Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Telphones & Mobile Phones

The first time I went out to visit my flat in Florida, my communication options were somewhat limited - all I had was my British mobile! Although this did work out there, it cost me an awful lot to make and receive calls on it.

I'd done some research in the UK about setting up a landline telephone account. I couldn't quite seem to figure out who all the telephone providers in the U.S. were, but I knew that one of the largest was A T & T.

When I got to Florida, given that I only had six days to buy furniture and set up various utilities and so forth for my flat, I was somewhat in a frazzle with the thought of having to get a telephone connection to my flat. Rather than setting up a landline account, therefore, I came across a much simpler solution - buying a mobile phone. (Or cell phone, as they're called in the U.S.) And it wasn't even a particularly expensive option, either!

There are three mobile phone operators in America - A T & T, T Mobile and Verizon. I believe that the following would apply for all three companies, but I can only really speak of my expereince with A T & T.

The absolute cheapest option would be to bring a handset from the UK (we all have old handsets lying around) and then buy a sim card in the U.S. Pop it in the phone, and away you go. You'd have to make sure that your "old" handset is tri-band, however, so that it works in America.

Alternatively, you can do what I did: buy a simple, pay-as-you-go phone. The different companies label these types of phones differently; T Mobile call it "Prepaid", A T & T call it "GoPhone". There's a variety of pay-as-you-phones, from very basic to reasonably decent. I bought a $60 Samsung pay-as-you-go phone from A T & T.

Some "free" minutes were included on my phone (about $10), but it's possible to top-up by buying cards from supermarkets, pharmacies, newsagents and so on.

Each call I make on the phone - whether it's to a local Florida number, or back to the U.K. - costs only $0.10. Not bad!

Friday, 25 April 2008

Article: Strong Euro And Credit Crunch Impact Overseas Property Buyers

Last weekend's (UK) Sunday Times had a general article on purchasing property overseas, and the problems associated with buying and selling in a variety of countries popular with Brits. The overall conclusion is that those looking to buy in Europe - Spain, Tuscany, the Dordogne region - can expect a fair amount of choice as some areas have an oversupply of properties. The strong Euro, however, will probably negate chances of buyers finding absolute bargains.

In the case of Florida, the Sunday Times writes that "buyers are in a good position" and that they should do their research and "drive a hard bargain". Overall, it comments that the property market in Florida is in crisis, but reveals that the exception to this is Palm Beach Country where, according to estate agency Savills, property "has not done down one iota".

Article: Strong Euro and credit crunch impact overseas property buyers (The Sunday Times, 20th April 2008)

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Article: The Brighter Side Of Housing

A number of you are probably drawn to buying a holiday home in Florida now or in the new future because of the downturn in real estate prices in the U.S. and the current weak dollar. The question is, however, is now really a good time to buy? Or will be an even better time in six months, nine months, a year's time?

Today's Wall Street Journal writes that the current housing bust in the U.S. is helping many buy the kind of homes that they previously thought unaffordable. The same may well apply to you if you're thinking of buying a holiday home. However, prices in Florida and the U.S. are generally predicted to continue sliding - until a predicted levelling off in late 2009 - which puts some in a bit of a conundrum about the timing of a property purchase.

What's best for you really depends on your situation. I purchased a holiday home in December 2007 as my family and I had been considering it for a number of years, and finally decided to take the plunge. Bagging an absolute bargain, or buying for investment wasn't really relevant to us. Over the medium to long term, our property may well increase in value, which of course will be great. What's most important to us, however, is that we have a beautiful vacation place in Florida that we can enjoy at any time.

Remember too that currency values will also dictate how "cheap" your purchase will be. It's hard to predict the future pound value against the dollar, but some forecasters believe that the pound will weaken in the next six months to a year.

Article: The Brighter Side of Housing (Wall Street Journal, 24th April 2008)

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Article: Some Hope: Home Sales Go Up A Bit

Today's Miami Herald has an article that uncovers a little bit of promise for the south Florida property market - possibly. Author Jim Wyss reveals that figures for March released by the Florida Assoication of Realtors show an increase in the number of properties being sold, the first such increase of the year.

This increase in sales may be largely down to the fact that property prices in the region have dropped, and continue to do so. As vendors become more keen (perhaps even more desparate) to sell, they agree to list their properties at a more realistic price.

The article goes on to mention that the some analysts do not believe that this increase reflects any kind of general upturn of the market; they feel that it's more likely that prices will continue to fall. Add that to the fact that mortgages and loans are harder to come by, and it will be a while before all those properties do eventually get sold.

Article: Some hope: S. Florida home sales go up a bit (Miami Herald, 23rd April 2008)

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Article: Unpaid Fees Trouble Condos

If you're the owner of a condo in Florida - or are thinking of buying one - then be sure to pay attention to this article! The Miami Herald writes today that condo properties that have foreclosed can greatly affect other owners within the same association or development - and it's all to do with maintenance fees.

