Florida: Going cool on the Sunshine State

Brits Abroad
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News, Florida

The mix of sun, fun and the English tongue has led tens of thousands of British people to settle in Florida. But when the novelty wears off, many find themselves isolated, trapped and in fear of falling ill.

Remember Dawn from The Office? The long-suffering receptionist who, along with sales rep Tim, provided the hit comedy's sexual tension.

When she moved to Florida with the fiance she would later dump for our hero, she ended up living a twilight life as an illegal immigrant, scrambling to make ends meet.

Dawn's tale was the dark and cloudy side of the Sunshine State - but it is also a slice of the genuine reality for some of the uncounted Britons who live in Florida.

Seduced by the sun and glamorous lifestyle, and helped no end by a string of up-beat property shows, Florida has become one of the top destinations for at least 100,000 British expats seeking a new life.

But many of the "snowbirds" who have made the leap across the Pond to find a new life (thankfully, without adopting the pastel suits of Miami Vice) say that those back in Blighty fail to see the bigger picture.

Theme park, fantasy home

Florida's magnetic pull across the Atlantic began with Disney World, which opened in 1971. As air tickets got cheaper and Orlando became a hot holiday destination, Brits learned to love Florida.

BRIT ABROAD? GET INVOLVED

The state became imprinted on the British imagination as people bought into rental apartments and the holiday homes springing up along the Atlantic seaboard.

The British communities have continued to grow from those early beginnings in the Orlando fun belt. Today, the sprawling southern state metro area of Broward County, Miami and greater Fort Lauderdale is home to tens of thousands of Britons.

One of the biggest recent trends has been for British companies keen to get into Latin American markets to locate in the Miami area to capitalise on the state's virtual dual English-Spanish economy.

And the Brits know they come with a certain competitive advantage: a general warm welcome from Americans who can't get enough of the accent.

Julia Eastwood is one of many British estate agents (realtors in American) in the state whose job is to try to make those dreams come true.


What the tourists see:
Miles and miles of beach

And when you see some of the waterfront, palm grove homes her firm has to offer in the Pompano Beach area, you can see why people find it attractive. But with the average family home starting at $350,000 (£187,000) in a half-decent area, the prices are not peanuts.

"People start their research at home or perhaps when staying with friends in the state. But they often don't have the local knowledge," she says, showing the BBC around a luxurious canal-side home.

"So they will see something on the web for $60,000 and think it's a bargain but in reality it's a pretty bad area. That is where things start to go wrong. You have to be careful what you do rather than just jumping in."

Sun, sea and insurance

And the reality is that when the initial dream fades, the daily grind can be a shock to many Brits who don't truly understand America, say some expats.

MISSING HOME

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At the British Depot in Fort Lauderdale, it's a busy day with customers stocking up on the things that remind them of home. Amid the union jacks, packets of crisps and Pot Noodles, nobody has a bad word to say about Americans - but they have words of warning.

Some of the shops' former customers have disappeared since 9/11, having realised that their twilight existence as illegal immigrants; people who have never declared themselves to the authorities, had become unsustainable rather than a 20-something's dream.

But even for many of the legal residents, it's still hard, says business woman Tracey Ryder, a resident of 11 years.

"If you are going to succeed in America, you have to be a grafter in a way you are not in Britain," she says. "Money can be tight and what you have in Florida is people who come to retire and sit on their money, which makes business hard.

"We've got a stable government - but we also have crooks and I think that if I could afford it, I would go home. I certainly would not educate kids here, no way."


Looking for a dream:
Julia Eastwood helps Brits move

Rita Fitton swapped Manchester for Florida in 1995 and has never looked back. Also a career woman, she believes the state gave her opportunities she would never have had at home.

"It's a playground, I can go out every night and enjoy myself," she says. "But the one thing that would make me go home is bad health because there is no NHS here. Here, they just want to know how you can pay, whether you have got enough or a credit card. I don't want any part of that."

And it's this issue of health that nags the minds of many Brits in America. Michael Trace is 63 and left London in 1991 after selling his small business and looking for a financial adventure in property. He's done well and is happy, fit and loves the Florida sun.

"But I can't get health insurance at all," he says. "They want $1,200 a month which is utterly ridiculous so I'm not insured - I'm one of the great number of people who aren't.

"Without a doubt, if I were to get a serious illness, I would have to go back to the UK because if I paid the insurance it would break me.

"People arrive here without thinking about these things - and I think if they did think it through, there would be question marks over coming in the first place."

In touch

Keith Allan, the British Consul in Miami, says British emigrants should think through what they are doing, rather than just hoping a dream turns out to be true.

"We had a case where one woman whose husband had died contacted us and said she had never got a Green Card [proof of legal residence in the USA]," says Mr Allan.

"She was suddenly finding life very difficult and considering returning to the UK, even though she left years ago.

"Our point is that these things can happen very suddenly - and if they do, people need to know the implications and have some idea of what to do."