The $65,000 summer home: inside four Florida houses that these Toronto couples got for a steal

The $65,000 summer home: inside four Florida houses that these Toronto couples got for a steal

When the North American housing market collapsed in 2008, Florida turned into foreclosure alley. With the loonie riding high against the U.S. dollar, housing prices in free fall and Canadian bank branches blooming all over the Sunshine State, real estate–savvy, vitamin D–deprived Torontonians smelled opportunity. Great bargains and warm weather aren’t the only reasons Florida is turning into Toronto South: the recent buyers we talked to discovered there’s much more to the state than strip malls, track suits and theme parks.

Heat Seekers Winter-averse 30-somethings score a short-sale condo at the end of the oil spill

The buyers
Terry Penney, a 39-year-old dental hygienist, and Carol Brown, a 35-year-old sales manager for Fairmont hotels, with a home in Rouge Valley.

What they bought
A 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom condo in Bonita Springs.

For how much
$65,000 (U.S.).

The back story
Shortly after their 2007 wedding in Mexico, Carol and Terry started to talk about eventually retiring somewhere warm and tropical. “Terry has never liked the winter, which is strange, since he’s from Newfoundland,” says Carol. “So we got to thinking, Why wait until retirement?” By 2009, they were officially hunting for a second home. They wanted beautiful beaches and a resort-like atmosphere, in a relatively uncrowded area. Internet research led them to Bonita Springs in southwest Florida, north of Naples, where they found their dream condo: a third-floor corner unit in a development called Sanctuary at Imperial River. It was a short sale—the step before foreclosure, when the owners agree to sell the property for less than the amount of their mortgage—which complicated things. Carol and Terry had borrowed against the equity of their Toronto home and were prepared to make a speedy cash purchase. They offered the asking price—$79,000—in November 2009 but didn’t hear anything. They were at the mercy of the sellers’ bank, and the process moved slowly. In April, during the height of the BP oil spill, the sellers were ready to close, but by then Carol and Terry were reconsidering. “We were worried that dead dolphins would be washing up on the shore,” says Carol. Later in the summer, after BP announced that the oil spill had been contained, the couple went back in with a new offer of $65,000. They closed the deal in late September 2010.

“We can’t believe how cheap Florida is,” says Terry. “Our maintenance fees are $300 a month, and power is $50.” They travel south once a month for a three-day weekend and are planning a few longer vacations, too. “The condo association manager peeks in on our condo when it isn’t occupied,” Terry says. “All we have to do is bring him a bottle of Niagara icewine.”

Carol Brown and Terry Penney own a third-floor condo in this development north of Naples. Above: The common pool at Sanctuary at Imperial River, a residential development in Bonita Springs (Images: Enney and Brown by John Cullen; property by Codis Inc.) 

Married, With ChildrenTorn between a northern cottage and a southern condo, one family picks flights to Florida over traffic on the 400

The buyers
Jim, a 45-year-old chartered accountant and partner at KPMG, and Liz Newton, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom. They live in the Kingsway area of Toronto, with their two kids, ages six and nine.

What they bought
A 1,500-square-foot condo in a gated community in Naples.

For how much
$230,000 (U.S.).

The back story
When the Newtons started shopping for a vacation home, they considered both cottage country and the southern U.S. (Liz is from North Carolina). Then the recession hit, and Florida’s ridiculously low housing prices beckoned. They wanted something low-maintenance, so they focused on condos. And they wanted a kid-friendly area with grown-up-friendly cultural attractions and amenities that would keep them busy even as the kids grew older. “The biggest logistical challenge was getting to Florida to look at prospective places,” says Jim. “But we combined vacations and long weekends with house hunting and had a patient and determined agent.” Their five-month search ended in June 2009 at a furnished condo in Falling Waters, a gated community in Naples. The amenities clinched it: tennis, bocce ball, basketball, and an enormous pool their kids love (it has bridges, islands and a lazy river). “The kids call the condo our Florida
cottage,” says Jim.

The Newtons now spend Christmas and March breaks there, plus a few kid-free weekends. In summer, they post the place on HomeLink International, a home exchange Web site. Last year, they swapped it for a place in Rome.

The Newtons found their vacation home in a family-friendly gated community in Naples (Images: Newtons by John Cullen; property by Codis Inc.) 

Footloose Early retirees with a plan to spend six months in the sun

The buyers
Mike Nicholls, a 64-year-old former co‑owner of an elevator maintenance business, and Debbie Racicot, a 54-year-old retired property manager, with a condo in Brampton.

What they bought
A 2,400-square-foot four-bedroom house in a gated community in Nokomis.

For how much
$355,000 (U.S.).

The back story
Four years ago, Mike sold his business and he and Debbie decided to get a head start on their bucket list. One of the couple’s goals was to travel while they were still active and healthy. They owned a lot in Hilton Head, South Carolina, but wanted to be even farther south. They liked the Gulf Coast, so they pinpointed an area that was less crowded than Fort Lauderdale, less expensive than Naples, and easily accessible to friends and family who were flying in from Canada and other parts of the U.S. (Between them, they have six children in their 30s and six young grandkids.)

The couple sold their main residence, a home on two and a half acres in Caledon, and bought a condo in Brampton. Then they invested in a golf course–view house (it’s on the fifth hole) in Nokomis, outside Venice. The property wasn’t in fore­closure, but it had been on the market, unoccupied, for two years. “The owner purchased it eight or nine years ago for $600,000, and she was anxious to sell,” says Mike. Their agent had watched the listing price creep down from $525,000, fully furnished, to $400,000. In March 2010, Mike and Debbie got the place for $355,000 cash. Now they spend six months a year in Florida or cruising around the Gulf and the Caribbean. “Nokomis is a great base for last-minute cruise deals,” says Mike. “We can throw our clothes in a suitcase and set sail the next day.”

The original asking price of this four-bedroom near Venice was $600,000. It sold for just over half of that. Debbie Racicot and Mike Nicholls use their Florida place as a base for last-minute cruises (Images: Codis Inc.) 

All in the Family Two couples pool their resources and invest in a shared second home

The buyers
Ward, a director at Suncor Energy, and Joyce Elhard, an artist, both in their early 50s, from Burlington.

What they bought
A 2,000-square-foot four-bedroom bungalow in Davenport.

For how much
$247,500 (U.S.).

The back story
The Elhards wanted a house they could share with Ward’s brother and his family, who live in Calgary. But they also hoped to rent it out when they weren’t using it, so they focused their search on the Orlando area—theme park central—which would be attractive to short-term renters.

They booked a two-week house-hunting vacation with Ward’s brother. With such a small window of time and no experience purchasing property in the U.S., they enlisted a Florida agent, Steve Schaffer of Dolby Properties. “Hiring a local agent to steer us in the right direction was one of the best decisions we made,” says Ward. “We were focused on cheaper houses, but Steve cautioned us that cheap prices are usually reflective of a less desirable neighbourhood. He was right. While the houses we’d seen looked nice, many of the neighbourhoods were ultimately not where we wanted to be.” They chose Davenport, which is southwest of Orlando—about an hour-and-a-half’s drive to either coast—and close enough (but not too close) to Disney World (their two kids are university-aged). They bought in the summer of 2008, paying in cash. Between the two families, they now spend six to eight weeks a year there. This winter, the Elhards are planning to go to the Daytona 500, about an hour away, and are excited about the opening of a new gallery at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, also about an hour away.

The Elhards bought a property not far from Disney World because they knew it would be attractive to short-term renters (Image: Codis Inc.)