If you're part of a condominium association, you'll have to pay monthly maintenance fees for the upkeep of common parts: hallways, stairwells, lifts, gardens, pool, that kind of thing. If a condo owner finds themselves in trouble financially, they may well stop paying their maintenance fees. (Although, more likely, they'll fall behind in their mortgage payments.) In a worse-case scenario, the property may foreclose - and banks aren't in a hurry to pay off outstanding fees.

If there's a significant number of condos which aren't contributing to monthly payments - whether the condos are foreclosed or not - condo associations may increase fees to cover the shortfall. This increase in fees may then have a significant knock-on affect on other owners: they may start having trouble paying these higher fees each month.

If fees aren't increased, then it might mean that associations may not have the money to pay for the full upkeep of their development. The article tells how some condo owners now do the work themselves. In some cases, a lack of funds may be more worrying than simply an infrequently mown lawn; a lack of insurance isn't to be recommended in a state with a hurricane season.

Now, this article may seem all doom and gloom, but I'd advise you not to think entirely that way. It's really just a gentle reminder of something that may happen as a worse case scenario, but it doesn't mean that it will. The best thing is to do your research and ask your agent detailed questions about the condo association you're interested in. In other words, as in many other cases, buyer beware!

Article: Unpaid fees trouble condos (Miami Herald, 22nd April 2008)

Monday, 21 April 2008

Article: The Condo Boom Moves On To Latin America

Given the downturn in the housing market in Florida and the U.S., what are all those real estate brokers to do? You might have thought a large number would be worrying about their jobs - some may well be, but not all.

A number of brokers have now started marketing new condominium developments "south of the border" as it were - namely in Mexico, but also in the Latin American countries of Panama, Colombia and Argentina - where developers have started building units.

The Miami Herald today writes about these brokers, and how market conditions in Latin America are currently more positive than in the U.S.:

"Latin America has emerged as a place of opportunity during the U.S. downturn. A recent report by consultancy Ernst & Young cited the region for its steady economic growth yet relative affordability when compared to the United States and Europe."

Mexico is favourable to buyers not only for its lower prices, comparatively, but also because it hasn't experienced mass construction as in some places in Florida. Add to the fact that it's easily reachable from America and Europe, and you can see why the demand for property there exists.

Some brokers look on this situation as a temporary one, as a means of maintaining their income while the south Florida housing market remains cool. Developer and broker Edgardo Defortuna has a stronger opinion:

"For the young and aggressive, it's a great opportunity. It's a good place to be for the moment.''

Article: The condo boom moves on to Latin America (Miami Herald, 21st April 2008)

Friday, 18 April 2008

Article: Road To Foreclosure In South Florida

Today's Sun Sentinel has an article on foreclosure homes in southeast Florida - or rather, an interesting spin on how foreclosure homes are being marketed. Some real estate firms are now offering "foreclosure tours" whereby they take groups of people out to see about eight or so of these properties. In some cases, potential buyers (who are sometimes required to pay - perhaps $30 - to take part in a tour) are ferried around in a limo for an all-day trek, with lunch and drinks included.

The article also has some enlightening statistics about foreclosure homes in southeast Florida. In Broward County, in March 2008, 3,133 people were about to foreclose. For Palm Beach County, that figure was 1,992 homeowners.

The article also tells of some of the myths of foreclosure properties, namely that incredible bargains are to be had. Whilst foreclosed homes may go for well under their listing price (or their value a year or two ago) if one person is interested in buying, they're likely to be bidding against several others. Furthermore, some foreclosed homes may be in very poor condition and will require extensive work after purchase.

Article: Road to foreclosure in S. Fla.: A closeup of available homes (Sun Sentinel, 18th April 2008)

Paying Your Electricty Bill

I've spoken before about setting up an electricity account - now comes the time to start paying those bills!

If you live in a flat, your electricty meter will most likely be in a communal part of the building. FPL (Florida Power & Light) will come to read your meter automatically each month. You will also be billed each month. Remember that you will also have to pay a initial deposit when you open up your account.

If you don't have a US bank account - a topic I'll cover in another post - you'll find paying for electricity bills (and, indeed, other bills) slightly tricky. Most companies will want payment by US dollars cheque (check). Alternatively, it may be possible to pay online - but only by supplying your current (checking) account details, such as the acccount and routing numbers.

