Property: The Mickey Mouse market awaits you

A week in Florida not enough? Buy a home there, suggests Nicole Sochor
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The Independent Online
FLORIDA is cheap, sunny, and easy to get to. No wonder that Britons who visit Disney World with the kids are often tempted to buy a holiday home. The area south of Orlando is the most popular with UK residents buying in the area. It's close to the major theme parks, and once you've bought a property you can make money by letting it out.

Many management firms in the area guarantee a minimum rental period of 30 weeks a year, but 35 to 40 weeks a year is a more realistic expectation. That sounds good, but you have to pay the managers a big chunk of that, and cover the running costs of your home.

Florida has a lot more than Mickey Mouse to offer those who want to get away from the crowds: the Everglades National Park, golf courses and unspoilt beaches are the other main attractions for Britons.

There's been an explosion of property development in Florida, driven by demand from thousands of Americans, many of whom want to retire in the sun. Foreign buyers are also keen. Ian Ward took his family to Florida for the first time in the 1980s, fell in love with the place, and bought a home on the spot. He now runs a tour operator, Florida Villas (0181- 523 7070), which offers fly-drive holidays. He will also put potential house buyers in touch with Florida builders. Most new owners then use his firm to rent out their homes. "There are many companies that refer UK clients to American builders, and receive a commission when the deal goes ahead, as we do," Mr Ward says. "We want to stay with the client and rent out their homes."

He warns UK buyers to make sure the resort is zoned for short-term rental. Some aren't, and it can cause problems. He also advises buying in a development where most of the other owners are resident, which helps security. The biggest rental demand is for four- or five-bedroom villas sleeping 10 to 12 people. Fully-furnished villas range from pounds 80,000 to pounds 140,000 depending on location, size and luxury. You could expect to get about pounds 700 a week in rent for this sort of home. Mr Ward owns three villas and says he expects them to pay for themselves within 10 years.

As an example of what's around at the moment, the developers Avatar are building at Harbor Islands on the Intercoastal waterway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The resort is close to Atlantic beaches and near the vast shopping centres at Bal Harbour and Aventura Mall. The development is a Mediterranean-style village in 192 acres with a marina, leisure centre and restaurants, with water frontage for many homes and private moorings. Houses have a two-car garage and pool. Prices start at about pounds 150,000.

The UK agent is Sunstate International in Bournemouth (01202 546622). Jim Atkins, of Sunstate, says the firm has three-bedroom properties in central Florida from pounds 60,000. At Cape Coral, a less populated area on the Gulf Coast near Fort Myers, you can buy a three-bedroom villa near the waterfront for pounds 100,000 upwards. Mr Atkins advises speaking to a British agent first:

"That way you can sort out a lot of problems for the price of a local phone call.

"Most foreign buyers prefer to buy new homes because they have a building standards warranty, but Mr Atkins says that US building standards have improved dramatically in the last 10 years, so you may get a good deal when you buy an existing home.

Florida Property Associates has branches in Orlando and Bournemouth (01202 884460) and associate firms on the Gulf Coast. It says the most rentable homes are three-bedroom villas with pools within 15 minutes' drive of Disney World. They cost pounds 80,000 to pounds 90,000 and you can expect to rent them out for 35 to 40 weeks a year.

Older people prefer the Gulf Coast and you can only expect to rent a home out for half the year. In Englewood, halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, there are homes backing on to the water, golf course or green belt land, close to the beach, starting at pounds 80,000.

Grand Haven Village is under construction near Daytona Beach: this has a Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course, and plots are being sold now by Allsop and Co (0171-437 6977).

Avoid the pitfalls

q If you plan to retire to Florida you may find your plans blocked by stringent US immigration laws.

q Get advice on federal and state taxes before you sign a contract to buy a home. Remember, US mortgages will be in dollars, so if the pound falls your repayments will rise.

q The house may be hard to sell later. Buyers have a tendency to prefer new properties.

q Consider whether you really need to buy in Florida when there are so many bargain rental and fly-drive holidays on offer.

q Check the property is zoned for short-term rental if you plan to rent it out. Short lets are prohibited along much of the Gulf Coast.