Florida Snowbirds Head North as Lowly Loonie Curbs Spending

  • Fewer Canadians are expected to make leisure trips to the U.S.
  • One response to the weak currency: `Just don't think about it'

Rene and Daphne Gilbert watched the Toronto Maple Leafs lose 5-1 last week to the Florida Panthers. With their Canadian currency falling faster than the faltering hockey team, the couple may not stick around for the March 29 rematch in the Sunshine State.

“We’re not too sure with the dollar how long we’ll stay now,” said Daphne, who arrived in Fort Lauderdale in late November with plans to stay six months. Every time they do a conversion into the Canadian dollar they do a double-take.

“Just don’t think about it,” Rene advised, his head shaking. “You just can’t.”

Yet for many so-called snowbirds, the Canadian dollar’s almost 30 percent decline from parity is top of mind, putting a chill on their spending, sending many home early and discouraging others from coming altogether.

With similar cultural proclivities, the North Americans of the north are a natural fit in the golf and bridge tournaments of Florida’s retirement communities. But with the loonie near a 13-year low and buying only about 71 U.S. cents, Canadian leisure travel to the U.S. is expected to decline 8 percent this winter season, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

‘Tidal Wave’

Brent and Cindy Leathwood, a married couple from Toronto, had been visiting Sarasota for a decade. Two years ago, the real estate agents moved to the Gulf Coast area to tap into “the tidal wave of money” coming from Canadians looking to own a slice of the sun.

“Obviously when the dollar was strong we had a lot of Canadians buying,” Brent said by phone. He estimates about half of his business is made up of clients from Canada, compared with about 80 percent when they started their Florida business.

Now many of the Canadians are looking to head back north.

“They have an incentive to sell their property in Florida and repatriate those funds back to Canada to pay for their retirement,” he said. “They’re going to repatriate these dollars back at a C$1.45 or C$1.50 rate.”

Priced Out

After the 2008 financial crisis, a condo could be purchased for $100,000, which allowed not-so-wealthy Canadians to get into the Florida real estate market, Leathwood said. Property values around Sarasota have mostly rebounded to levels before the crash, he said: the average condo price is $250,000 to $350,000, while the average single family home is $350,000 to $550,000.

Canadians are getting priced out of the market because their currency is 30 percent less than what it was five years ago and the average property is up about 25 percent, Jonathan Spears, a real estate agent at Scenic Sotheby’s International Reality in Destin, Florida, said by phone.

Canadians make up about 10 percent of his real estate business, down from 20 percent when the exchange rate was closer to par in 2011, Spears said.

Bright Side

Snowbirds who aren’t ready to sell are toughing out the exchange rate by renting their homes for as much as $1,000 a week, Leathwood said.

Evan Rachovsky of the Canadian Snowbird Association, which has more than 100,000 members, said his organization has been receiving more inquiries about U.S. income tax law this year as members put their U.S. asset to work.

Ed Yamamoto, a retiree renting a condo in Boynton Beach with friends from London, Ontario, said for future vacations he would consider countries where costs would be lower. In the meantime, he’s looking on Florida’s bright side.

“We try to offset the dollar by driving more ... and drinking your wine!” he said.

Thinning out the ex-pat Canadian throngs may be offering at least one advantage for those remaining: a relatively decent price for eighth-row tickets at the Leafs-Panthers game.

“These tickets would cost us C$400 back home,” Bill Dale, a construction company owner from Ontario, said at the BB&T Center before the game. “Here we got them for just $65.”

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