FPL, however, do also provide a third option. It is possible to pay your bill by debit or credit card through a service they offer with Western Union Speedpay. This does incur a processing fee, however of $3. The website will also say that you'll need to provide your billing address, which must be a U.S. one - but I've found that entering my UK address works fine and that payments definitely do get processed.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Article: How the Beach Ball Burst

The latest edition of Businessweek contains an interesting article entitled "How the Beach Ball Burst" by Roben Farzad. The article, told in a timeline style about the period March 2001 to March 2008, tells of the boom and bust of the property market in southeast Florida, particularly in Miami. It's especially interesting because it depicts the massive growth in the region in the early part of this decade - with cranes rising high above the city skyline; developments appearing everywhere - even on a former landfill site, in one case; and everyone and their dog becoming property investors or estate agents (realtors). Farzad even tells how, during one check-up, his hygenist promoted her new sideline business she was starting as an independent real estate agent by tucking a stack of her business cards into his shirt pocket.

Whilst the majority of you will certainly appreciate the favourable market conditions (weak property market, weak dollar) Brits can enjoy when buying in Florida nowadays, it's engaging to read how it was all so different only a few years ago.

Here's the article: How the Beach Ball Burst (Businessweek, 10th April 2008)

Monday, 14 April 2008

Buying Furniture For Your Property - Part 3: Stores

I thought it would be useful to provide a list of various stores that you will find helpful when furnishing your property in Florida. Here it is:

Furniture Stores

Department Stores
Here you'll find a wide selection of, well, pretty much everything - from beds, sofas, kitchen appliances, TVs, bed linen, crockery...the list goes on.

Accessory & Home Decor Stores
These do stock some furniture items, but they're usually "accent" pieces, such as fancy coffee tables and so on.

Entertainment & Home Appliances
Places you'll be able to buy TVs, stereos, computers...and kitchen & home appliances.

Even if you don't plan on doing much DIY, the following stores may be invaluable for picking up a few bits and pieces!

I hope this list has helped - if you think I've missed something off, do let me know.

N.B. I've compiled the above list from a southeast Florida perspective - all are featured in the region. However, some of these stores might not have locations all over Florida. The best idea would be to check the above websites to find where your nearest store is.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Buying Furniture For Your Property - Part 2: Buying It!

Having not succeeded in pre-ordering furniture from the UK (see yesterday's post), there was only one thing for it - going to Florida and furnishing my flat from scratch!

I went out in January with my mother (who I couldn't have done it without!) to furnish my holiday home as best as a could - quite a task, given that we only had six days! My flat was hooked up to water and electricity and - of course - had a fully-fitted kitchen and bathroom, but beyond that it contained nothing. That meant we had two options: a) either stay in a nearby hotel until our flat was a little bit more habitable, or b) camp in it!

We chose the later. Armed with a few pieces of bedding (blankets and pillows) that we'd brought from the UK it wasn't all that bad at all - the warm Florida weather helped somewhat, of course! And given that we'd just been on a nine-hour flight and were tired and jetlagged from travelling, we could have slept on anything - so sleeping on the floor was fine.

By day two we were able to buy ourselves an inflatable mattress - I believe we bought ours from Macy's. This was invaluable to us, providing a bit more comfort at night, and should prove great in the future if we have unexpected guests.

First Furniture
Our first port of call to stock on up some real furniture was Ikea. Luckily for us, a brand new store had opened in Sunrise, Florida - about a half hour drive away. There are also Ikea stores in Orlando and Tampa (as well as further locations across the US). You will be surprised (and at the same time, not) how identical Ikea stores in Florida are to the ones in the UK. Just with better car parking facilities and friendlier staff.

At Ikea, we didn't really stock up on any big furniture pieces - that was just our personal choice. We did, however, find the store invaluable for crockery, cutlery, glasses, floor lamps, table lamps, towels, coffee tables and so on. Plus a nice dining table and four chairs. Which at least now gave us something to sit on!

Kitchen Appliances
We found that kitchen appliances can be best found at stores such as Macy's, Sears or JC Penney. Your best bet is to go to your local shopping mall (the wonderful Aventura Mall, in our case) where you'll find at least a couple of these stores. One thing we found puzzling: electric kettles seem to be something of a rarity in the US. In the UK, I'm used to going to a store and having a choice of 20, maybe 25, different kettles. In each store we went to in Florida, they only ever stocked one! I guess people prefer to use stove kettles.

Best Buy also stock home appliances - we found a great compact vacuum cleaner there. (Given that we have tiled floors in our flat, we didn't need a heavy duty one!)

So, we now had stuff to sit on and stuff to eat with. The next thing we decided to buy was a sofa bed - which we choose Rooms To Go for. They have a reasonable selection of items, although they do seem to be quite keen on Laz-E-Boy recliners and massive leather sofas. (Both very popular in America, I guess!) We chose a nice, neutrally-coloured sofa-bed - or "sleeper" as they call them. We were given a choice of getting it delivered in four days' time - and being told a two-hour time slot for delivery - or in two days' time and being given no time slot - just sometime between 8am and 10pm. Given we were going back to the UK in four days, we had to choose the latter. Unlucky for us, the sofa arrived at 8.30pm, which meant a whole day waiting for it!

