Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It's not the heat, it's the humidity (and the heat)

Chapter 4 of our search for a retirement location.

We had been slacking off in our search for a retirement location.  Two weeks in France in May, followed by about a three week recovery period, featuring a really miserable cold and cough for me that Jody caught and devolved into pneumonia for her, slowed us down.  In July, we got going again.

The theory is to visit a potential retirement location at a bad time, weatherwise, to see if we can handle the worst it can offer.  When we went to Port Townsend in January, it was dark, cold, and damp.  No snow, no heavy rain, but just unpleasant.  When we left, we had a hundred mile drive to the Seattle/Tacoma airport, and it was just awful, right on the edge of being undrivable, raining so hard.  So we were discouraged from pursuing that option.

This trip was inspired by one of my cousins living in the Fort Myers area and another thinking about moving nearby, to Cape Coral.  Rather than focusing on only one area, we tried to explore a place on the Atlantic coast, a place on the Gulf side, and given the very cheap air fares into Orlando, a place in the middle.  The first place we decided to check out was Port St. Lucie, on the Atlantic coast, where the New York Mets have spring training.  I'm sure the local bail bondsmen welcome the Mets every year (thinking back to Doc Gooden and Darrell Strawberry).  This town is north of the really expensive places, but seemed to offer a certain amount of charm.  We contacted a developer (Kolter) who has a new community being built on the west side of town, called Verano.  They offered a stay-and-play package, where we could stay three days and two nights in the community to get a feel for what it would be like.  But we were flying into Orlando, which is a bit of a hike to Port St Lucie, and we decided to schedule our two nights to begin the second night after we got there, or we would essentially be wasting the first night.

Our trip got off to a good and bad start.  The good part was running into our dear friend Anne at the Admiral’s Club at DFW (there are four of them so we beat the odds).  Anne has been our French teacher for a long time, although we are not currently enrolled in class.  She was on her way to California for the weekend.  So we had a chance to catch up.  But then we were a little pressed for time to get to our gate. I was proceeding through the crowds making pretty good time, and looked back over my shoulder to see if Jody was keeping up, which she always does.  But she wasn’t in sight.  I looked around, and she was slowly catching up.  There had been a problem with her Rick Steves rolling bag, something caught in the wheel.  She got that straightened out and promptly fell behind again, complaining that the bag wasn’t rolling right.  One of the wheels was coming apart.  I handed her the handle on my bag, and asked her to roll it, while I carried hers.  We’ve had those bags for a long time, but mine has endured far more abuse than hers, since I’ve made a lot of business trips with it.  But hers failed first. It wasn't rolling worth a damn. (After a while the debris from the 'tire' fell off and the bag rolls okay, at least for now.)

Our flight was uneventful. We had reserved a car, but had some difficulty figuring out where to go to get it. Every airport is different.  At Orlando, the rental cars are in a multi-level garage across the street from the terminal. Hertz has a person standing out in front of their counter to intercept people like us, who have #1 Club Gold (like O.J.?) and don’t have to check in, but don’t know where to go.  So we got directions, headed outside over to the garage and then it hit us.  Florida is really, really hot.  We worked up a sweat in no time. It was breathtakingly hot.

I had asked for a Corolla but got a Jeep Compass.  I guess you would call this a small SUV.  It had Texas plates.  A sign? 

Our drive to Port St Lucie went okay.  Florida has a lot of long, straight roads, and is really flat.  You would think someone from Texas wouldn’t notice, but we have much more in the way of changes in elevation in our part of Texas than Florida does.  We used Jody’s iPhone for navigation, having previously captured in Contacts the addresses we needed.  Siri took us over to I-95 and then down to Port St Lucie.  We found our hotel without too much trouble.  It was a beautiful Hilton Garden Inn, with everything shiny and new. Our room was comfortable.  We ate dinner in Chili’s, probably taking the easy way out instead of trying to find something local.

The next morning we left the Hilton to go to the first of the communities we were going to investigate. With Jody’s roller bag being disabled, I took both our bags out to the car, but as soon as I stepped outside, I was blind.  The humidity was so bad that my sunglasses, cooled from the air conditioning in the hotel, fogged up immediately and completely. I’d not seen anything like it. A bright, sunny, hot and humid day awaited us.

