AZ and I realize I don’t know ANYTHING about typical building practices- pro/con, types of homes that one might want to stay away from or might WANT to consider, pests typical to the area, environmental issues, etc as I do about the east coast. ”

Thanks Brigitta! It is such a good question we will expand this “pitfalls” article to the Southeast and Florida as well the Southwest, since these are the most common places for retirees to be moving to, and where they tend to lack buying experience. As always, we are hoping for additional Member Comments to make sure we address all the important risks to worry about.

The Southwest

The desert and mountains present inherently different hazards to those found in the Southeast. The Southwest’s powerful sun and high temperatures present other differences. This first section will discuss the home buying hazards that can exist in the Southwest. Although many problems in a home can be corrected if you spend money and time, but it is always nice to find a property that doesn’t need work.

Arizona beauty

Flooding is possible in the Southwest, especially in areas of low elevation and along large rivers. Geological hazards, including avalanches, earthquakes, landslides, and rockfalls, also occur throughout the Southwest, especially where there is rugged, mountainous terrain. FEMA maps can help alert you to those areas.

Building materials. The traditional home building material in the Southwest is adobe or stone, which is less susceptible to warp and dryness than wood. They can also help keep your home cooler in hot summer temperatures. In areas where there are wildfires, is the roof made of fireproof materials?

Window treatments. Where the windows are located is important. For example, do they offer light and/or a view of the rising or setting sun, but avoid the power of afternoon rays? You can get tints that block solar heat from entering your home.

Temperature control. Are there fans or high ceilings well positioned to keep the home cool? You can add fans but ceiling heights are more problematic to retrofit.

The yard and grounds. You can usually change things outside, but it is nicer if you don’t have to. Green plants and a lawn will add to your water bill and don’t make sense in the desert. Xeriscaping is the smart way to go.

Solar. Does the home have a well designed solar collection system for electricity and hot water, which can save on your utility bills?

Water supply. Many people are concerned with the long term availability of water in the Southwest. In the area where you are looking, what is the source of freshwater and what is the condition of the aquifers where it comes from?

Pests. Every area has its share of pests. In the Southwest at some times of the year you might have to look out for snakes and scorpions in the area around your home. Coyotes are a danger to your pets.

Florida and the Southeast home buyer hazards

It is probably safe to say that buying a home in Florida comes with more risks than one in Arizona. Most of that risk comes from climate. Hurricanes can hit any part of that state, whereas those in the Southwest mostly have to worry about wildfires, and then only in certain areas. These are some of the major building issues to look for when buying a home in Florida and much of the Southeast.

Construction. When was the home built and according to what code? Building codes are getting stricter and stricter, so more recently built homes will generally stand up to a hurricane better. The construction of the roof, its condition, and its materials are important – affecting not only replacement cost but insurance premiums.

Coastal flooding. As the earth warms and the polar ice caps melt, all of that water means rising ocean levels. Most of Florida’s coast is experiencing higher and higher storm and tidal surges. Before you buy it is imperative to know that your new home is above potential flooding.

Insurance. Depending on where you are, when built, and the condition of your home, insurance costs can vary considerably. Ask to see the current policy and get a proposed quote before you buy.

Critters. Termites are ubiquitous in Florida and the South. Termites can be removed, but involve whole house tenting and fumigation. Snakes, cockroaches, fire ants, fleas, spiders, iguanas, and alligators represent hazards that are usually minor and correctible.

Mold. This home hazard is always possible in Florida and the Southeast. Your home inspection needs to make sure there isn’t any. A home where the air conditioning has been off for a while probably has mold.

Sinkholes. Many parts of Florida are susceptible to sinkholes, usually caused by water dissolves the calcium in limestone subsurfaces. At least 10 Florida counties are susceptible, but these are the top 3: Pasco, Hernando, and Hillsborough (all three are midway up Florida’s Gulf Coast). Fortunately, insurance companies know the areas most prone to sinkholes, so you should be able to avoid them.