We didn't actually have time to buy a bed whilst we were out there (our comfy sofa-bed was enough for the time being, in any case) as most stores seemed to stipulate a one week/ten day delivery time.

Just a point of note, however: we're used to divan-type beds - or "platform" beds, as I believe they're called in the US - and many furniture stores didn't seem to sell these. We did find that Macy's had a good collection, however.

America is the land of the giant TV. Go to Best Buy or Circuit City and you'll find plenty of choice. We haven't yet chosen to sign up to cable - we're not going to holiday in Florida just to spend all day watching TV! I simply connected our TV to the aerial socket, and got about 10 free-t0-air channels including the main American ones such as NBC, ABC and CBS. (There's no such thing as a TV license in the US.)

In six days, we managed to furnish our flat almost entirely, and I'm sure you can do it too. It's relatively easy as there's so much choice. There's also so many superstores that exist all over the place, so you won't even have to travel far. Good luck!

Would you do the same as I did? Please do let me know!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Buying Furniture For Your Property - Part 1: Pre-Ordering

Of course, now that you have a lovely holiday home, you'll also need some furniture to make it all nice and comfortable!

You defintely won't have any problems buying suitable furniture. Florida (and the U.S.) have an abundance of furniture stores, and there will be something to suit almost every style and budget. When I was making my furniture purchases, I also found prices to be very favourable - and that's before you factor into account the weak dollar. Put it this way - bargains are to be had!

When I started furnishing my flat, I had contemplated pre-ordering certain large, key items - like a sofa, a table, perhaps even a bed - so they could be delivered on either the first or second day I was in Florida on my first visit to my flat.

In fact, what I had actually intended was to pre-order these items and get them delivered before my visit. (I would have asked my nice estate agent to let the delivery people in.) This would mean that I would at least have something comfy to sit on after a long flight!

What I subsequently found out is that ordering furniture online or by telephone from a well-known store is different to buying it in store - in terms of where items are dispatched from. If you go to, say Ikea, the sofa you want may well be in stock in your local store. Order it online, and it will be dispatched from a central warehouse in Pittsburgh and take 3 weeks to arrive!

If possible, I'd definitely try to pre-order items before your first trip out to your new vacation home. It just involves a little bit of careful planning, that's all!

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Setting Up An Electricity Account

Now that you're the proud owner of a holiday home in Florida, one of the first things you'll probably have to do is set up the electricity supply to your property. This is fairly easy to do and can be done online.

Florida Power & Light are the company you'll need to contact - they provide electricity for the whole of the state. To set up an electricity account via their website, you'll first need to register for a FPL online account - which can be done in a matter of minutes. An FPL online account means you can look at bills, see your payment history and even pay for services through their website. It is well worth setting up an FPL online account.

Once you've set that up, navigate yourself to a section called "Start Service". Here, you'll need to enter your property address, add a few more details, and an account will be set up in your name.

Whilst setting up your account, you will be prompted to enter in your social security number. If, like me, you're British and don't have this, you can select that you're a foreign national. You will still have to provide some form of identification, however. I found the easiest way of doing this was faxing my photographic ID (your passport picture page is probably best) to FPL. Information about all of this will be provided during the process of setting up your account.

You'll also have to pay a deposit when you open your account - I was required to pay a $90 as deposit for electricity supply to my property. Your deposit will be used to pay any outstanding bills should you fail to pay on time. FPL also pay interest on deposits - 6% per annum - as long as you do not cancel the service within the first six months.

FPL seem happy to send bills abroad - I've received all my bills so far to my address here in the UK without problem.

Monday, 7 April 2008


Closing day has arrived! Your lawyer has your funds - and will transfer them to the vendor's lawyer - and documents have been signed by both sides. Everything is done and dusted, and the purchase is complete.

That means that you are now the proud owner of a beautiful property in Florida. Congratulations!

We hope you enjoy your holiday home in the Sunshine State for many, many years to come!

Photo: Hollywood Beach, June 2005

Transferring Your Signed Documents

Once you've had your documents notarized at the U.S. Embassy, you'll need to get them over to America pretty quick! This isn't really that difficult as there are, of course, a number of companies that can ship documents to the U.S. overnight. As you'll need to send the documents to your lawyer, ask whether they already hold an account with a specific company. If so, this will help you order a pickup from said company.

My lawyer had a account with DHL so, rather understandably, I used them. As soon as I got back home from the U.S. Embassy (see my previous post), I called up DHL to arrange for the documents to be picked up - this was about midday. As far as I recall, DHL arrived at my house within three hours. I'd opted for the "DHL Express 10.30" service, and the documents did indeed arrive at my lawyer's office in Florida before 10.30am. Magic!