After they took possession of the townhouse they purchased in Boca Raton, Fla., earlier this year, Shelley McKenzie and her husband got started on renovations.
The Vancouver couple gutted the place down to the foundation. Due to delays in getting all of the requisite permits, their vacation property is still a work zone – which made the two especially nervous once Hurricane Irma arrived.
What made their situation especially nerve-wracking was that, because their property was under construction during the recent devastating storm, they didn't have any insurance. Companies there don't provide coverage until a property has been built to code, complete with impact-resistant hurricane windows and doors, and inspected.
"We were pretty worried," Ms. McKenzie says. "We had visions that all the work they had done would be gone. My husband didn't sleep for three or four days. I was worried, but I knew we were safe and sound here."
It turned out their home survived unscathed, without even so much as flooding or power loss. Workers are back on the job, and the place should be ready before December. (They plan to use the home one month each year until they retire – which is scheduled for later this year – then go down to Florida for six months a year.)
"We got lucky," says Ms. McKenzie. "It just missed us."
The two were fortunate indeed; the hurricane left a trail of destruction, with thousands of homes destroyed.
For Canadians contemplating purchasing property in the Sunshine State, and using a good portion of their retirement savings to do so, now is a good time to take into account all of the associated caveats and costs. Natural disasters are bad enough, never mind an accompanying financial disaster that could result.
Mitch Marenus, chief investment officer of Transition Advisors Group Inc., a company that specializes in helping Canadians move to the United States and vice versa, is based in Miami, which was hit by Irma harder than expected. Several days afterward, he travelled to the company's office in Arizona to wait out the period while power was still out.
"We were only supposed to get hit by a tropical storm," Mr. Marenus says. "We got a lot of hurricane gusts. All you need is one 100-mile-an-hour gust, and trees start toppling over. It was just a mess. It's still a mess."
Having insurance is obviously vital, and Mr. Marenus, along with Transition Advisors Group founder and president Brian Wruk, urge Canadians buying property in the region to pore over policy details.
A typical homeowners' plan covers factors such as fire, theft and liability, but not hurricanes. For that, homeowners need a windstorm addendum policy. Hurricane deductibles are different than those for standard home insurance; property owners are typically on the hook for anywhere from 2 to 10 per cent of their home's insured value before coverage for damage kicks in. Coverage for flooding is another extra.
"Those are potential expenses you've got to be prepared for, and they're in U.S. dollars," Mr. Wruk says. "That's the cost of maintaining a home in Florida. If you get a Category 5 hurricane blowing your roof off, you've got a pretty big bill you've got to carry."
Snowbirds may also want to consider hiring a property-management company to check in on their homes when they're not there, especially during hurricane season. Advanced home alarm systems also allow people to monitor their place remotely. However, related expenses can add up, and technology goes only so far.
"Sure, you can have a camera and see different rooms in your house online; that's all fine and dandy, but nothing is better than having a person of confidence to send over to your house and look around to make sure everything is all right," says Montreal lawyer Shlomi Steve Levy, who specializes in cross-border real estate transactions and tax and estate planning. "You want to be leaving a key to a trusted neighbour, whether it's for a hurricane or an overflowing toilet. Human supervision is still the best way to go about things."
Mr. Levy was handling several real-estate transactions in Florida when Irma struck; in a couple of cases, the buyers put on the brakes, saying they didn't want to close and be left with a severely damaged home; rather, they opted to wait until the storm had passed to re-evaluate.
Potential buyers need to do their due diligence when it comes to establishing whether a property they're eyeing is in a high- to lower-risk zone when it comes to hurricanes, flooding or other natural disasters (note that "lower" does not mean no risk).
Mr. Levy, who urges people to work with an experienced, local realtor, notes that many of his clients opt to buy new or newer homes. Once a building in Florida reaches 40 years of age, it's subject to an inspection, with things like sprinkler systems, roofing, windows, doors, balconies and construction materials all being subject to scrutiny regarding their potential to withstand a natural disaster. In many cases, those inspections lead to pricey special assessments.
Canadians should also see what kind of insurance coverage they can get at home – not for their vacation property itself, but for costs such as accommodation and meals if they're forced to flee during a natural disaster. The advantage of being snowbirds, Mr. Levy notes, is that they're rarely in Florida during hurricane season, which runs from June to November.
While weather events like Hurricane Irma bring so many considerations to the fore for potential real-estate buyers, Mr. Levy says that time has a way of reframing things.
"What fuels Canadians buying in the Sunshine State is the climate, activities and amenities," he says. "I bet you two, three, four months from now, when they're down there looking to purchase, the hurricane is going to be the farthest thing from their thoughts. They're going to be thinking about what the taxes are, what the homeowner association's policies are, or whether they're allowed to bring their pet. At that point, some of the concerns blow away like the hurricane itself."