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Wednesday, July 26 2017 @ 06:44 AM EDT

New species of snowbird eyes exotic nests in sun

Panama News By Gail Swainson for The Star.com - Hal and Donna Grabowski – perched just this side of retirement – are busy, busy these days. Both run successful businesses; Hal is an accountant and Donna owns an insurance agency. But what really has the pair hopping lately is a slightly offbeat acquisition: a colonial home in Merida, a city of about one million on the tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The gracious heritage villa, which is undergoing a complete-gut renovation, was purchased as a vacation home with an eye to spending at least part of the winter there come retirement. "It's not a retirement home, not just yet," Donna says. "But we still come as often as we can because we just love it there." The Grabowskis aren't alone: they are part of a formidable and emerging trend – the baby boom generation on the move. More and more, boomers are heading into retirement with plans to trade the snow shovel for a tall cool one under a palm tree, housing industry observers say. "This is something that has been going on for 20 years, but it's gaining a great deal of momentum," says Klaus Rohrich, president of Taylor/Rohrich Associates Inc., a Toronto firm that specializes in adult-lifestyle communities. (more)

To be sure, this get-out-of-town mentality is hardly new. Beginning with the Florida snowbirds, generations of Canadian retirees have looked for ways to take extended breaks from winter's tight grip.

What's different this time is that the number of affluent baby boomers preparing to head south, are – like the song says – going to do it their way.

Jam-packed, all-inclusive resorts or old favourites such as Florida hold little allure for this more adventurous generation. Instead, they are snapping up bargain-priced Panamanian condos, villas on the beaches of Belize, Roatan and Nicaragua or colonial fixer-uppers in Mexico.

Not only are they buying discount digs, the boomers are discovering that trading down from life in the fast lane is also bank account-friendly.

And with an estimated 10 million Canadian boomers and another 73 million in the U.S., the number of boomers planning to head south for at least part of the year could reach staggering proportions.

Merida, about three hours west of Cancun, has recently caught the eye of foreign buyers with a keen sense of value. Last July, Fortune magazine declared the Yucatan one of the world's six best places to invest.

Colonials needing extensive work can still be bought in Merida for under $100,000 (all figures U.S.), while spacious, restored homes with a pool start at about $200,000. The Grabowskis first discovered Merida during their travels 30 years ago. When it came time to look for a warm-weather vacation home, the couple's must-have checklist came up Merida.

They made a return visit and "within three or four hours, we knew this was the right place," Donna says.

"We just realized it had everything – it is different and, really important, not too touristy," Hal adds.

Merida's thriving arts community and relative safety – with a notably low crime rate for a city its size – also struck a chord with the couple.

"Merida still has a small town feel," Hal says. "We feel so comfortable there."

Latin America has many advantages, says Lief Simon, a spokesperson for International Living, a print and online magazine that has been tipping subscribers on the best places to live on the cheap for 27 years.

"It is warm and it is close by for North Americans," Simon says in a telephone interview from his Paris office. "Most people still want to be close enough to visit their friends and family and that's what you get with Latin America."

Right now, Simon is bullish on Panama, recently ranked first in International Living's Global Retirement Index. "It has good infrastructure and telecommunications; it uses the U.S. dollar and many speak English because it is a world banking centre," Simon says.

Panama also has a number of advantages for retirees, including its pensionado, or pensioner's program.

With this comes an impressive list of perks – including huge discounts on everything from movies to meals to airfare – for retirees with a minimum monthly income of $500 U.S.

And buying in Panama is also easy on the pocketbook. Condo prices are climbing in Panama City; however, an older two-bedroom condo can still sell for as little $80,000.

"There are still great deals in the resale market," Simon says.

Mexico, which placed fifth after Malta, New Zealand and Uruguay on the International Living Index, is also growing in popularity, Simon says.

A recent International Living newsletter says it all: "Our parents retired to Florida and Arizona. Today's baby boomers are heading south of the border."

While few deep, deep oceanfront discounts remain on either Mexico's east or west coasts, the little-known Gulf Coast just outside Merida is still an affordable place to park a beach towel.

There, a modest, three-bedroom, oceanfront villa can still be bought for about $115,000. An oceanfront condo with pool in a desirable area clocks in at some $85,000, with about $30 a month in added maintenance fees.

And if you want it all, almost 10,000 square feet of off-the-dial luxury right on the ocean can still be found for a little more than $650,000.

Simon says that Eastern European vacation homes tend to be priced on the high side, though bargains for under $100,000 can still be found in Croatia and apartments for about 17,000 euros are available in Bulgaria.

"There are a lot of boomers coming into the market and prices are bound to be affected, but there are still a lot of opportunities out there," Simon adds.

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