Finding our Florida Home (May 5 – 17, 2023)

When we purchased our lot in Jasper, TN in May 2022, we had expected to have our new custom home under construction by this time.  However, as we started the process, we quickly began to realize the many hassles and high costs of trying to build our dream home.  In January 2023, we decided to list the property for sale and explore the resale market for a home that would be readily available.

While we spent the winter of 2023 in Texas, we made plans to travel to Florida in the spring to explore multiple communities to see if any of them met our needs.  Jan’s requirement was a house with a pool, while Phil required a community with pickleball.

On Friday, May 5th, we drove 255 miles to Vernon, FL, 40 miles north of Panama City Beach.  We spent three nights at Holmes Creek Camping & RV Park.  This was a fairly new, family-run RV park with a goat farm next door.  Many of the planned amenities had not yet been constructed, although they had everything we needed.

On Saturday, we drove to the Panama City Beach area and toured the 55+ community of Latitude Margaritaville Watersound with a real estate agent, Mark Oberg.  After receiving an overview of the development’s growth plans and amenities, we walked through several of the model homes.  Since the development was so new, there were no resale opportunities at the moment.  We selected a preferred model and met with the sales rep.  We learned that the timeline would be quite lengthy.  It would be about a year before we would be offered an available lot, then home construction (with a pool) would take about 18 months.  There was no cost to put our names on the waiting list, so we did so and then headed out to explore the surrounding area.  We drove westward along the Gulf, from Panama City Beach to Seagrove Beach.  The drive confirmed our realtor’s comments about the tremendous amount of construction taking place in the area.  Although we were impressed with what we saw, the 2.5-year wait to have a house built made this location a longshot.

After a relaxing Sunday, we were back on the road on Monday.  We drove 295 miles to Ocala, FL, where we spent three nights at Ocala Sun RV Resort.  We had checked out this campground in the winter of 2021 and it had been quite full.  It was considerably less crowded in May 2023 and we had a 75-foot pull-through site that was more than adequate for us.

On Tuesday, we took the truck to the Dodge dealer for repair.  The “check engine” light, which had been reset twice in Texas, had come back on during our drive to Florida.  After another round of diagnostic testing, it was determined that we needed two parts, a Nitrous Oxide Sensor and a CPD Controller. 

While the truck was in the shop, we met with a realtor, Robyn Wagner, who gave us an in-depth tour of two large 55+ communities, On Top of the World and Del Webb Sone Creek.  Robyn had previously lived at On Top of the World but was now living at Stone Creek, although she did a pretty good job of hiding her bias.  On Top of the World, with over 10,000 homes, had tremendous amenities but seemed too big for our comfort and, besides, had no resale pool homes available.  Stone Creek was smaller but, with 3,600 homes, is still the largest Del Webb community.  They had very nice amenities and were building more.  We toured three pool homes which provided plenty of diversity.  The first house was, at over 3,000 square feet, much more than we needed, but had a ton of upgrades and a wonderful view overlooking the golf course.  The price was more than we hoped to pay, of course, but it was very tempting.  The next house was too small and was easily rejected.  The third house met all of our needs and was priced appropriately, but, after seeing the first house, was hard to get excited about.  We met briefly with a sales agent for the development and discussed the possibility of building a new house.  While there some lots currently available, the timeline to get a house and pool constructed was longer than we hoped for.

On Wednesday, we went out exploring on our own.  First, we drove to Inverness and drove by several pool homes on large lots.  They were nice homes but lacked the community amenities we were looking for.  We had lunch at Stumpknockers in Inverness, then headed off to check out eight pool homes in The Villages.  Although we could only do a drive-by on six of these homes, realtors were holding open houses at the other two.  One of them had a great view of the golf course from the pool, and we were tempted.  However, since we were leaving town the next day, we chose not to make a rash decision.

On Thursday, we drove 135 miles to Bradenton, FL, where we stayed for six nights at the Bradenton / Hunsader Farms KOA Holiday.  This KOA was on the grounds of a working farm and included a large produce market, U-pick fields, and a petting zoo.  The downside of being on a farm was that the flies were terrible.  We spent a significant amount of time squatting flies, especially at meal time.

We had come to this area to explore Lakewood Ranch, the hottest-selling planned community in the country for the past two years.  Lakewood Ranch consists of over 20 diverse communities.  Unlike The Villages, only the Del Webb and Cresswind communities were 55+.  We had arranged to be shown around by a local broker, Kathy McKinnon. Del Webb was completely sold out and had no resale pool home listings, so we skipped that community.  Cresswind also had no resale listings but was still doing new construction.  We toured the models and the amenities, and were impressed with both.  However, the costs for a new build were significantly higher than Stone Creek in Ocala.

