Seasonal Residents Managing the Snowbird Migration

It’s a refrain you’ll commonly hear from retirees who are weary of suffering through cold northern winters or hot southern summers: “When I retire, I’m going to live in New York for half the year and in Florida for the other half!” 

These residents, who split their time between climates, have earned the nickname ‘snowbirds’ for their seasonal migration from region to region. Since individual condos and HOAs do not typically track what percentage of their residents are snowbirds, and the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track seasonal residents either, it’s hard to say how many New York residents leave and return every six months. One thing is for certain, though. While these residents are making things easier on themselves, they can be making things more difficult for the associations they leave behind. 

Snowbirds

A 2006 survey by Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida in Gainesville, found that of all the people who spend part of each year in Florida, the greatest number were from New York, with Michigan next, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, Canada, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California. Upstate New Yorkers have long gravitated to places like the central eastern coast and the area around Tampa and St. Petersburg. And now that South Florida has filled up, metropolitan New Yorkers and folks from the Garden State are popping up in nearly every place where Florida sand meets the sea. Most of these temporary residents migrated to counties in the southern part of the Sunshine State. And that means there are a lot of empty co-op and condo units.

It is unclear exactly when northern visitors to the Sunshine State became known as “Snowbirds,” but Canadian singer Anne Murray made the term famous in 1970 with the release of her song bearing the same name. The term is applied most commonly to the seasonal northern visitors who visit Florida annually generally during the period from November through April. National elections, early or late snowfalls and holidays can and do affect the annual exodus in both directions. Full time residents who leave Florida for several weeks during the hottest summer months are often referred to as “Sunbirds.”

Leaks and Creaks

“One of the biggest challenges with seasonal residents is maintenance issues while they are gone,” says Nat Kunes, vice president of product management for AppFolio, Inc., which works with over 6,000 property managers across the U.S. “For example, it’s critical to ensure that the HOA or property manager has access to the property, and that they have a way of knowing if something breaks.”

AppFolio provides cloud-based property management software that allows apartment, residential, commercial, student housing and HOA property managers to track property operations and management functions. The property software includes complete accounting and property management functionality with the ability to email work orders, owner statements and resident communications.

For example, Leslie Register, the regional vice president for Rivergate KW Residential, a property management firm with offices in New York, Miami, and Charlotte, North Carolina, says that when the toilet supply line of one seasonal homeowner cracked, it caused water damage to the units below. “It was discovered that the owner did not turn off the water to the toilet when they left for the season, so when the supply line cracked, it caused the flooding,” she says. “Management contacted the owner regarding the issue after they entered his home with the emergency key they had on file. The damage to all of the units will be the responsibility of the unit owner.”

A leaking plumbing line is a serious issue, of course, and must be remedied as soon as possible. However, there are crises even more acute—ones that don’t leave enough time to contact, much less try to locate—the transient owner. In the case of a violent weather event or a fire, the property and the lives of the other unit owners may be at stake if management doesn’t get inside a vacant unit ASAP. 

New Yorkers who migrate south regularly should know, for example, that in Florida there is a statute that gives a condo association permission to enter the unit in order to protect the common elements. “But it depends on the degree of the emergency,” says Alessandra Stivelman, Esq., a partner with the law firm of Eisinger, Brown, Lewis, Frankel & Chaiet, PA in Hollywood, Florida. “I’ll get phone calls where the property manager wants to go into the unit but doesn’t want the unit owners to say they stole something. Even if they have a right of access, they need help determining whether they should invoke it. If it can wait, I tell them to write a demand letter and at least try to contact the unit owners. If they can’t, and they have to go in, they should videotape their entry and have witnesses.” 

I Don’t Hear Ye! 

Another problem with vacant snowbird units is how voting issues are handled. How can you vote in new board members or vote on important projects if your seasonal residents have jetted off to some far-flung location for months at a time? “The association should send out the voting documents to whatever address they have on record,” says Stivelman.

While just mailing the voting information or any other pertinent paperwork to an address sounds simple, it isn’t. “One of the biggest concerns in working with snowbirds is a lack of contact information,” says Stivelman. She recently revised a declaration for a large homeowners association to require unit owners to provide additional contact information when they move in. 

“The wording for the declaration was off, so the owners thought that the association was providing additional security when they weren’t there, but that wasn’t the intent,” says Stivelman. “They really just wanted contact information so they could reach them in an emergency and if they needed emergency access to the unit or home.”

To reduce the chances that attendance will be low for voting, Stivelman says that elections are typically scheduled during times when most snowbirds should be around. 

Stivelman recalls one unit owner who was so adamant about getting enough votes for an election that he contacted every unit owner personally via FedEx to remind them to participate. “He went above and beyond to get the seasonal residents to vote.”

You’ve Got E-Mail

Associations do not need to go to such an extreme in order to make sure that there are enough voters to make a decision stick. It all comes down to good record-keeping and communication. 

“Having a robust electronic communication platform makes all of this easy and trackable, especially when managing remote owners,” says Kunes. “All administrative functions should be electronic nowadays. This eliminates the issue of getting votes for residents who aren’t physically present. Proxies, voting and any updates around important decisions can all be handled and communicated via a property management system so that there is a system of record, with all members and votes tracked.”

Kunes works with many property managers who manage HOAs in seasonal destinations like Arizona or Florida. “By electronically communicating with those residents through our platform, they’ve introduced more modern methods, such as text messages updates on maintenance issues or fixes,” he says. “This has given them a new level of efficiency, and brought the residents a new level of transparency and peace of mind, especially when they’re away from their properties.”

An electronic system also helps in collecting dues and assessment payments. “Most of them will have automatic payments set up to go directly to the bank,” says Stivelman. “However, the problem starts when a homeowner hasn’t paid, and you can’t get ahold of them to start the collection process. You can send a demand letter and send it to the address on file, but if it’s not the right one, or they are staying somewhere else during those months and the process server can’t serve them, it’s a problem.”

Paying Up

Some communities will allow a seasonal renter to pay for their entire stay at the time of move-in, rather than paying monthly rent. “This provides a benefit for the renter, who doesn’t have to worry about the expense during their seasonal stay, and to management, who can ensure that rents are collected timely,” says Register.

According to Kunes, his best advice for associations is to make sure that when someone moves in, they provide the management or board with an alternate address that is updated with any changes that occur over time. “Some require that that the owner leave a spare key, too,” says Stivelman. 

While having a large population of snowbirds can cause issues for building or HOA administrators when such migrators can’t be located when there’s an emergency in their unit, the opposite is also true; having snowbirds at home and roosting when a major capital improvement project or maintenance effort is underway can cause just as much drama. 

“Conventional properties that offer seasonal or short-term lease options still continue to have residents at the property year-round,” says Register. “Management of the community may choose to complete specific-planned projects—such as pool repairs, for example—during the times of year when seasonal residents vacate, so as not to close popular amenities during the peak season.”

Handling snowbirds comes down to a common real estate theme: location, location, location. Know where they are and how to get in touch with them. Create a system where the information is updated regularly. And, if they can’t be reached, have a backup key in order to get in.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.  

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