Sand, not snow, so the Canadians come

White gold on the beach near Siesta Village, Siesta Key. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 1-20-2013,

White gold on the beach near Siesta Village, Siesta Key. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 1-20-2013,



Stephen Oprici is excited, and well he might be. He and his wife just closed on a three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot condo in Naples, for which they paid cash. Their new home is in The Strand, a country-club community known for its golf tournaments. Oprici cites the manicured grounds, golf, tennis, fitness center, pool and restaurants as features that lured him.

"It's beautiful, and there's so much for us to do," he said. There's also the fact that for the four months that the Opricis are in residence they'll have vastly different winter weather than what they would experience at their other home in Fort Erie, Ont. The Opricis are not alone. Indeed, according to a report released recently by the BMO Financial Group, more than 500,000 Canadians presently own property in Florida. Canadians remain the biggest international purchasers in the state — despite a recent surge in interest from Asian and South American buyers — accounting for about one-third of all foreign real estate purchases. And those numbers may be climbing.

"I've noticed that the phone calls from north of the border have definitely picked up," said Dennis Girard, broker associate with Premier Sotheby's International Realty in Sarasota. "They see that the market reached bottom and is clearly rising now, as opposed to last year, when we couldn't be sure where things were going."

Girard, who sells to a lot of buyers from Ottawa and Toronto and is himself Canadian, also attributes the uptick in interest to a flattening of the market in Ontario. "They're seeing that any disposable money may be better suited here. People are really positive about Florida. And I affirm to them that it is a much stronger market than it was a year ago."

Lisa Wallace, broker-owner of Stateside International Realty in Sarasota, said she, too, is seeing an increase in interest from Canadian buyers. "We've had a great season, and it's still going strong," she said. "People who had held off are finally going ahead." According to the BMO data, the Venice/Sarasota-Bradenton area is the most popular destination for Canadians, accounting for 17 percent of their Florida real estate purchases. "Our clients really like Sarasota," said Wayne Levy of Florida Home Finders of Canada. "It's the quartz crystal sand of Siesta Key, the weather, St. Armands Circle, the fact that it's a city but not too big. It still has its charm and character."

Orlando-Kissimmee and Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Palm Beach tie for second place among Canadian buyers, each with 13 percent. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Tampa/St. Pete and the Naples area each account for 9 percent. The remaining 30 percent are scattered throughout the state.

Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of BMO Private Bank, cited two factors beyond the obvious attractions of warm weather and beautiful beaches that make Florida a good value for Canadians. "The median-priced home in Florida is nearly half that in Canada," Ablin said. "At the same time, the Canadian dollar is trading nearly 10 percent above 'fair' value versus the U.S. dollar, arming (Canadian) shoppers with extra buying power."

"Why should we stay (in Canada) with the ever-increasing house prices, increasing taxes, increasing hydro rates, and the increasing debt and deficit?" posted one Canadian buyer of a Florida home on the Toronto Star website. "Florida is changing. It's not the 'old codgers' anymore."

Wrote another poster: "I spend my winter marathon training and my wife is a walker. We … explore the mangroves and check out the wildlife. Lots of gardening, you can grow anything here. Great bars nearby, fantastic marinas and wildlife."

Many buyers are what Levy calls "endvestors," purchasing real estate while it's relatively inexpensive and while interest rates are low, and renting out the properties until they are ready to occupy them.

But buyers are experiencing stiffening competition as supply drops in the rebounding market. With respect to foreclosures, Levy said banks are in no rush to get the properties off their books because prices are picking up. Every month the banks hold back, their chances of recovering more of the mortgage money increase, he said.

According to the most recent S&P Case-Shiller data, the price of a single-family home in South Florida has risen 12 percent from its low point in April 2011. As a result, Florida Home Finders of Canada is finding a shift from rock-bottom priced properties into those in the $200,000-$300,000 range, Levy said.

Phil Wood, president of John R. Wood Realtors in Naples, also has seen a recent uptick in interest from Canadian buyers. "They are realizing that if they want to do something, they need to jump in," Wood said.

Overall, prices are still about 45 percent below where they were at their peak in the Naples market, Wood said, with a condo selling on average for $315,000 and a single-family home for $450,000.

According to a recent report by Florida Realtors, international buyers accounted for 19 percent of the state's home sales volume from July 2011 to June 2012. Canadians comprised 31 percent of the foreign purchases overall. In the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area, Canadians garnered a whopping 56 percent share of international home purchases.

Some buyers have watched the South Florida market for years, witnessing the boom, the bust and now the rise again. "They're making their move after having held off for so long," Wallace said.

Canadian builders are even taking note of the rising market. Minto Communities LLC, for instance, is investing millions in the Gulf Coast market, including a new 220-home development in Bonita Springs. In December the company purchased Sabal Bay, a 2,300-acre residential project in Naples.

According to Girard, the bottom line for Canadian buyers — and for other buyers, for that matter — may be "buy now or be sorry."

"We've been telling our clients for a year now, inventory is shrinking and prices are going up," Girard said. "If you want to get in, now's the time to do it."


Last modified: May 26, 2013
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