Next, Kathy had us tour Del Webb Bay View in Parrish, north of Bradenton.  Like Cresswind, they had no resale listings.  The amenities were very nice, but although the cost of new construction was less than at Cresswind, it was still quite a bit higher than Stone Creek.     

Kathy had previously sent us some listings for a couple of pool homes in Del Webb Cypress Falls, in North Port, FL, but we had initially decided were weren’t interested in being 40 miles south of Sarasota.  However, with time to kill, we decided to take a look on Saturday.  When we met Kathy in North Port, we learned that one of the resale pool homes had gone under contract the previous day.  Although the remaining house was somewhat smaller than we wanted, the house had everything we needed and had a nice water view from the pool area.  As we were walking around the outside, we struck up a conversation with the next-door neighbor, who was extremely friendly and informative.  We walked away from the home thinking that it was a serious contender.

Kathy had us stop by the sales office to ask if we could get a tour of the Amenity Center.  In the course of the conversation with Kim Moore, the sales agent, we learned that the development was just about sold out and that they were selling the two remaining model homes.  We toured the larger of the models and found it to be beautifully decorated.  Kim told us that there had been a previous buyer for this model, but they had had to back out two days earlier.  As a result, the builder was very motivated to sell it and was offering a substantial discount.  In addition, we learned that, since there would be no more models built, all the furniture was available for purchase at a price that was unbelievably low.  Since we have been living in an RV for 7-1/2 years, finding a fully furnished home with unused, high-quality furniture, would solve a huge challenge for us. 

We then took a tour of the Amenity Center.  Since this community only has 790 homes, the amenities were somewhat less than at the larger locations, but they were plenty adequate for our needs, including the required pickleball courts.  We decided we should explore the neighborhood and the surrounding area on our own, to see if it was somewhere we would like to live.  After driving the neighborhood, we returned to the model and took pictures from every conceivable angle.  We then drove to dinner at Twisted Fork, a very energetic restaurant.  Along the way, we passed plenty of retail, medical and services within a short drive of the Del Webb community.  After dinner, we drove south through Port Charlotte and turned for home when we reached Punta Gorda.

On Sunday, despite being Mother’s Day, we met Kathy at Cypress Falls at noon and spent the next two hours going over the purchase agreement with Kim.  It was the builder’s contract form, so there wasn’t much opportunity to change the terms, but we were able to negotiate some changes.  Since we needed time to discuss things, and since both Kathy and Kim had Mother’s Day dates with their children, we left without signing the agreement.  On our way back to the campground, we stopped in Lakewood Ranch’s downtown and strolled the streets.  We stopped for appetizers at a Mexican restaurant.

The rest of Sunday and all day Monday was spent reviewing the contract. There were numerous phone calls and text messages before we were satisfied with the wording of the addendums. We signed the purchase agreement electronically around 10 pm. Monday night. We both had trouble sleeping and finally got out of bed at 3 am. Although Jan was able to get back to sleep after about an hour, Phil stayed awake for a couple of hours, filling out applications. We submitted the non-refundable deposit money on Tuesday and felt fully committed to being homeowners again.

After numerous stressful days, we decided to spend Tuesday afternoon at the Siesta Key beach.  This beach was ranked as the best beach in the United States in two recent years.  The sand was very white and soft.  The walk from the parking lot to the water was quite long and the soft sand made it a real workout.  We spent a couple of hours strolling up and down the beach.  Despite being a Tuesday in May, the beach was rather crowded.  We know it would be much more crowded in peak season.

Heading to Florida (April 30 – May 5, 2023)

We left Kerrville on Sunday, April 30th and drove 245 miles to Katy, TX (a suburb northwest of Houston).  We spent the night at Katy Lake Resort. 

On Monday morning, we waited until after rush hour and then headed out on I-10 for a drive that took us through Houston.  Although there was steady traffic, it wasn’t too bad.  We drove 235 miles on I-10 to Duson, LA, where we spent two nights at Frog City RV Park.  The campground was nice and, although it was very close to the interstate, wasn’t too noisy.  The best part was that they offered the Passport America 50% discount, so each night only cost us $26.

On Thursday, we drove to Avery Island where we toured the TABASCO visitor center and factory, as well as exploring the Jungle Gardens.  Avery Island is not truly an island.  It’s actually a salt dome, squeezed up from the Earth’s interior.  From a distance, it looks like an island because of its height and encirclement by wetlands.  The Island climbs about 160’ above sea level, stretches 2.5 miles across, and covers 2,200 acres.  Its deposit of solid rock salt is thought to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high and is currently mined by Cargill, down about 2,000 feet.

