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personal finance tips

If you've ever thought that, for a few months of the year, it might be nice to leave salt stains, frostbite and ice scrapers behind as you head for warmer climes, there couldn't be a better time to act than now.

Robert Keats, a cross-border financial planner, says that, in his nearly 30 years of practice, he has never seen more favourable conditions for purchasing U.S. real estate.

"We've got the Canadian dollar at par or better; we've got the lowest interest rates that we've had in probably 20 or 30 years; and we've got the lowest real estate prices that we've had for a long time. There are just some great bargains out there," he says.

"For somebody that is going to regularly make the U.S. sunbelt part of their winter vacations, it's an incredible time to lock in one of the higher costs that they're going to have for their winter vacations, and that's accommodation."

If you're thinking of snapping up a bargain south of the border, Mr. Keats recommends hiring an attorney who specializes in cross-border real estate transactions and can determine the best way to set up a U.S. property title to avoid future income tax and estate tax problems.

And if you already own a U.S. property and are renting or selling it, get professional tax help, Mr. Keats says; otherwise, you could end up in hot water with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service over withholding taxes.

Mr. Keats offers some additional tips on wintering in the United States:

1. Buy travel health insurance early

Canadian health coverage is limited in the United States, not adequate for medical emergencies, and travel coverage often can't be bought after you've left Canada, Mr. Keats says. Many providers offer a discount when policies are bought well in advance of departure. In addition, if you develop a medical condition before your trip and you haven't already secured a policy, this could delay or prevent coverage. To save on premiums, choose a policy with a high deductible.

2. Get the best exchange rate

Banks and currency brokers offer better rates to customers who exchange a large sum. Before you exchange your Canadian money, shop around for the best rate, and avoid currency exchange kiosks, which typically charge a much higher commission, Mr. Keats says.

3. Open a U.S. or cross-border bank account

Having a U.S. or cross-border bank account makes it easier to pay bills and write cheques for U.S. expenses. In addition, financial institutions with cross-border banking can help you avoid foreign-transaction fees and can help you establish U.S. credit history, making it easier to get a loan or mortgage.

4. Notify your home and auto insurers

Many home insurance providers require notification if your house will be vacant for months at a time. While you may pay a higher premium during your absence, failing to follow this step may invalidate your coverage. You may be able to reduce your auto insurance coverage if you are leaving your vehicles behind.

5. Carry a 'border kit'

To move smoothly through U.S. customs, bring evidence that you have every intention of returning to Canada, such as the previous year's tax return or recent utility bills.

6. Avoid 'red flags' at customs

Avoid travelling on a one-way ticket, a ticket that was purchased for cash or one that was bought immediately before a flight. Don't cross the border in a vehicle that is not registered to any of its occupants, or that is registered in a place in which you do not reside. Avoid travelling with a companion who has a different immigration status from yours in the country you are attempting to enter. And make sure the names on your travel documents contain no variations.