Emergency evacuation. From most parts of Florida it is relatively easy to escape an oncoming hurricane. But it is harder in areas like the Florida Keys and certain islands, where there is only one highway available to hundreds of thousands of fleeing tourists and residents.

Bottom line. No matter what part of the country you buy a home in, you need to be careful. Alway get a home inspection from a reputable expert before you get too involved. Go to the building department of your new town and ask about potential hazards, and check out FEMA maps for flood, fire, and other hazard risks.

Comments? We always rely on your experiences to fill in on our research. Please relate your cautionary tales in the Comments section below on buying a home in the Southwest or Southeast, so others can be prepared.

For further reading:

4 Things to Look for When Buying a Desert Home

Posted by Admin on May 28th, 2019


  1. Brigitta, I can’t stress enough how important it is to rent for a year before you buy a home or move into an over 55 neighborhood. My mom spent her first 60 years in the mid-atlantic area. She and my dad decided to take a chance and moved to a really nice area in Mesquite, NV. Mom absolutely hated it. All that red rock and heat. The neighbors were all nice enough but most were snow birds, only there for the winters. Mom missed east coast life, east coast trees and the seasons. Dad on the other hand loved it. They spent a good $40,000.00 moving back and forth twice. Since then, mom died and dad is moving back out there, for the 3rd time.

    My sister moved from the bay area in CA to a place just east of Bozeman MT. and has had a hard time adjusting to life in Montana. She has a house and 20 acres. I think she’d move back to CA in a heartbeat if her husband would.

    by Anne Jeltema — May 29, 2019

  2. While it is true that older homes in the Southwest were adobe or stone, Most of the newer homes, especially from the major home builders, are stick framed 2X4 or 2X6 construction, and slab on grade.
    Arizona also has areas of expansive soil and fissures, which should be investigated by the home buyer.
    Air conditioning is a must in the desert areas of Arizona. Older systems use R22 refrigerant, which is being replaced by R410A, They are not compatible refrigerants. If you buy an older home, and the A/C system fails or loses refrigerant, the buyer is looking at a substantial expense in the thousands of dollars for a replacement system. When buying in a rural area, clearing investigate water access and a functioning septic system.

    by Jimmie Whitaker — May 29, 2019

  3. Hi, why would you say that mold would grow if the air conditioning was off for a time. I would think the heat would stop mold from growing and dry things out. I thought mold grows in damp, dark areas. I also noticed on several properties it looks like the roof eves are rotted. I thought the air was a dry air in Florida because of the heat. I don’t understand. I appreciate your response. Thank You.

    by Linda D. — May 29, 2019

  4. I agree With Anne.. My husband were in our mid 40s when we Moved from NJ to NC beautiful area Lake Norman surrounded by many nas car drivers homes. We custom built our home and lived in it a whopping 3 months. He was still working and the job situation was just a joke. After A total 6 months (3 in a hotel) 3 in the house we packed in one day and listed the house and came running back to NJ. Now that we are retired we are considering the South again But More of a resort area Hilton head. But every time we go to list our house for sale and plan a trip back to HH…we get cold feet. Its Difficult to make a move at 65 especially the thought of Having to find New Drs. We Love our Drs and Our Ins plan we have here. That’s really all we would be leaving behind other then the familiarity of living here over 45 years. Our friends have all moved on to either different life styles or wrapped up with grand kids . So we aren’t leaving much behind there and would love to make some new friends. Again You feel like the Out sider at this late stage in life. And every where we look our first question is where is the nearest hospital. I wish we weren’t still suffering shell shock from trying this once before.

    by Cara Marco — May 29, 2019

  5. We bought in a small town in Goodyear, called Pebble creek and could not be happier… It is a gated community, 3 golf courses and so many activities to keep you busy… I am sorry about the previous comment but to each own as the saying goes….

