Thursday, February 9, 2017

Deciding on a Home - Cypress Lakes, Lakeland, Florida

While on holiday in Florida, we began wondering about owning our own place. After all, we figured that the rental fees for 3 or 4 months in a place like Cypress Lakes (as much as $2,500/mo) could almost cover the cost of the yearly fees to own a place. And for some folks, that could be very true. For us, after buying the yearly cost to keep things running there is a little less than a 4 month rental at $2,500/month.

One of the ponds on the golf course at Cypress Lakes.
If you can afford to buy your unit outright, without needing to borrow or have a mortgage, then depending on where in the park your unit is located ... you could probably own a place instead of renting a place. Whether you decide to rent or own is really a matter of individual needs and tastes - we like things that we feel comfortable changing, and feel comfortable inviting family or friends to come stay in. We wouldn't feel comfortable doing that in a rental because it is, after all, still someone else's property.

However, when you purchase your unit ... that's only the beginning. There are lot fees associated with each unit. For the most part, you own the "home", but not the property (although there are some properties in Cypress Lakes that are "owned", most are rented lots) so in some ways, it's a little like renting a camping space for your travel trailer or motor home, but more complicated because you also pay your utility fees separately.

The pond near the entrance of Cypress Lakes with the fountain.We pay hydro and water/sewer (to the City of Lakeland); we pay for our own cable TV, internet, and home phone (we used Brighthouse, and we're happy with them), we pay home insurance (just like a home in Canada) and service fees to have weeding, or yard spraying done. Garbage pickup is handled by the park, but it's a fee added onto the lot rental fee. And the park handles lawn cutting as well (just not weeding or gardening work).

The lot fees are not the same for every unit, either. Those whose properties back onto the golf course, or directly on a pond or have a pond view (water view they call it) are a different rate than those who don't have those views. Corner lots are different rates too. And once a year, you hike into the City of Lakeland to the Tax Collector's office and pay a fee for the licensing of your manufactured home - its a little like the way we license a car in Canada. You get tags to stick in the window of your unit.

This is the unit we purchased in Cypress Lakes.
This is our home in Cypress Lakes
And ... the park has rules. Lots of them. Oh, most of them are common sense things that you'd find in pretty much any community but because it's a 55+ community, there are rules about who can "live" there. You can rent a unit to someone under 55 for a short stay, but they can't be permanently ensconced in a unit and live there. You can have your under 55 kids and grandkids visit you, and your under 55 kids can use your home for a holiday (say for a couple of weeks). Children under the age of 18 can't use park facilities without an adult (like the pool or gym), and youngsters aren't allowed to roam around the park unaccompanied by an adult. Even when you are renting a unit, you will get a copy of the rules and you do need to follow them.

What we did before actually buying was to ask a lot of questions. We did our homework. We found out about the lot fees, the taxes, the utility fees ... all of that. We made a lot of phone calls, got information from the park offices, talked to Canadians who had bought. Before we actually looked at any units ... we had an idea of what we would be getting into.

Many people don't do that. They want a unit, put in an offer and only discover later that with all the added fees, it's more than they expected. We knew in advance what our fees would be. With that in mind, we decided we could only afford a unit if we could buy it without a loan. That limited us a little in terms of what was available in our price range, but we ended up being very lucky (blessed, really) in what we found.

An outdoor screened porch with a patio table and chairs.
The unit we had rented was actually what got us thinking about it - it was for sale, and although the price was a little higher than what we figured we could pay, it wasn't too far out of range. As we walked through the park (we walked a different area almost every afternoon before supper), we'd see units for sale - some come fully equipped (all the furniture, accessories, etc.) and some don't. Many with a "For Sale" sign also sported a clear acrylic box somewhere near the front of the house with a listing sheet. Often the sheet included a few interior photos of the unit, and all the information you'd find with any normal real estate listing. As we passed these places, we'd collect the listing sheets.

We'd go through them back at our rental unit, discarding ones that were just too far out of our price range, and comparing those left. We discarded some for a variety of reasons (if the furniture is not something you can live with, you need to consider their replacement an additional cost; if the unit isn't large enough for purposes, you probably don't want it either, etc.) and compiled the ones we'd saved.

Vintage sofa in an outdoor lanai.At the end of a week we had enough to really begin considering what unit(s) we wanted to go see. During this time we stopped at a unit that wasn't listed through the park, but privately. The price was about half the amount of some of the lower priced units we were considering (it was not furnished), but the listing sheet was just a paper tacked on the front door with a phone number. We took the number ... and eventually called. Made an appointment to go see the unit, and literally bought it (in our minds anyways) a few moments after stepping inside.

No, it isn't perfect by any means, but right away when I got in the front door I just knew ... anyone having bought a home that felt this way knows what I mean. I knew this was home ... it felt like home, even though it was completely empty. By the time I had walked from the front door to the kitchen I was wondering how I could talk my husband into this (he usually takes forever to make up his mind about anything). After walking the house (me with the wife of the owner, and my husband with the owner) we ended up back in the dining area. By the time the "boys" joined us, we were already old friends ... and so were they. A really unusual experience for us, but even more unusual was my husband's question to me (in front of these owners) ... "Do you want this place?"