The Kolter PGA Verano development was our next stop. We got past the gate guard, but the office was not open yet, so we drove around the development checking things out. We noticed a couple of things right away.  One was that everything was very uniform – the yards were immaculately maintained and the grass was all one color.  Trees and shrubs were harmonious.  The other was that we saw some new construction, and they use cinderblocks or concrete blocks for building, not wood with brick veneer as we are used to in North Texas.  I guess it makes sense.  If you are encountering hurricane-force winds, you need a hurricane-resistant house.  Verano has an association with the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) and is the only development having it.  This development is not age-restricted, but it sure seemed like it was mostly for retired people.

We got the information on the home where we would be staying, and the salesman came out and introduced himself. His name was Lee, and he was Australian.  Lee basically gave us an overview of the development, and let us walk around through the model park. They have models set up in order of cost, from lowest to highest, and you help yourself.  Since we were so early, we were the first ones there, and had the place to ourselves.

The models were very impressive.  We have a fairly large house for only two people, and downsizing is a goal. Some of the houses seemed to fit our goal, but the layouts were sometimes problematic. I do not like having kitchen, dining, and living rooms all together, for example.  Two, yes, three, no.  Most were that way.  Jody is looking for a big new kitchen and a pantry, and wants to have a tub in the master bath, or at the very least, a tub somewhere.  Those are not universal.

Lee caught up with us to answer questions. One interesting thing is that in Verano all the houses have what he called ‘impact’ windows.  This is not a term we knew.  An impact window is strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds without requiring shutters to be put up.  We also learned that the uniformity and excellence of the yard maintenance was because the homeowners don’t do the maintenance – a landscaping company does it for the whole development.  There’s a monthly charge (more than $400) which includes yard maintenance, security, internet and cable television.

We liked Verano, but there were two problems. One was it was hot as hell there, although the air conditioning in the borrowed home worked flawlessly.  Even first thing in the morning, it was too hot to go out.  The second was that there was nobody there.  We went into the clubhouse to see what was there, and two or three people were at the pool. We went into the exercise room, and there were two bored physical trainers helping each other work out.  I said, can I ask a question:  Where is everybody?  The answer is that many of the people in the community leave for the hot months and go back wherever they came from. Some have a place at Verano as a second home, and some live there but leave in the summer.  One of the advantages of Verano is that it is set up as ‘lock and leave’. If you go out of town, someone does your yard and unless you leave food to rot the house will be the same when you get back.  We even saw collection points at various places in Florida for people who are leaving for the summer to drop off food items for donations to the needy. 

Two major pluses for Verano:  1) a very nice supermarket was right outside the entrance, and 2) one exit on I-95 brought you to West St Lucie, a booming area with lots of restaurants and shopping, not all of it national chains.

Two major negatives for Verano: 1) it was deserted. 2) no on-site restaurant, not even in the golf course.

While in the Port St Lucie area, we ventured over to the ocean one morning.  There are barrier islands off the coast, and entry is only at a causeway at each end of the island in St Lucie county. We went to the beach, but no one was in the water.  A few people were fishing. Generally it was deserted, probably because it was so hot.  There is a long, lonely road down the island, and as you get to the southern tip it is more built up.  Lots of high rise buildings, with all the windows covered by hurricane shutters.  I guess they aren’t planning on returning until fall.  One disappointment was that the island contained a huge nuclear power plant.  Hmmm, nuclear power plant, only two narrow bridges to get you out.  Maybe not the best plan.

We chose a couple of floor plans out of the seven or eight they have at Verano that we thought might work for us, and went back the next day to check them out.  Then we got Lee to take us to some empty houses that were available with those floor plans.  We got the idea, but the extreme heat and the absence of any people worked against Verano.  Our house backed up to a golf course, but we never saw any golfers.  All the homes backed up either to water, golf, or nature preserve, so there would never be a neighbor behind you. 

While we were there I touched base with my cousin Mary, who lives in Fort Myers.  We had a terrible phone connection but the house had wi-fi, so I called her back with Face Time.  I later learned that the phone connection problem was my phone itself, not AT&T.  Face Time is fantastic. Mary sent a message later about a place called Pelican Preserve, another development near where she lives, which she thought we might like.