    by Yvonne — May 29, 2019

  6. Subscribe to the local paper for a year before moving to the area. After reading the published crime reports and the historical political turmoil in the local government every week, we now have a new top pick we are researching.

    by Kris — May 29, 2019

  7. A good article, but in my experience, most of the homes in the southwest are stick-built and stucco-covered. Only in Santa Fe have I encountered a lot of adobe. And I would say air conditioning is a must for almost anywhere in the West, including ‘rainy’ Oregon and Washington. And making sure the home is built to strong earthquake standards is essential for safety and peace of mind. I’ve always tried to determine the type of ground upon which the housing is built–sandy soil liquefies in strong quakes–and where the major fault lines are. A California girl, you see.

    by Andrea — May 29, 2019

  8. Lived in and owned property in FL and AZ and best advice here is to rent before you buy so you know the neighborhoods. In FL, you need to check out building elevations and determine if your budget will get crushed buying expensive and sometimes unreliable hurricane insurance. Both AZ and FL have roof rat problems so the place needs to be tight (rats only need 1/4 inch to find a way in). Both AZ and FL have lots of shoddy contractors which means a great looking flip might be a horror story when you get your inspection report. AZ has mold issues because when it rains it pours during monsoon and other times and houses and contractors don’t build for when it rains. Lots of AZ homes are in flood zones because when it rains on clay the water travels very quickly. House insurance is very low in AZ because low risk of disaster although termites a problem in both states. Lots of good comments here, and you will understand the community you moved to better renting and spending time getting to know neighborhoods before you buy. People are afraid to move a second time thinking it costs so much to get a move, but local moves are by the hour and if you are prepared you can hire out for much less than real estate costs buying into the wrong property.

    by kathy — May 29, 2019

  9. Cara Marco, so many are moving to HIlton Head/Bluffton that I doubt you’d feel like an outsider. That same growth brings traffic problems. Almost daily there are accidents causing traffic jams on the major roads. The Low Country is beautiful but we experienced more threats from hurricanes including mandatory evacuations than we did in 29 years in Central FL. Many older people have to travel to Savannah or Charleston for medical care. As others have suggested, rent for at least a year. We found a large, still growing, over-55 community in that area wasn’t for us despite lovely neighbors. We’re going to give a smaller community in NC a try. Being near our grandchildren isn’t an option. Both families can be transferred.

    by Marjie — May 29, 2019

  10. I followed my job to Yuma Arizona from southern Indiana and currently live in Ocala Florida. Each area has its own issues. I lived in Arizona for 23 years and here are my thoughts;
    Arizona, Most of Arizona is HOT in the summer, well over 100 degrees. Higher elevations are cooler in the summer but have snow and cold. In the desert areas water can be an issue but Xeriscaping can reduce your water requirements. Cooling during the desert summers is absolutely necessary and expensive. Our 2500 sqft home in Yuma had 7 tons of air-conditioning. Our highest monthly electric bill was $475.00. Most homes are either stick built on slab, usually 2×6, or concrete block. Most common outside finish is stucco. Termites are a problem. All slabs are pretreated, keep the termite warrenty paid up. The desert is dusty, Your home will also be dusty. Everything will be dusty!
    Florida; We are working on our 3rd year in Florida. New homes are built to code to withstand expected hurricane activity. Closer to the coast requires storm shutters covering windows as well as reinforced concrete construction. In the coastal areas homeowners insurance can be expensive, some reports have insurance payments rivaling mortgage payments. Inland areas homes are much less expensive to insure as well as purchase. Temperatures are lower than the south west desert and our electric bills are 1/3 of our highest Arizona bill. Termites can be a issue, keep the termite warranty. Lower temperatures, lower electric bills, higher humidity, chance of hurricanes.
    We like Florida better than the Arizona desert. Our opinion.

    by GARY BURRIS — May 29, 2019

  11. Two additional thought for California. Ca has earthquakes so take that into consideration when it comes to insurance. Also, they have dry termites that don’t build mud tunnels like the type seen in most of the country. They are harder to detect and can show up any time.

