Each spring, Janet and Bob Kutin lock the front door, return the key to their rental and head back to Long Island, without giving a second thought to the Boynton Beach house they’ve lived in for three winters now.
The Hauppauge couple, both retired teachers, relish their carefree experience as seasonal tenants. After having owned a place for four years in Pompano Beach, Florida, they no longer worry about storm damage, as they did when Hurricane Andrew drove water through the windows of that residence, or feel obligated to spend four to five months each year in Florida because they own a home there.
“Renting is about getting away from the cold for three months, and having more leeway to travel and to be back in New York for longer periods of time, since we miss our children and grandchildren,” said Janet Kutin, 70, whose winter respite encompasses playing golf with her husband, who is 73, at a public course and seeing Long Island friends, who are also snowbirds and vacation nearby.
For their stay in Florida, the Kutins pack light. Their furnished two-bedroom, two-bath rental has all the kitchenware and linens they need. All they bring are clothes, golf clubs and family photos.
“I don’t go anywhere without my pictures of my children and grandchildren, which I put on the refrigerator, so it feels like home,” Janet Kutin said.
Since the renters already own a home on Long Island, and some even have second homes elsewhere, they hail their three- to six-month rentals with freeing them from the financial responsibilities and angst that can accompany ownership, such as furnishings, insurance and maintaining a residence, as well as safeguarding it from hurricanes, burglaries and vandalism.
Renting, they say, also gives them the option of not returning to a poorly maintained place, a community that has more cliques than high school, or an area not convenient to restaurants, shops or their snowbird friends.
Accessible and comfortable
There are no statistics on how many Long Island snowbirds rent, but Florida is a popular destination because of its relative proximity and the frequent flights available. And when snowbirds travel to Florida and find a place that satisfies their list of must-haves, they want to return to it every winter. There is comfort, they say, in patronizing the same stores, recreational facilities and cultural attractions each year; reuniting with winter neighbors; and knowing that visiting children and grandchildren will be welcome to use on-site amenities, including tennis courts and swimming pools.
“Everything here is to our liking, and the people here are very warm and very friendly,” said Commack resident and retired teacher Lorraine Lipton, 70, who along with her husband, Ira, 72, a retired school guidance counselor, has hosted their extended family in the furnished three-bedroom, two-bath Boynton Beach condo they have rented for three consecutive years.
During her Florida stay, Lipton takes art classes at a local Jewish community center and walks regularly with her husband in a nature preserve. She also gets to meet with her Long Island book club: eight of its 12 members also winter nearby, including Janet Kutin, who rents in the same enclave as Lipton.
It’s fairly common for friends, relatives and even countrymen to rent near each other during the winter, said Jack McCabe, CEO of the real estate research and consulting firm that bears his name in Deerfield Beach, Florida. This happens because snowbirds hear about a vacancy through their social network, or they visit snowbird friends from their hometown and decide to join them in their area.
“It starts with one snowbird,” he said, and it snowballs.
But there’s a flip side to short-term rentals. From one winter to the next, property owners can decide to use the dwelling for themselves, limit its occupancy to relatives or sell it. Annual rent increases can also stop winter tenants from returning to the same place.
Until the Liptons snagged their current rental, they had stayed in five different residences over an eight-year period. Among the reasons for their nomadic experience: two rental units had sold and one place was unavailable for the months they wanted it.
In recent years, as the snowbird season draws to a close, Lipton said she begins to “get nervous,” about whether her current landlord will rent the place to her and her husband the following winter. With baby boomers increasingly wintering in Florida, Lipton said it has not only become harder to land a short-term rental but prices have gone up. “So we’re a little agreeable to price increases, because we don’t want to lose it,” she said.
According to McCabe, since 2012, rent increases have averaged 8 to 9 percent a year, and within that five-year period, there have been a couple of times when rates have climbed nearly 12 percent from the previous year. This year, a furnished two-bedroom, two-bath short-term rental commands between $2,500 and $5,000 a month, depending on its newness, amenities and location. Wi-Fi and utilities aren’t always included.
While waterfront properties carry higher rents than golf club communities, Roy Cohen, a real estate broker at Home Source Realty Inc. in Boca Raton, cautioned that a rental with an on-site golf club can run an additional $1,000 to $3,000 a month, which includes golf, the pool and other activities; short-term renters, however, generally pay nothing extra to use a clubhouse in a community with no golf course.
Although two-car households are a fact of life on Long Island, snowbird couples usually leave one car home and drive the other to their winter destination or, if they’re flying, pay a service to transport it. That can create a problem: Who gets the car? Marie Gazzo, 75, a retired receptionist, and her husband, John, 75, a retired electrical engineer, leave their two cars back home in Commack and rent a vehicle during their stay in Boynton Beach.
“It gets a little dicey sharing the car,” said Marie Gazzo. On a recent morning, for instance, she drove her husband to the golf course, ran errands and then returned to pick him up. “We have to arrange our schedules so we each get to do what we want to do,” she said.
Snowbirds are cautious about protecting their Long Island home while they’re away. Before departing, they activate alarm systems, stop newspaper deliveries and arrange to have their mail forwarded. They also tap professionals, relatives or neighbors to shovel sidewalks and driveways, discard fliers on their property and inspect their home inside and out periodically to make sure all is OK.
Exercising caution is key. Lynda, 81, who lives on the South Shore, requested that this article not disclose her last name or town, even though her home has not had a security problem during the nine years she has been renting in Delray Beach. “My family does not want you to use my last name because it is so easy to get my address on the internet,” she said.
During her four-month retreat from a frigid Long Island, she swims and takes aerobics classes in the gated community’s pool. She also attends shows and plays cards at the clubhouse. Shipping her car to Florida allows her to meet with friends from Long Island who live 10 to 15 minutes from her rental.
But by the time April rolls around, she is itching to return to Long Island.
“Florida is a playground,” Lynda said, “and I’ve had enough.”
Tips on short-term winter rentals
The dream of a stress-free, short-term rental in a balmy locale can easily become a nightmare without due diligence, according to real estate agents and Long Island snowbirds.
Here are suggestions for ensuring a thumbs-up experience:
- Ask snowbird friends for recommendations about where to rent to reduce the likelihood of landing in an unfriendly, inconveniently located and poorly maintained place.
- Visit the unit or ask a friend to see the dwelling to make sure the mattress is comfortable; the furniture, floors, appliances and linens are in good shape; and ants — a common problem in Florida — are exterminated.
- Speak to the unit’s previous tenants to find out whether the owner promptly addresses complaints or increases the rent — and by how much — each year, and what the unit lacks.
- Ask owners whether Wi-Fi, cable TV, utilities and clubhouse fees are included in the rental rate.
- Before signing an agreement, hire a lawyer to review it.
— Cara S. Trager