Scott Burns: Making home sweet again with these retirement tips

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ISLAMORADA, Fla. — From the bayside, it’s hard to believe that the channel for the Snake River cut actually exists. Until you’re right up on the marker, it appears to be a jungle of mangrove trees.

But once in the channel, you see a new vista: On the north side there are at least a half-dozen arrow-straight canals lined with houses. Most of the houses are large, but few are McMansions. Most have docks for their boat, or boats. And most are worth at least $1 million, not counting their nautical toys. If you’ve got the money, owning one of these places would be the start of a great retirement.

Not many people have that kind of money.

So let’s ask a question: Is there a reasonable substitute? Is there a way we can have the same kind of experiences of water, nature and easy living without the very large financial footprint of an expensive house with its monthly operating costs and taxes?

There is. And readers have told me about it.

One of the repeat themes in reader responses to my January column searching for small solutions from readers was simplicity in shelter. Some called for paying off mortgages as quickly as possible. Others called for keeping home costs low. Still, others called for radical downsizing to RV living. More than one suggested living on a boat as a good substitute for owning a home.

And they are right on. Take the boat I chartered. At 33 feet, a couple could live on the San Souci. The cost: Maybe $25,000 for the used boat and about $600 a month for the rental slip. A larger powerboat would have more room and wider appeal. The slip for a 36-foot Grand Banks trawler is about $700 a month. You can buy them used for under $100,000. Keep the diesel engine in good shape and you can relocate at will.

Other things to note: No more yard work. No more huge water bills for keeping grass alive. Nominal taxes. And much, much lower dry cleaning bills. (Don’t forget, however, that your cost of living will be inversely proportional to your skill with tools and a varnish brush.)

Is living on a boat too eccentric for you? Not to worry. Walk up the street and try an RV. The Seabreeze RV and Mobile Home Park is less than a half-mile from Treasure Harbor Marina. Its 7.5 acres are right on the ocean — something you can’t get in a canal home that costs a mere million. Some of the RVs and park models are on the water. (Park models are RVs built to travel just once. They look like beach cabins.) And you can dock your fishing boat on site.

Standing outside her RV, manager Jody Morse tells me that her RV feels like a boat, but it’s a lot bigger. Lot rentals range from $700 to $1,000 a month. Units sell for anywhere from $10,000 to $120,000. And slips for small motorboats are $135 a month.

Residents here, Ms. Morse tells me, average 50 years old. Half are full-time residents and half are part-time. The park itself is a mixture of very old RVs that haven’t moved in decades and new, brightly colored park models. If you’re looking for a Downton Abbey lifestyle, Sea Breeze isn’t for you. But if you like the vibe of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and ache for a laid-back life in the Margaritaville style, this could be home. Just make sure you use your sunblock every day, and don’t forget to buy a new pair of sandals and shorts once a year.

Is Seabreeze RV and Mobile Home Park unusual? Not at all. RV and mobile home parks line the Overseas Highway all the way down to Key West. Beyond that, you can find them all over Florida and across the country to California. The biggest change in the last 10 years is that many parks are morphing into full-time homes for some, or part-time homes for snowbirds. While one-bedroom park models that have no more than 399 square feet dominate the pure RV parks, some parks are moving toward to two-bedroom/two-bath manufactured homes that have about 1,000 square feet.

Intimidated by a monthly lot rental, a cost that typically runs $500 to $600 a month? Then search for communities where you own the land as well as the home. This will reduce monthly cash expenses still further. Either way, you can explore what’s available and the vast range of expenses and park amenities on the MHVillage website, www.mhvillage.com.

SCOTT BURNS is a principal of the Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc., a registered investment adviser. His e-mail address is scott@scottburns.com.

— Universal Uclick


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