    by Bill — May 29, 2019

  12. I see I am at odds with most here as single and no children. So I can do whatever I want. Also don’t need and certainly don’t want a 2500 square foot house! I’ve been a snowbird for 14 years, both in the SE and SW, the last 8 in AZ. One of the nice things about AS is no hurricanes and unless in eastern AZ virtually no chance of tornadoes! But, I would not want to be there in the summer heat except at high elevations. So like many retirees I’ve chosen the RV route.
    One thing I’ve not seen mentioned here is political and religion. If you do go to live in one of those active communities (not for me) this may not be an issue. But if amongst the born and bred I couldn’t get along with the ultra conservative, fundamentalist Christian trump voters and they wouldn’t like me either. I’m not trying to start a political thing here so don’t comment on that. Everybody should be free to believe as they want. I’m just saying it’s important to not be clashing with your neighbors, and as I said that is something I’ve not often seen mentioned.

    by Bob — May 30, 2019

  13. Marjie: Thank you…ive said same thing to husband they are building Sun City across from the original in bluffton. and Margarittaville Up in Hardeeville. I said the traffic and lack of probably enough Doctors and facilities is going to catch up there. Im in a Resort area Now In NJ by the water Summer traffic here is no picnic. Luckily we do have many back roads to get where we need to go. But Leaving the water is tough we have grown up with the ocean our entire lives. But we also saw and experienced first hand the Impact hurricane Sandy had on our State and Our shores. Tough choice at this stage in life. Sometimes I think we need to be careful what we wish for! We Know what we have….Never know what we might get!!!! :)~

    by Cara — May 30, 2019

  14. Cara Marco, we also bought in the Lk Norman area, moved from upstate NY. There are definitely unexpected things here like the odd DMV set up, personal property tax, and the various other laws we’re not familiar with. Add to that trying to find doctors, lawyers, and honest tradesmen. The roads are narrow, people don’t signal turns and tailgate. A lot of the food is fried and unhealthy and it can be hard to find grocery stores that carry items you are used to. Add to that the fire ants, pollen for months, and the humidity which is far higher than expected, making mold much more of a problem than the Hudson Valley. Forget about opening windows for fresh air or using a clothesline. Granted taxes are quite better as is the weather but I too miss NY despite this, and also feel like an outsider. Good luck to all of us who relocate.

    by A Piscopo — May 30, 2019

  15. @A Piscopo WE feel your pain! You hit every nail on the head and Yes Lake Norman We were right there and it was beautiful but we dropped our teeth with DMV fees and then the different tax rates depending on what county you sop and live in. Go from Catwaba down to Mooresville and the tax rate were all different! its very hard to find all the things and conveniences we are used to in the North East. And as we get older we lose our patience quicker for sure!!! My heart will always be IN New York first where I was born and raised and watched the Towers as they were built and then as they crumbled! Miss The Old New York not the current way it is being run into the ground today. The same here in NJ being run into the ground and sick of it all!

    by Cara — May 30, 2019

  16. Cara, You are right about finding new Drs. and the other stuff that relocating entails. We also wanted to leave NJ and spent several years exploring NC, SC, Ga. (coasts, central parts and mountains in all three) AND east and west coast of FL. We moved to Myrtle Beach for a year and used that as a base to spend more time in exploring those areas. After being stuck in a traffic jam on I95 leaving FL (and through Ga) at 4:30 AM ahead of a hurricane we crossed Fl. off the list. Ultimately we decided to move back north and just bought a house in Newtown PA. Like you I grew up very close to NYC but on the Jersey side. Watched the twin towners go up from the HS library windows and it was the things that make the NY metro area special that we missed (and the current mess in NJ that made us want to leave). You might want to take a few day trips to explore Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pa. We can get to the beach (Springlake) in an hour and LBI in 1.5 hrs.) and NYC about 2 hours by car and less by train (some people here commute to “the city” daily!) Good luck wherever you choose and as mentioned in other posts, RENT before you buy in any place you are considering.. Places that make great vacations aren’t necessarily the greatest places to live full time.