We began the tour in the museum, where we learned about the history of TABASCO and the production process.  In the mid-1860s, Edmund McIllhenny began growing peppers using seeds believed to be from Mexico or Central America.  Around 1868, he created the first bottle of his now-famous TABASCO brand pepper sauce.  TABASCO has remained a family-owned business, run mostly by descendants of Edmund McIllhenny.  These descendants had a variety of interests beyond the business.  One was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt; another was an explorer of the North Pole and pioneered the introduction and commercial cultivation of bamboo in the United States. 

Three single ingredients – aged red peppers, natural vinegar, and a dash of Avery Island-mined salt – produce the spicy flavor of TABASCO red pepper sauce.  The tabasco pepper is picked at the perfect shade of red, then immediately crushed, mixed with salt, and aged in white oak barrels for up to three years.  The aged “mash” is then blended with vinegar and stirred intermittently in 1,800-gallon vats for 2 – 3 weeks, then strained to remove the pepper skins and seeds.  The finished sauce is then ready to be bottled.  Our self-guided tour took us through the real-life operations of the greenhouse, barrel aging, blending, and bottling facilities. 

After doing some product tasting in the Country Store and making some purchases, we had lunch at the 1868 Restaurant.  We then did a drive through Jungle Gardens.  Edmund McIllhenny’s son, “Ned,” grew up on the island and studied plants and animals.  Around 1895, Ned developed a semi-tropical garden on the island.  In 1935, it was opened to the public as Jungle Garden, covering about 170 acres.  We drove the circuit and stopped at all 14 points of interest.  We spotted two alligators, including one whose movements had us scurrying back to our car.  One of the stops was at a Buddha from about 1000 AD, a gift from two of Ned’s friends.  Jan discovered a wallet on the ground in the parking lot by the Buddha and was able to find the owner.  He was extremely grateful.

Ned also built an aviary on the island, known as Bird City, to help save the snowy egret, a species that had become endangered due to its feathers being prized by hat makers.  In 1895, he hand-raised 8 snowy egrets in a cage above the water.  Egrets prefer to build their nests above the water because the alligators in the water deter other predators from harming the birds.  In the fall, Ned released them to migrate south.  The following Spring, they returned to nest and raise their young.  By 1911, an estimated 100,000 egrets nested in the rookery.

On Wednesday, we drove 185 miles to Bay St. Louis, MS, where we spent two nights at Legends of the Bayou RV Park.  Phil had learned about this brand-new RV park on Facebook.  The campground was largely a gravel-filled parking lot on the edge of a bayou.  The office, restrooms and laundry were up on stilts but, fortunately we didn’t need to climb the stairs, except for the view.  The owners did provide a fishing boat, rods and bait, but we never had time to take advantage of them. 

That evening, we headed to downtown Bay St. Louis and had dinner outdoors at Cuz’s Old Town Oyster Bar & Grill, across the street from the bay.  We then visited Hollywood Casino briefly and left with more money than we had risked.  We wisely decided to quit while we were ahead.

On Thursday, we headed to Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Our first stop was at the visitors’ center in the historic train depot.  Upon getting handed numerous brochures, it was readily apparent that we could easily have spent more than one day in Bay St. Louis.  After walking through the Mardi Gras and Blues exhibits, we headed upstairs to the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.  A young girl gave us a guided tour through the museum.  Alice Moseley’s mother had developed Alzheimer’s when Alice was in her 60s and, to deal with the boredom while caring for her mother, Alice took up painting.  Over the next 30 years, Alice developed a reputation as a nationally acclaimed folk artist, humorist and story-teller.  We watched her on video, telling her jokes and stories, and could clearly see the appeal.  We bought a couple of prints of her artwork.

We next drove to the bay to see the largest of the “Angel Creations,” Hurricane Katrina-damaged live oak trees transformed into sculptures by chainsaw artist Dayle K. Lewis.  This tree had been used as a life raft by three Katrina survivors.

We then spent a couple of hours doing the historic walking tour through Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Using the guidebook we had obtained at the visitors’ center, we learned about the history of 24 houses and buildings that dated back to the late 1800s / early 1900s.  One of the stops was a building that had been the centerpiece for a 1966 Sidney Pollack film, This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood, Robert Redford and Charles Bronson.

After all that walking, we were ready for lunch.  We ate at The Blind Tiger and had a table overlooking the marina.  Our final stop for the day was at the Ground Zero Hurricane Museum in the neighboring town of Waveland.  Waveland had been ground zero for Hurricane Katrina.  We watched a very sobering video containing film footage of the storm and interviews with survivors of Katrina who had ridden out the storm in Waveland.  The museum, in a former school building, has a line painted 11’ above street level showing how high the water had reached during the hurricane.  In the school’s hallways, they have a timeline showing the activities of each day, from before the storm through the aftermath.  In total, 1,833 people died in Katrina, including 25 from the little town of Wavelend.