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5 essential questions to ask before you buy a Florida vacation home

To end up with a place that suits your needs and desires, work with an experienced agent who knows the South Florida market. 

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New York City is a wonderful place to live, but there are times—during the sweltering heights of summer, or the frozen depths of winter—when it’s an even better place to escape from. For many New Yorkers, South Florida is a popular destination when it’s time to flee the Big Apple.

But it’s not all easy beachy when it comes to buying a vacation home in the Sunshine State. The market presents unique challenges, and if you don’t know your Delray Beach from your Gulf Stream, you can get taken advantage of.

To end up with a place that suits your needs and desires, work with an experienced agent who knows the ins and outs of the South Florida market. “We’re all about educating the buyer,” says Paulette Koch, a longtime broker with Corcoran’s Palm Beach, Florida office. “There are nuances in every marketplace, and our job is to guide you through the process.”

To ensure your Florida second home is everything you want, keep these five questions top of mind.

1. What kind of lifestyle do you want?

Lifestyle is the No. 1 factor that should determine the towns and types of homes you look at. Florida’s southeast coast has a wide variety of communities, each with its own sense of identity, from upscale hotspots like Palm Beach and Manalapan to more laid-back beach towns like Ocean Ridge and Highland Beach.

There are reasons to recommend any of them, so it’s important to narrow down what exactly you’re dreaming about for your Florida vacation life. Do you want to be able to walk to the beach? Do you want to be involved in the community, or would you prefer a more private setting? Low-key, relaxed vibe, or vibrant social scene? Golf and tennis, or surfing and sailing?

“Houses sell themselves,” says Steven Presson, a sales associate based in Corcoran’s Palm Beach office. “A buyer can walk into a house and know within seconds if it’s perfect for them. What they should be asking is, ‘What lifestyle do I want? What are my goals?’ My job isn’t to find them the right house, it’s to put them in the right situation for their lifestyle.”

Palm Beach is a well-known resort community, one of the most affluent destinations in the world with the social capital to match. “People aren’t just looking to buy a luxury home on the ocean or the Intracoastal—they’re looking to buy into that social scene,” Presson says.

Its neighbor across the Intracoastal Waterway, West Palm Beach, is not as upscale, but has a rich history and more city amenities. 

Two other upscale options on the Gold Coast are Delray Beach (which has a thriving shopping scene) and Manalapan (very exclusive and private, with average sales prices to match). Highland Beach is a smaller beach town with predominantly high-rise condos, though savvy buyers can get a house on the waterfront for a comparably affordable price.

Ocean Ridge is another smaller beach town, but one that attracts residents seeking a community experience. “It has a Midwestern vibe,” Presson says. “Normally when a new person moves in, they get a welcoming party.”

Further north, the Treasure Coast (so named for the loss of 11 Spanish treasure ships in 1715) has a number of historic cities and shopping centers, to go with its beautiful beaches and state parks. Off the southern tip of the mainland, the Keys feel like a world apart, spanning 113 islands of mangrove trees and white sandbars, with an equally rich social texture of castaways and polite society denizens.

2. Where do you want to be in relation to the ocean?

Do you want to be on the beach, or set back? Do you have a boat, and if so, how big is it?

“When I’m working with a client who’s new to Florida, the first thing is to find out their geographic preference,” says Candace Friis, a broker out of Corcoran’s Delray Beach/Gulf Stream office. “Do they want to be oceanfront, on the intracoastal canal, or is water not a priority? Do you prefer to walk to the beach, or stay away from the hustle and bustle?”

A broker with experience in the area can help you find the right location and views. And if you have a boat or yacht, they’ll also be able to advise you on regulations and codes, which differ from place to place.

“Not every town has the true deep water required for a bigger boat,” Presson says. For example, in Ocean Ridge, 90 percent of homes are on the canals, where the shallow water depth can be as low as two-and-a-half to three feet at low tide. There’s no deep water in Manalapan, and a local requirement that your boat can only be half the length of your property’s water frontage. The town of Hypoluxo has shallow water off one coast, deep off the other. Your broker will have this kind of knowledge, so you can make sure your watercraft meets local regulations.

3. Will your furniture work?

How do you plan to furnish your vacation home? If you are planning to move surplus furniture down to Florida, you might think again.

“When people come from colder climates, their furnishings tend to be darker and heavier, and they just don’t work down here,” Friis says.

Save the shipping costs and budget for new interior furnishings. It’s less of a headache, and you can find furniture that is more aesthetically and weather appropriate.

4. Is everything up to code?

Budget also for repairs and renovations to ensure everything in your new home is up to code. The rules differ by county, and are periodically updated in accordance with changes in the climate and architectural advancements. Depending on the condition of the home and where it’s located, you may want to install things like impact windows and pilings.

A home inspection isn’t required, but brokers recommend it and can facilitate the process (in Florida, the buyer pays). Given the climate and use of air-conditioning, a mold air test is also recommended. If the property is older and/or on the water, you may want to consider hiring a structural engineer, as well, to determine if the property needs pilings.

Taking these steps early in the process gives you the opportunity to negotiate costs with the seller. Your broker can connect you with all the right experts to make sure all boxes are ticked. “We try to accomplish everything during the inspection period, that 10-15 day opportunity during the closing of the contract,” Koch says.

5. What type of property do you want?

Condo or single-family house? High-rise, gated community, or on the beach? South Florida has a smattering of different property types, and while certain towns might be known for certain styles and stock, you can find what you want almost anywhere with the help of a broker.

Architectural styles range wildly, too, from ultra-modern luxury condos to Key West traditional estates. “No two properties are the same down here,” Presson says.

If you want to have more of a guiding hand over the look and feel of your home, your broker can connect you with designers, architects, and builders to help you remodel.

Fun in the sun

To guarantee a seamless and successful experience purchasing a vacation home in South Florida, pair up with a broker who knows the region and can navigate its particularities to get you into the property of your dreams. That’s the best way to ensure your needs are met, and that your experience in an unfamiliar market will be a good one.

“We can steer you into the right vacation home for your lifestyle,” Presson says. “At this level, it’s about finding the right property.”

Visit Corcoran South Florida today to take the next step toward securing your vacation home in the Sunshine State.