    by Jean — May 31, 2019

  17. After reading many articles in TopRetirements and extensively visiting 6 different states, we chose to move to the Hickory, NC, area from northeast CT. We arrived here last August and are in a 1-year rental house. We are now looking for a house to purchase. Although we have been frustrated that what we are looking for doesn’t seem to be available (one level is the biggest hurdle), we have a wonderful real estate agent who keeps showing us different options. Yes, it is a bit hard to handle the fact that half of your possessions are still packed in boxes, but you make sure you have your clothes unpacked and whatever you need to feel comfortable. The rest will be easier to move and what a delight when you get to see it all again and find just the right spot in your new home!
    We were fortunate enough to hook up with the Newcomers of Catawba Valley which has provided us with lots of activities, new friends and acquaintances, and LOTS of advice on where to live and how to live here. They’re from elsewhere, have been here, and have done that. Many of them comment “We wish we had done what you’re doing!” Often they lived in hotels while waiting for a house to be built and felt this made them feel rushed to just get the house done.
    Two other groups that have been very helpful are the local library and the county senior citizen centers. Both groups have activities and trips, etc., and tend to offer these at good times for retirees.
    Our biggest asset in this move has been a positive attitude and a sense of adventure! Enjoy it!

    by Amy Chizen — June 1, 2019

  18. I moved to AZ and totally disagree what was said. It’s a great place to live and is beautiful. Yes summers are hot, but we don’t have snow and ice. I have a newer home that was extremely well built and my air condition runs 160.00 in summer. My winter heat runs about 45.00. I do not have any dust from sand as I live up North and it does not get here. If you live between Tucson and lower Phoenix you will experience some dust if a Haboob storms comes down there. Folks, you have to go and check out places and not rely on what is said on blog forums. Each person has different needs and likes!!

    by loralee — June 1, 2019

  19. It is also very hard to characterize an entire state with the experience from settling in one location. We moved 20 miles northwest of Tucson, AZ almost 22 years ago – arrived from Wisconsin. The greatest decision ever made, still love it. We are here year round and survived the summers! We are NO DRAMA weather, fabulous winters and hot summers…as we watch the weather across the country we would characterize ours as boring, love boring weather! We find the Sonoran Desert just beautiful. We also found a 55+ community a perfect match for us and able to make new friends, do new things and have a good lifestyle. Our 2500 sq ft home will run $300 electric for 3 months, but April and October we rarely run heat or a/c. Yes, there are termites here so protection is needed, yes we do come across an occasional rattlesnake so you best pay attention, yes it is dry and you will see dust but no dust storms in our area….some people look at the mountainous terrain and desert vegetation and do not see the beauty, I personally do and dislike FL – spend enough time in AZ or FL and understand which is right for you, it doesn’t matter which was right for me.

    by ljtucson — June 2, 2019

  20. Contrary to what was stated in the article, mold is generally NOT a problem in the Southwest. Perhaps there is a typo and they really meant Florida and the Southeast.

    Editor’s note: You are correct Jodave, it should have read Florida and the Southeast. Sorry about that, but thank you for correcting!

    by Jodave — June 3, 2019

  21. Something I haven’t read in the comments but might be important to those who plan to carry a mortgage on their retirement home…… mortgages in the southwestern states are ‘non-recourse’ loans (at least they used to be) whereas in the southeastern states they are not.

    by Thom — June 3, 2019

  22. We are interested in moving from California to Fredericksburg, VA. I would love to see the same information about Del Webb housing there.

    by Marcia — June 4, 2019

  23. @Thom: Are you going to enlighten us non bankers as to what non-recourse loans might be and why one would or would not want one?