We left Verano fairly early the next day, and started across the peninsula in the direction of Fort Myers.  The drive across Florida was interesting.  Some areas were covered by a canopy of trees over the highway, making it cooler but hard to see. Other places we saw farmland, grazing, citrus, etc.  Lots and lots of trailer parks.  When we got past Lake Okeechobee, never having seen it, we lost the cellular signal, and Siri lost her mind.  We had to pull over and study the Hertz map for a while to determine which way to go. While we sat there, a sheriff sat in his car watching us, a couple in a car with Texas plates, obviously not supposed to be there, obviously up to something.  He followed us for a while. I was particularly careful to signal every turn and not to speed, thinking of Burt Reynolds in "The Longest Yard".  Welcome to Florida! Eventually the sheriff turned off.

When we got to Fort Myers, we just happened to drive right past one of the developments we wanted to check out, a place called Verandah, also by the Kolter company.  We grabbed a quick bite at a Taco Bell, and went back to Verandah.

Verandah was a lot more attractive than Verano.  At Verano, the homes were all built with a faux-Italian design, with Mediterranean tile roofs, and the interiors had faux-Italian styling.  Verandah was more traditional, and each house had, guess what, a veranda on the front.  The floor plans were not all  the same as Verano, although they were definitely cousins, and they had more of the smaller floor plans available.  We currently have a four bedroom house with three bathrooms, for two people.  Smaller would probably be good.  This development had golf available (not mandatory) and lots of winding, treed roads and walkways, a rarity in this part of the country.  Florida has long, straight roads, but Verandah was not like that.  We viewed the models and went back and looked a second time at our favorites.

Verandah had the same ‘lock-and-leave’ setup as Verano. It had the same high ceilings and hurricane-resistant windows. 

The problem with Verandah is where it is. One one side is undeveloped land or agricultural land, and on the other side it seemed mostly industrial, and beyond that was a poor neighborhood.  So the question becomes, where do you go shopping?  Our salesman didn’t know.  Male sales people aren’t interested in that.  And it seemed like Fort Myers was even hotter than Port St Lucie. 

We planned to visit two developments the next day, one being the Pelican Preserve mentioned by my cousin, and the other the Del Webb Tidewater development.  We were getting up early and Pelican opened earliest, so we went there first.  It was off a beautiful, relatively empty, multi-lane divided highway.  We filled out the forms and a nice lady named Pat showed us around.  We really liked this place.  There were lots of people staying there over the summer, although some did not. The common areas were busy. They had a couple of on-site restaurants.  It just felt like it would be a nice place to live.

The homes we looked at were intelligently laid out and landscaped.  Every home seemed to have a screened in lanai in the back.  They did not have impact resistant windows as a standard but it was available as an add-on.  The way all of these developments work is to present a floor plan for X dollars.  There is a lot premium, which may be quite a bit, or could even be zero.  Then you work on what you want in the house, and upgrades are available on everything.  It seemed that a typical house with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a den would go for, say $325,000.  With lot premium and upgrades, nicer granite in the kitchen, nicer faucets, bigger stovetop, it sneaks up to $400,000 pretty quickly.  Then there is a monthly charge for yard maintenance, and possibly a community development fee for road maintenance and the like, which can sneak on up there as well.

After checking out Pelican, we decided to forego Tidewater.  It seemed to have similar floor plans to what we saw in the Sun City Texas development, also Del Webb, except everything was $100,000 more expensive, and any attempt I made to contact them to make an appointment was unsuccessful.  I guess things are good at Del Webb.  So we decided to drive over to the Gulf, and see what we could see.  We made it as far as Sanibel Island, and the fun part is going over the causeway to get there.  It is quite spectacular. (It's also $6.)  Sanibel is low-keyed, with smaller houses and resorts, and it is virtually impossible to get even a glimpse of the water anywhere without paying an hourly parking fee.  I imagine Sanibel is crazy during high season, but it was not crowded at all on a cloudy afternoon in July.  We did get over to the lighthouse to snap a few photos, and got a few more on one of the islands used by the highway to get back to the mainland.  Later we stopped by Mary’s house and visited briefly.  It looks like they just moved in and haven’t unpacked yet.

