MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Four years into the housing crash, there's still little good news to report. An especially troubled market such a Florida, foreclosures are down, at least for now, and sales are up. But in some areas, more than half of those sales involve foreclosures. Still, there is one group of homebuyers for whom market conditions could not be better.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports that in Florida it's a great time to be a Canadian.
(Soundbite of parking lot)
GREG ALLEN: The cars in a parking lot at Wal-Mart here in Hallandale Beach tell the tale. Here's a car with a license plate from Quebec. Two cars over, there's another. A few cars down, there's one from Ontario. It's February; the weather is warm here in Florida, so many are visitors. But other Canadians, like Doug Flood, are coming here to put down roots.
Mr. DOUG FLOOD: It's the place that if there ever was an 11th province, it probably would be Florida.
ALLEN: Flood moved to Florida from Toronto in 2008. A few years later, he got into real estate. He now specializes in helping Canadians who want their own piece of Florida sunshine. As it turns out, there's a lot of them. Canadians are the largest single group of foreign homebuyers, accounting last year for some eight percent of total residential sales in Florida.
The maple leaf has long been a familiar symbol in Florida beach communities, both on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But over the last several years, Canadian visitors have increasingly become homebuyers.
Flood says that's because economic conditions couldn't be better.
Mr. FLOOD: There's clearly a perfect storm. If you're Canadian, you've got very low interest rates at home if you want to borrow against your house. You've got a foreign exchange par, dollar-for-dollar. And prices down here that are 40 to 50 percent lower than what they were five years ago.
ALLEN: And here's another major factor: Canada largely avoided the collapse in housing prices that devastated American homeowners and the U.S. economy. Because of tighter financial regulations, things like subprime lending and securitized mortgages are unknown in Canada. Foreclosures are rare. As a result, Canadian real estate steadily appreciated while property values in Florida, Arizona and other hard-hit U.S. markets went into the tank.
Brian Ellis is with Florida Home Finders of Canada, a real estate company based near Toronto.
Mr. BRIAN ELLIS (Florida Home Finders of Canada): It's put a lot of us in a very, very strong position in that we do have a lot of equity in our homes. And now we can take some of that equity out, pay cash for either an investment property or for a second home in the state of Florida.
ALLEN: Ellis holds seminars in Ontario and Quebec for people interested in buying homes in Florida. Most buyers, Ellis says, aren't planning on moving to Florida, they're investors.
Mr. ELLIS: They're all looking at buying property to rent out today to generate cash flow. You can't do that here in most major centers in Canada. You cannot buy property and be cash-flow positive. Not even close.
ALLEN: There are wealthy Canadians buying multimillion-dollar beachfront homes. And there are people like Dennis Kivlahan.
Mr. DENNIS KIVLAHAN: I bought sight unseen.
ALLEN: Kivlahan is a high school history teacher from Ajax, Ontario. He used money from a home equity loan to pay cash for a two-bedroom condo in Fort Myers, Florida, some 1,500 miles away.
Mr. KIVLAHAN: I liked the price. It was a very straightforward sale. And then I ended up, we went on vacation there, myself, my wife and children, and I saw the unit about three months after I purchased it.
ALLEN: Kivlahan says he's renting it out with the idea of possibly moving to Fort Myers when it's time to retire.
It's not just individual homebuyers taking advantage of low Florida prices. The Minto Group, a Canadian homebuilder, recently bought nearly 1,000 lots near Tampa.
For Canadians, it's an investment and something more - a reminder in the depths of winter, that you have a place where it's actually warm.
Mr. KIVLAHAN: You know, right now, as we speak, it's about minus 20 with the wind chill, so I wouldn't mind being down there.
ALLEN: Canadian teacher Dennis Kivlahan explaining why through boom and bust Florida real estate eventually always bounces back.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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