Priced Out of Florida, More Retirees Are Trying This Sunbelt State on For Size

Priced Out of Florida, More Retirees Are Trying This Sunbelt State on For Size

To escape cold winters in retirement, Minnesotans John Fox and Louise Turkula looked at homes in Jacksonville and Naples, Fla., where they had friends. Instead, they bought a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house in Alabama.

In July 2022, the couple spent $955,000 on a coastal home in Baldwin County, Ala., on the Gulf of Mexico, just west of the Florida Panhandle. Set on Ono Island, a small barrier island with a gated community accessible by only one bridge, the single-level house comes with a pool and pool house. Cypress trees near the front door remind the couple of a trip to Italy. Through the french doors, Mr. Fox, a retired financial planner, and Dr. Turkula, a retired plastic surgeon, can hear the waves of the Gulf. 

Mr. Fox, 70, who said he is politically progressive, remembered driving to Baldwin County from Minnesota last fall, feeling disbelief. “I’m actually moving to Alabama,” he recalled thinking. But past visits to the island, where Dr. Turkula’s brother lives, had calmed his concerns about living in the politically conservative South. Neighbors made the pair feel welcome and had a range of backgrounds and interests.

Lawanna Sharpless, their real-estate agent with Bellator Real Estate and Development on Ono Island, adds another reason for home buyers choosing Baldwin County over better-known retirement destinations in Florida. “It’s more affordable,” she said. “You just get a bigger bang for your buck here.”

Baldwin County was the fastest-growing county in Alabama between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2022, its population increased by 3%, according to the Census Bureau’s Vintage 2022 Population Estimates, compared with 1% in Broward County, the area around Fort Lauderdale. Much of Baldwin County’s growth comes from older Americans priced out of South Florida, where young professionals are taking their place, said Ken H. Johnson, an economist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

In Baldwin County, the average salary is $49,000, according to StatsAmerica, a service of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. That salary is lower than in Broward County, where the average pay is $67,000, or Lee County, the Fort Myers region where it is $57,000, according to the research. The higher an area’s income level, the higher its cost of living, according to a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Baldwin County’s lower average income makes life there more affordable, says Professor Johnson. 

“A lot of services are priced for that income,” he said. Plus, he adds, “Baldwin County is right on the water, and the beaches look like sugar. It’s tailor-made to catch these retirees.”

In March, an average home in Baldwin County cost $355,000, compared with $378,000 in Lee County and $411,000 in Broward County, according to Zillow. As in many areas, Baldwin County’s real-estate market is slowing down. In March, listings lingered on the market for an average of 81 days, up from 52 days in March 2022, according to the Baldwin Realtors Multiple Listing Service. Still, demand is driving up prices, especially in the county’s resort areas, where the average sales price in March rose 10% from March 2022, to $729,000, according to Baldwin Realtors. Prices of single-family houses in the coastal area increased by 16% in the year through March, according to the service.

Some Baldwin County buyers use their home as a weekend or vacation home before retiring there full time, according to Dawn Hebert Beasley, an agent with Bellator in Fairhope. Meanwhile, she said, many rent out their properties between stays.

Sherryl and Bob Oliver from Roswell, Ga., wanted a home that would generate some income when they weren’t using it. In October 2022, the Olivers bought a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot luxury condominium at Caribe, a resort community in Orange Beach for $929,000. With pastel-colored walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and light, coastal-style furniture, the seventh-floor condo overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway, Perdido Bay and Ono Island. Mr. Oliver, 71, is still working as president of a packaging company but plans to retire in a couple of years.

“You get more value for your money in Alabama,” he said. “It’s a less known area than the Florida Panhandle. It still has growth potential.”

Adding to the area’s attraction: Baldwin County has one of the lowest median property tax rates in the country, according to tax information portal Homeowners over 65 don’t have to pay the state portion of property taxes. Outside of cities, the state portion is around 23%, according to the Baldwin County Revenue Commission, but that portion is lower in cities such as Fairhope, where it is around 14%.

Mr. Fox and Dr. Turkula, the Ono Island residents, pay $2,400 in property taxes per year, even though hurricane insurance is more expensive at $8,100 per year. With Bear, an 11-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, they are learning to live with the heat. The day begins and ends poolside.

“Mornings are outside with a cup of coffee; in the evening, it’s wine,” said Dr. Turkula, 67. The only planned change to the house: sodding a sandy area behind the pool, to give the grandchildren more space to play when they visit.

Kathy and Ashley Gordon lived in Baldwin County off and on for 15 years before retiring to Florida in 2018. But three years later, they were back in Baldwin County. In November 2021, real-estate agent Jaime Cooper at Exit Realty Lyon in Fairhope helped them buy a cottage-style home there. Surrounded by lush greenery and old oak trees, the $543,000, three-bedroom, 1,700-square-foot-house is in a golf-course community. They sold their Florida home for $875,000. 

Ms. Gordon, a retired sports therapeutic massage therapist, said she and Mr. Gordon, a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer, tired of the traffic, transience and cost in Florida compared with that in Alabama.

“Just going out to dinner or groceries was triple the cost from what it is here,” said Ms. Gordon, 57. In addition, she said, “Florida is very transient. You miss that sense of community.”

In Orange Beach, Jim Cavanaugh, a retired Special Agent in Charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, bought a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home for $788,000 in February. Orange Beach, said Mr. Cavanaugh, 70, is more affordable and quieter than the beach towns on the neighboring Florida Panhandle, but still has the upbeat atmosphere of a resort destination. He wanted a single-family home, rather a condominium in one of the high-rises along the beaches of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.

“I don’t want to get in an elevator to go to the beach,” he said. “That makes me feel like I’m in a hotel.”

Instead, he loads beach chairs, a cooler and sunshade into the trailer of a new electric bike and pedals to the white beach—a four-minute bike ride. His new house is built to the Fortified Gold standard that helps to protect it from hurricane damage and lowers home insurance by up to 55% compared with insurance rates on homes not built to that standard. In Mr. Cavanaugh’s case, insurance is $2,200 per year. 

Across the state line in Florida, a house of this size near the beach would have cost three times as much, said Ms. Beasley, his agent. “It’s the same shore,” said Mr. Cavanaugh. “The same sun and the same sunset. It’s probably the same seagull flying back and forth.”


Source: Priced Out of Florida, More Retirees Are Trying This Sunbelt State on For Size The Wall Street Journal (April 27, 2023) Cecilie Rohwedder