I almost couldn't answer him. He NEVER does that sort of thing. It takes him months to decide whether to buy a certain car, never mind a house. He's the kind of person who deliberates over everything, but this time ... I think he felt the same as I did. Sometimes when you know, you just know.

Yes, we did have to furnish it, but ... even after paying for the home, and buying all the furniture and dishes and accessories (well ... no golf cart yet, but we'll get that eventually) this unit still ended up costing us less than the lowest priced unit we had on the listing sheets we'd kept. The house has changed some since I made that slideshow, but this is how it was when we left it last March (2016).

Mists hovering over the pond behind our house at Cypress Lakes. This is frequent in the early morning.
This is really our first year to spend the winter in Florida, so we still have a lot to learn about manufactured homes, but we love our place and I don't know that anything would change that. Sure, we will end up changing some things eventually (you know, like wall paint) but I can't tell you how lucky we were with this unit. It had new windows, and a 2 year old heating/ac unit; fairly new appliances (the dishwasher was a few years old but had only been used twice) ... we could pretty much move in right away (oh, once we had some furniture of course).

When we got the keys we spent our first night (March 1st) sleeping on the floor with zero furnishings.

Still ... this is home here for us ... at least during the winter months, and so far, we love it. Before we leave this year (in April) I'll run around the house taking some updated pictures to share. We've made a few changes (mostly furniture), but the biggest change between the video and now is that our home looks "lived-in" now ... like a home, instead of a rental unit.

Sunrise over Cypress Lakes, Florida

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Our Cypress Lakes Rental Experience

In my previous post (Vacation Rental in Florida) I left a little "teaser" about our time renting at Cypress Lakes. There are things that first-time renters may not know if their "landlord" hasn't let them know about the rules prior to their arrival.

The tops of palm trees against a blue and white sky.
Cypress Lakes is a "gated" park/resort. You only get in if the gatehouse is aware of your arrival (something the person who rented to you needs to take care of). When you reach the gatehouse (always friendly staff on hand ... all the time) if they're aware of your arrival (your name is on "the list") you get a numbered hang tag to leave in  your car so when you leave the park and return (like to shop, or sightsee or have dinner in one of the hundreds of restaurants in Lakeland or other nearby towns ... or even to visit Disneyland for the day) you won't have problems getting back in.

We didn't have any issues there - the person we rented from let the gatehouse know and left instructions for us at the gatehouse. We got our hangtag, and directions to the rental unit. Exploring the unit didn't take long - it was about 960-970 sq. ft. and the main area was fairly "open plan". Walking in you could immediately see the kitchen, dining area, and most of the livingroom. A few steps from the dining area we could see the master bedroom, a second bedroom and a small but complete washroom. In the master, there was a second small ensuite washroom with a shower.

The unit we got was very prettily finished and furnished. Light furnishings and walls gave it an airy feeling, and the living room always looked (to me anyways) like it should have been shown in a magazine. So lovely in fact, we were sort of afraid to use it.  The white leather furniture was comfortable and modern - gorgeous really, but ... well it was WHITE. I admit, I loved it but I was afraid to get it dirty so we spent little to no time in the livingroom area.

The kitchen and part of the dining area at a rental unit.
We spent most of our time in the kitchen (at the small island area) or the dining table. Oh, of course we used the master bedroom and the bathrooms and cooked in the kitchen but to be honest, we spent a lot of time out exploring the restort, using the gym, checking out Lakeland itself and just touring around the area. Even though the weather was coolish (full time residents told us it was one of the coolest February's they recall, and it wasn't normally that cool) ... it was still way better than our cold winters in Canada!

A small part of the lanai - basically a screened in porch.
Part of the screened porch (called a lanai here).
What we didn't know at the time was something we found out closer to the end of our month's rental. To be honest, there really wasn't any reason for the person renting to us to mention it because we only expected to stay for the month of February. If you plan to rent or stay (ie: by purchasing your own place) there is a required background check - and there is a fee attached to that. For US citizens the fee is (or was in 2016) $50, but for Canadians (probably for other countries as well, but the fees may not be the same) the fee was $150 (that's in US funds by the way).

A manufactured home in Cypress Lakes in Florida.
This is our place now - not the one we rented.
We found that out by accident ... like when we actually bought a home in the park before the end of our one month holiday. Thankfully, the couple we purchased from were amazingly helpful and our closing date wasn't until the beginning of March, so we had time (the background check can take a couple of weeks when you're from Canada). Ours ended up only taking two days. (More on our purchase next time.) Even better ... the couple we bought our place from became friends - the type you feel as though you've known forever. We try to get together for dinner whenever we come down to Florida.