The next day we left Fort Myers for our next destination, a small town north of Orlando called Mount Dora.  A ‘mount’ in Florida?  Every person we met was proud to tell us that Mount Dora was 180 feet above sea level.  By way of comparison, our house in Richardson is 600 feet above sea level. The drive up there was long and mostly boring, except for where the construction crews had reduced I-75 down to one lane.  When you get further north in Florida, the topography is a little more interesting, the roads have bends in them, and there are some changes in elevation.  It was a bit shocking.

We found the office for Pringle builders (everyone has to have a name, what can I say) but my contact was out sick. The guy who filled in for her was kind of frazzled.  He put together a packet for us and led us over to the Lakes of Mount Dora development.  But it is different. They had no models, only the guest house where we were staying. The guest house was a home they had sold and leased back for use for prospective buyers. They build everything custom, off a base floor plan to be sure, but the house where we were had been expanded considerably off the floor plan to make some of the rooms larger.  We liked our house, although the furnishings were not comfortable, the cable TV didn’t work and the icemaker wasn’t making ice.  But they had a huge bucket full of snacks, including, you guessed it, some Pringles.

Our host (named Jim, he called me Jimmy once but I didn’t kill him) said that if we were interested in any of the floor plans, he would try to get us into a house to look at it.  I assume he meant an occupied house where they had agreement from the owner, who was probably away for the summer, to have a look.  We picked out a couple of floor plans and agreed to meet with him back at our guest house at 10 the next day.

We were then taken to dinner by a couple living in the community, actually about 6 houses away.  For some reason, they chose to go to a chain restaurant (Olive Garden) instead of one of the many very interesting restaurants in the town of Mount Dora, which we found out about the next day.  But they clearly love Mount Dora and love living in the Lakes development.  They had moved from the south side of Chicago.  Their house had extensive customization - a six burner gas stovetop, very high ceilings, expanded rooms of every kind.  It was really nice but way more than what we would need.  After dinner, we sat outside on their screened in lanai, which included a pool, and the temperature was comfortable for the first time for us in Florida.  Of course, there had been a pretty good thunderstorm right before we went to dinner, which cooled things off.

It seemed to us that the Lakes of Mount Dora lacked the critical mass we were looking for in a community.  It was nearly deserted, and did not have the club space and activity space that other developments had.  It seemed that the location was in fact a touch cooler and less humid than Port Saint Lucie or Fort Myers, and the topography was a lot more interesting.  The other attraction is that Orlando is not too far away.  Their literature said 40 minutes but our experience was more like 60.

We expected to meet up with Jim the next morning, but he called and said Ann (our supposed contact) was still sick and he was tied up with a client. He rescheduled for 1 PM.

We took the opportunity to drive into Mount Dora to explore the town.  It is a walkable town, but it would have been a lot more walkable in a different season.  We wandered down to the lake, and saw a rare lighthouse on fresh water.  Lots of signs about snakes and alligators.  We walked back into town, thoroughly soaked in sweat.  A coffee shop was open that featured cold drinks and cupcakes.  It was exactly what we needed, especially the air conditioning.  We did not walk that far but in the humidity it was pretty tough. A chocolate mousse cupcake ruined lunch as well as anything could.

We went back to the house to wait for Jim, but 1 PM came and went. We called, and they said he was still busy.  I said we would wait until 3, and after that forget about it, and he didn’t show, so we didn’t get to see much of the Lakes of Mount Dora except from the outside.  If they don't want to do business with me, I don't want to do business with them. 

The next morning we drove to Orlando, found the airport, and found the incredible ripoff gas station that we found the last time we were in Orlando, 1998 or so.  I needed only a few gallons so I paid for it.  On our trip home, we were upgraded to first class, but did not get to sit together.  Still, first class on a Boeing 757 is better than coach, and we appreciated it.

So our Florida adventure concluded with no decisions being made, but it seemed that if we moved to Florida we would probably want to go somewhere else during the summer.  We could do that here just as well.