The Snowbird Lifestyle: How Local Residents Make It Work

Thousands of Michigan snowbirds are about to fly – and drive – South. For many retirees, 20 inches of snow – let alone 20 feet of it winter before last – has lost its charm. It’s not hard to hear jealousy in some of the jokes about snowbirds … the only way to tell fall has come to Florida is that the colors start to change on the license plates.

But what is it really like to be a snowbird – to chuck the mukluks and migrate South every winter? Is it just for the rich? Do snowbirds’ northern Michigan friendships suffer? What happens with their homes here in Michigan while they are away? What are the costs involved in splitting life between two places? And do they just blob around all winter, or do they stay active?

One thing is clear: not all snowbirds are alike. Some live a nomadic existence, crisscrossing the Southwest’s deserts and mountains for months at a time. Others live in huge retirement communities with swimming pools and dozens of daily, organized activities.

Yes, most of them are tired of winter, and even those who used to look forward to it, say they’ve reached an age where it’s no longer fun.

But they also seem to be upbeat folks, not complainers. They feel at home in the South and in the North. They lead active lives both here and in their winter residences, and apparently have decided “to wear out, not rust out.”

Those the TC Business News interviewed worked hard to pay off their Michigan homes – which makes it easier to absorb the cost of a second one – and they planned carefully and early on for retirement. Since retiring, they have learned to deal with the complexities that come with owning two homes – paying property taxes and utilities on two properties, making sure their unoccupied home is secure, and maintaining relationships with grown children, grandchildren and friends.

Retired Benzie elementary teacher Betsy MacGirr came to the snowbird lifestyle in an unusual way. She got a house in Green Valley, Arizona for free when her teaching mentor and close friend Val Kaye “gifted” the house to MacGirr her in her will. Kaye’s act of generosity came with one unusual stipulation. “All she asked in return was for me to use the house, then re-gift it in my will, which I am doing,” MacGirr said.

Sadly, MacGirr’s husband died before the couple could start enjoying the snowbird life together. Despite that, every winter she spends three months at the retirement community, which is located 20 miles south of Tucson and 30 miles north of the Mexican border. In the process, she has established close friendships there, many of them with fellow Michiganders.

MacGirr leads an active life. While in Traverse City, she helps with the family fruit and vegetable farm and organizes travel for the Senior Center. “We take the folks on mystery trips – where they don’t know the destination,” she said. She also travels with longtime friends and former colleagues. “We’re going to Costa Rica at the end of October and Spain in April 2016,” she said.

Even with a free house, however, maintaining a winter home means added costs. McGirr pays property taxes, insurance, and standard utility fees in both states. And at some point, the lack of transportation in her retirement community could be a deal breaker. “There are no busses or cabs,” she said, “so if it someday gets to the point that I can’t drive, I won’t be going there anymore.”

One thing she doesn’t worry about is security when either home is empty. “Here in Traverse City, I have family checking on the house every day. My nephew has a farm right next door,” she said. “And in Arizona, I have close friends who take care of things. They even drive the car I leave behind so that it stays in good shape.”

Mary Ann and Bob Warner take an entirely different approach to retirement. Their snowbird nest rolls on wheels. For several months every winter, they rumble through the Southwest deserts and mountains in their big RV, stopping and moving on again whenever and wherever the mood strikes them.

“It’s just like having two homes,” said Mary Ann, a retired nurse who worked at Munson Medical Center.

The Warners have been nomads every year since Bob retired as an administrator at Northwestern Michigan College. They love the freedom.

“It works fine for us,” Mary Ann said. “When our youngest daughter graduated from college and went to Alaska to work, there wasn’t really any sense in us hanging around anymore.”

She added, “We have a grand time. We’ve made friends all around the country, and keep up with them online through emails, and Facebook. In the days of cellphones, there’s no reason not to maintain contact with friends and family.”

But, she acknowledged, there are challenges.

Not surprisingly, gasoline is a major expense. In a clear understatement, Mary Ann called the mileage on the RV “not real good.” And she thinks the RV life is probably not for everyone. “I’d advise trying this type of life in small increments,” she said. “Maybe go for one month just to see if you like it. Then venture a bit further, say for three months or longer.”

Another concern, as the Warners found out, can be safety. When a medical emergency arose last summer, they were lucky to be in a spot where they could find help in time. But she admitted it was a close call. “If we’d been staying in an extremely remote area at the time, there might have been a much different outcome,” she said, sounding every bit the calm nurse who is used to medical crises. “So we’re rethinking all of that – and may start staying closer to more populated spots.”

Like other snowbirds, norther Michigan’s winter weather played a part in their decision to go South.
“I never hated winter, and still don’t,” she said. “But it just gets to be more trying – you worry about falls, car accidents, getting stuck.

Their nomadic winter months are possible financially, she said, because they planned ahead. And it works for extended periods because they are experienced in this type of travel, having started out years ago with small camping trailers. Now they move around in style with a full-sized, “Class A” RV.

Mary Ann offered one more tip for people thinking about this kind of rolling retirement … buying used.
“We’ve never purchased a new RV,” she said. “Buying used can save you a lot of money.”

Ginny and Bob Postma also chose an active retirement lifestyle, but one within a more traditional setting – a double-wide mobile home they bought in a large retirement community in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.

They had started traveling to Florida for brief winter visits even before they sold their memorial stone business in Newaygo, Mich. to their son. In retirement, their stays now begin around the end of November and last until mid-May.

Ginny said the snowbird life is not just for the wealthy. Our place [in Florida] is very adequate, but not as expensive as a regular home,” she said. “So people with moderate retirement income can easily find places that are economically workable. And they can have two homes.”

Three things have made their retirement lifestyle possible, Ginny said: working hard, spending carefully through the years and planning for retirement.

“We’re in our 70s now,” she said. “Our generation was taught to think of your future. We lived moderately while we raised our children, worked hard at our businesses, spent wisely, and took good care of ourselves and our family. We’re very grateful we can do this.”

Like other snowbirds, she acknowledged the challenges. “It is costly because you’re keeping up two homes,” she said.

One special concern for the Postmas is the high cost of property insurance for homes in hurricane-prone Florida. They do not fully insure their winter home. Bob said risks come with that strategy.

“It’s a gamble,” he said, “but the Florida house costs about $70,000, and insurance rates are $2,500 to $3,000 a year, which is ridiculous since [insurance] would pay only half of the value if the place were destroyed. It’s been there nearly 40 years, and it’s been ok so far. If something happens, we’ll try to start over. If we lived in a regular brick and mortar house [in Florida], we might have to look at insurance.”

They pay association and property taxes in both states. “But the property tax in Florida is less because we rent the land the house sits on,” Ginny said. It also helps that they have paid off their Traverse City condo and the Florida place.

Like most snowbirds, the Postmas take numerous measures to secure their local home when it is unoccupied.

The retirement community where they live half the year has 1,500 sites – large enough, they said, to support a full range of amenities and organized activities. “Visitors who drive through see 65-80 year-old folks living very active lives and staying young,” Ginny said. For variety, the Postmas also travel to Canada and have taken barge trips through Europe. “We’re going to live life to the fullest as long as we can,” she added. “I’m sure we’ll have no regrets if we reach the end of our finances or health.”