Come sail away with me

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By Bill Koch, editor

The clock is ticking. Time is running out. The highways and the blue skies are beginning to fill with travelers making their way northward – to settled lands hundreds and thousands of miles from the Sunshine State.

Who are these people and why do they do it?

Most people call them “snowbirds,” but the name for many rings with sour connotations. They prefer to call themselves “seasonal residents.” It’s a more apt description of their twice-yearly sojourning to their home states.

Of course, there is a variant to the snowbird: the sunbird, the resident whose primary home is in Florida and who heads north to a secondary abode to avoid this state’s occasionally scotching tropical summers.

Florida’s average high temperatures can easily reach into the upper-90s, and just stay there, even as humidity levels mercilessly linger near 100 percent. 

Unless you’re incredibly robust, outdoorsy or masochistic, it is uncomfortable staying outside in Florida summer middays.

Is it any wonder seasonal residents make their way to the cooler climes of northern terrains? After all, summer highs in Arlington Heights, Illinois, may hit 84 degrees on average. And summer evenings dip into the lower 60s. In Florida, on the other hand, even the nights are sometimes cause for sweating.

Winter in Florida? Now that’s another story. Daytime highs in January may hit 70 and lows may peer from a distance at the freezing mark (45 degrees).

Back to Arlington Heights with its daily highs of 33 and lows of 18 in January. How about snowfall? Take last January, for example. Nature dropped more than six inches of snowfall on the northwest Chicago suburb in one weekend. So much for that Saturday afternoon golf game.

Being a snowbird or a sunbird makes sense.

But who are these people and how many of them are there?

First, the term snowbird may be misleading – at first glance. In ornithological circles, the dark-eyed junco bird is nicknamed a snowbird. (That may be one of the reasons why many snowbirds don’t find the label endearing.)

More politically correct (and less frequently used) terms may be winter or seasonal resident. However, the terms has been around for more than a century. (Texans call snowbirds “winter Texans.”)

According to etymologists, the word goes back to the late 17th century and obviously referred to birds that were associated with snow. In the early decades of the 20th century, the term referred to northern workers in the United States who traveled south for work. The name shifted in the late 1970s to refer to tourists.

Most snowbirds (and sunbirds) are retirees. The back-and-forth flow causes Florida’s population to fluctuation by nearly 20 percent, according to a University of Florida study.

Nearly a million people move to Florida during the winter (or out of Florida to escape the summers) for at least a month but usually for around four months.

“Long recognized as a permanent retirement destination, Florida appears to be a leading destination for elderly temporary migrants as well,” said Stanley Smith, director of University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Smith also said few studies have succeeded at quantifying snowbird migration patterns. He did note that holding two homes appears to precede permanent residence in Florida. As snowbirds age, they tend to travel less frequently before deciding to make Florida their permanent and only residence, which has led to the infilling of baby boomers into the snowbird pollution. Baby boomers, ages 55-75, are generally more active and tend to be wealthier than their predecessors.

Snowbirds are transforming Florida. By 2025, one in five Floridians are expected to be elderly. Healthier and more active seniors are driving the snowbird expansion. According to one study, “Snowbirds, Sunbirds and Stayers: seasonal migration of the elderly to Florida,” nearly two-thirds of snowbirds rate their health as very good or excellent.

Snowbirds typically leave Florida and other southern states in late March and early April and make their return in early October.

While snowbirds come from all over the United States and Canada, most are coming from the northeastern area. New York has the largest number of snowbirds, according to many estimates. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Canada have high snowbird populations as well.

Although migration trends are shifting slightly, Florida still ranks as the top snowbird destination because of its large elderly populations and an economy and commercial sector that tailors services for older residents. Arizona and Texas are growing snowbird destinations. Costa Rica is also becoming popular.

John D. Rockefeller, one of the first snowbirds by modern definition, used to spend his winters in Ormond Beach, Florida, more than a century ago.

Here are some tips from AAA for transitioning into the snowbird world:

  • Rent or own: New snowbirds should test their prospective haunts before making the move. Renting might be a good first step in determining the suitability of an area for a new or second home.
  • Who’s on first: Snowbirds have to decide which home will be their primary residence. The IRS establishes criteria for determining primary residences. Taxes and the availability of homestead exemptions should be factored into decision-making processes.
  • What’s up, doc: Snowbirds should do research to find access to health care in their new areas. Contacting primary care doctors or friends for references might provide valuable leads.
  • Go north: Snowbirds should prepare their northern homes properly for the times they’ll be away. This may involve obtaining a snow-removal service, installing special exterior lighting and requesting neighbors or relatives to watch the house.
  • Get insurance: Lenders may require snowbirds with mortgages on their second homes to get homeowner’s insurance. Obtaining insurance might help protect homes in owners’ absences.
  • Cover the trip: Travel insurance may help cover unexpected costs from cancellations due to weather, flight tickets or lost baggage.