    by Linda — June 4, 2019


    by danno — June 5, 2019

  25. Hello, sorry for the delay, yes, the link above explains the difference between recourse and non-recourse loans. The non-recourse loans give the borrower an option if things go wrong in their life. I learned about these mortgage differences years ago when one of my older brothers mailed his house keys back to the bank after trying unsuccessfully to sell his home for 1 1/2 years. The home was in a Denver area suburb and the real estate market had imploded ( probably the 1970’s or early1980’s). He was very surprised to never hear anything negative from the bank or from a collection agency. In his case, his credit score was not even affected (according to him). I later discovered that some western states (AZ, CA, CO,) about twelve states in all, have non-recourse mortgages. Naturally, not everyone is in favor of this loan type.

    by Thom — June 5, 2019

  26. It seems that North Carolina might also be a non-recourse loan state.

    by Thom — June 5, 2019

  27. Another subject I haven’t seen addressed in this thread is the cost of car insurance in different states (or, “what are insurance companies allowed to get away with… “). In Arizona (Arrowhead Ranch, northern Glendale) we paid a fortune, when we moved to Carlsbad CA, the car insurance dropped from $4100.00 to $1300.00, same cars, same companies.

    by Thom — June 5, 2019

  28. Hi Marcia
    If you scroll to the top of this site you’ll find two options to find out more about specific communities. Either use the “Best Places” at top left or the “Find a Commuunity” pull down menu at top right. Click on one of those and choose your State. Under Virginia you’ll see towns listed. The Del Webb community appears under Fredericksburg along with many others.
    Hope this helps,
    Moderator Flo

    by Moderator Flo — June 6, 2019

  29. Have not experienced car insurance issue like Thom in Tucson area. We have 2 vehicles one being a 2019 Subaru Outback and 2016 Ford – rates are $1250 year. But, in Arizona your annual vehicle license is based on the value of the vehicle so a new one like the Outback will mean around $600 first year and then declines annually. My previous 11 year old VW was down to $120/year. That was kind of a shock – seems like it encourages people to keep old cars on the road!

    by ljtucson — June 7, 2019

  30. Rick sent in this comment:

    I read your May 29, 2019 blog re pitfalls of buying real estate in unfamiliar regions of the country. You hit on many valid issues / concerns, but missed at least one other. That of land ownership in Florida. It is my understanding that in some communities one may purchase a home or condo, but not own the land it sits on? Is this true? What need a prospective buyer need to research before investing in a piece of property or a home / condo?

    by Jane at Topretirements — June 11, 2019

  31. Florida is not the only area of the country where what is referred to as a “land lease” applies. It is quite common in manufactured home and RV communities, but in communities with traditional homes as well. Every year you can expect an increase in the land lease price, so do your homework and find out the history of the increases. Often the price of the home might be relatively low, but the lot rental evens things out.

    by Admin — June 12, 2019

  32. We also moved from the East Coast to the Tucson area. I had owned property on Hilton Head since 1994 and had planned on staying there, as my community had direct beach access. What I hadn’t planned for was the development of Bluffton and Hardeeville. The traffic onto the island got to be atrocious. BTW, for those who don’t know, Sun City Hilton Head has nothing to do with Hilton Head. It’s 30 minutes off the island, so going to the beach on 278 or the new parkway can be a nightmare. Between those new developments and the timeshares that got built on the island, my beautiful paradise become a nightmare for people looking for a quiet spot on the beach.
    We are very content in Tucson. It’s a progressive city that offers culture, nature, intellectual life, great food (UNESCO World food town), has access to two airports and good medical facilities. Oh, beaches are accessible in just a few hours by car— Sea of Cortez in Mexico or San Diego, CA.
    Summers are hot, but our 3500 foot elevation helps make us about 10 degrees cooler than a Phoenix. We travel in June and July, so summer isn’t that long. Solar panels get our AC down below $150 then. For several months we run neither heat or AC. I totally agree with comments about renting before buying. I think a year is necessary to see what life would be like.

    by Barbara — July 15, 2019

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