When we initially arrived at Cypress Lakes, I didn't expect much except a chance to get away from the cold for a month. When I looked up the park online it looked ... like a place for rich people and we are a long way from rich people. I sort of expected it to be populated with people that have a "silver spoon" mentality ... but it wasn't. It was a warm and friendly place that we almost immediately fell in love with, even though we didn't expect to.

One of the two pools at Cypress Lakes in Florida.
The resort style kidney shaped pool, the building at the back has several rooms, but the windows you see are gym.
The park has many things to do: 2 full size golf courses; a driving range; fishing in some of the ponds; two pools - one lap style pool and one traditional resort style kidney-shaped pool; two hot tubs; a fully equipped gym; tennis/pickle ball courts; bocci ball, horseshoes; shuffleboard; a bar & grill; entertainment ... and the list goes on. The large and modern clubhouse has a media library, a computer room, a book library, a large hall, craft room and many other activities that take place within it's halls. There are many associations and groups within the park that owners can join, a lot of fitness activities (like yoga classes, zumba, acquarobics, etc.), crafting and art activities, and other groups like bible studies (even a church service is available on Sundays).

The lap style swimming pool at Cypress Lakes.
The lap-style swimming pool at Cypress Lakes. Beyond you can see the shuffleboard area.
There is far more than I could mention in just one post. So far, I haven't joined in any group activities, although there are a couple I thought I'd like (acquarobics, but ... I'm not a fan of going out in 50 degree temps early in the morning to get in the pool, even if it is heated) but this year we are focusing more on getting the new house in order, and I'm sure in time I'll have settled on a couple of groups of interest.

The front of the clubhouse at Cypress Lakes in Florida.
Cypress Lakes Clubhouse

Monday, February 6, 2017

Vacation Renting in Florida

March isn't always spring like in Canada - this snow and ice storm came in March 2016.Back in late 2015 my husband and I spent considerable time discussing the possibility of a "longish" holiday in Florida during the next winter (2016). In the end, all we did was discuss it, but if I tell the absolute truth about it, I had been poring over websites for vacation rentals for many months before discussing it with him.

I checked out holiday condo rentals, and mobile rentals, and home rentals, and even trailer parks (ie: camping type parks). I was entranced with a couple of the camping parks because they offered exactly what I'd hoped for ... a place to park your camper/trailer/motor home right on the ocean ... nothing between you and that ocean except the sand. The pictures showed exactly my dream and I was pretty excited about that until I checked the rental pricing. Most of those beach front slots appear to have been rented by the same people for years, and there was already a huge waiting list for a space when someone didn't return. On top of that, the lots had no "hook-ups" ... no water (well, of course the ocean was right there, but that isn't potable water), no sanitation hook up, no electricity. Okay, I could deal with that. Any camping trailer we've ever owned was self-contained and you could run pretty much everything on propane. BUT, for the joy of putting your camper in the sand with nothing else you paid a whopping $109 a night. Yes, a NIGHT!  I thought about what that would cost for a month ... or 3 months (a standard length of stay for Snowbirds).

A couple of seagulls along the beachfront.

Some of the 2 bedroom condos were a lot less than that fee, and had walking access to a beach and ocean, and shuttles to shopping areas, as well as activities (shuffleboard, cards, dances, bbqs etc.) that you could participate in while staying there. The problem I found with a lot of the condos that provided all these things was that the rentals were typically 3 months at a time, and many were booked already for 2016 (that would have been during the summer of 2015 when I was looking).

Heavy snow bows tree branches into a tunnel over a rural roadway.
Ditto all that for most of the mobile rentals I looked at.

For a while after our discussion, I didn't bring it up to him again (he seemed very uninterested) but as winter drew it's frigid arms around us, and the snowstorms started ... I think he finally realized we needed a break from the 6 months of misery winter often brought to our neck of the woods (central Ontario is in the middle of the "snow belt").

Rather by accident I found a mobile rental in a resort style 55+ park in Florida. We have friends who've been wintering in Florida for 5 years (bought their own place) in the Tampa area, and I was searching for something not too awfully far away so we could visit while on holiday. I actually had little hope of finding something available for a month, and thought in the end we may have to suck it up and take a hotel for two or three weeks instead. But, just as I began a concerted effort to search out such a find ... someone had posted an ad to Kijiji for a mobile rental for the month of February. Hurray!  I didn't actually think it would still be available, but as it turns out, the couple had only just posted the ad when I found it.

One of the many ponds in the Cypress Lakes 55+ community.
View from backyard of rental unit!
We got the rental, sent the fees and waited impatiently (it was early January when we booked) for February to roll around.

That began our sojourn towards the Snowbird habitat, and to a park in Lakeland, Florida called Cypress Lakes.  Staying long-term in one of these parks (and there are many such places in Florida) is a little more involved than just arriving and unpacking ... but we didn't know that until after we got there.  More on Cypress Lakes later ... much more actually :)

(oh ... and just so you aren't wondering ... we love it!)

Cypress Lakes 55+ Community in Florida has an entrance pond with a spray fountain.
Cypress Lakes 55+ Community in Lakeland, Florida

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