Let the Great Snowbird Migration Begin!

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Snowbird Migration Routes

You’ve heard it sung up and down the Florida peninsula: “You take the Turnpike and I’ll take I-75, and I’ll be in Georgia Before You!” Yes, it’s the Snowbird National Anthem, sung once a year as Snowbirds head from Key West and Jacksonville and Pensacola to wherever they live that gets cold in the winter, which is just about everywhere else. As a song, on long trips, it’s even more popular than “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” among senior citizens, and much safer than drinking while driving and tossing the empty bottles out the window.

For the uninformed, a “Snowbird” is a creature whose life begins at about 60, and truly starts to flourish once Medicare and Social Security kick in full blast. Then, without a care in the world other than what to buy the grandkids for the holidays – preferably something cheap but memorable that says “I love you” even if they really mean “My God, you’re exhausting!” – Snowbirds are free to fly (or drive or take the Auto Train) south to north in the springtime, and north to south again in the fall.

I read online that Monarch butterflies migrate for two reasons. First, because, “They cannot withstand freezing weather in the northern and central continental climates in the winter.” Well how about that! Ditto the Snowbird! Second, because “Larval food plants do not grow in their winter overwintering sites, so the spring generation must fly back north to places where the plants are plentiful,” which is not applicable to the Snowbird because they don’t have larva, and there are about 1600 Denny’s restaurants in the 50 United States, so Snowbirds always have a wide range easy-to-chew, bland-tasting food with a 15% discount from the AARP. Therefore Snowbirds migrate back north in the summer either because they can’t stand the heat, or because they don’t want to pay for the air conditioning, or because the kids let them live rent-free in the basement in exchange for weekend babysitting.

Other warmer-ish states like Georgia and Texas have Snowbirds, but Florida boasts the largest Snowbird population in the world. So important are Snowbirds to the Florida economy that the State government has established The Institute for Snowbird Research, whose sole task is to investigate the migratory and dietary habits of Snowbirds to make sure they keep coming back season after season. We do not want to see declines in the Snowbird population due to devastation of their habitats – otherwise called “Over-55 Communities” – as has happened with the Monarch butterfly in stretches of the Mexican highlands. As a result, one of the first recommendations of the Institute for Snowbird Research was to build more frequent rest stops along the three principal north-south migration routes – I-95, the Florida Turnpike, and I-75 – because Snowbirds have to stop more frequently to pee.

Some Snowbirds actually do fly – Delta, Spirit, or Jet Blue. Those who fly Spirit do so at their own risk, as they are forced to tie lawn chairs to the wings due to limited in-flight seating. American and United are also flown by Snowbirds, especially those flying to remote places where nobody really wants to go anyway, such as Syracuse. Because of recent consolidation in the airline industry, however, Snowbirds with shorter migration routes – say to Tennessee or Kentucky – often drive, since it’s faster than taking a flight with 4 layovers like the one I recently took from Miami to Tampa, via Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Phoenix and London.

Then there’s the Auto Train. Normally I would end the paragraph right there, but since I started I might as well continue. If the Auto Train doesn’t derail, the trip from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia takes 17 hours and 30 fun-filled and exciting minutes punctuated by screaming babies and toilet overflows, excluding the week-and-a-half it takes to load your car on and off the thing, which is precisely how long it took me to fly from Miami to Tampa via Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Phoenix and London: a week-and-a-half.

If you take the Auto Train I recommend booking a “roomette,” because the in-room john is right next to the lower bunk’s pillow – perfect for traveling with someone you never want to see again. The route of the Auto Train is 855 miles long, and the beauty of the Auto Train concept is that it lets you take the train instead of drive precisely over the parts of I-95 where there’s virtually no traffic – from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia – and it leaves you just outside Washington, DC, which has some of the heaviest traffic in the world. A better concept would be to let you drive where there is no traffic – say, from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia – and then take the train where there’s lots of traffic – say, from Washington, DC to New York and Boston – but that’s not how Amtrak works.

One of the major findings of Florida’s Institute for Snowbird Research is that there are two subspecies of Snowbirds: Honest, and Dishonest. The Honest Snowbirds are the ones who admit for tax purposes that they really don’t live in Florida full-time, and therefore aren’t eligible for a Homestead Exemption. The Dishonest Snowbirds – well, you get it, they claim a Homestead Exemption when they’re not really entitled to one.

According to Mary Kiar, the Broward County Property Appraiser, “All legal Florida residents are eligible for a Homestead Exemption on their homes, condominiums, co-op apartments, and certain mobile home lots if they qualify. The Florida Constitution provides this tax-saving exemption on the first and third $25,000 of the assessed value of an owner/occupied residence,” and “the basic homestead exemption saved a Broward homeowner in 2017 anywhere from $615.43 to $1,030.61 (depending upon your city’s millage rate) in annual tax savings for all homes with a value of $75,000 or higher.”

Well them there is Big Bucks, especially for Snowbirds living on Social Security. Let’s say such a Snowbird living on Social Security buys an apartment in their natural habitat – an Over-55 Community – for $40,000. Without a Homestead Exemption the property tax would be an alarming $720; with a Homestead Exemption the property tax would be an easy to handle, might win it on the scratch-off $220, for a savings of $500: enough to book a never-ending trip for two from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia, on the Auto Train!

Sounds tempting, even for the Honest Snowbird, but beware: in 2017 Sarasota County conducted the first-ever Homestead audit in Florida, netting a whopping $8.3 million in back taxes from Homestead Exemption cheats. With results like that you can be sure other counties will be following suit quickly.

And northern states with income taxes are even more aggressive and have been known to audit Snowbirds with property in their states who claim Florida as their principal residence. Those audits can include requesting cell phone records to see where Snowbirds are physically located when making and receiving calls, as well as electric and water bills to check utility consumption, and even asking nosy neighbors, “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your Snowbirds are?”

Hence life as a Snowbird is not without risks, but for many the risks are outweighed by the rewards, such as not being co-opted to look after the grandchildren on their parents’ Date Nights, and not having to go to bed in the winter with a ski mask on to keep warm. Done properly, Snowbirds can look forward to finishing the Snowbird National Anthem every year with those tear-jerking words, “For me and my true love will surely meet again, on the gator-ridden shores of Lake Okeechobee.”

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