For those who currently reside in the bustling metropolis, living in South Florida has always been one of the top considerations for retirement. With its palm-tree-shaded walkways, barefoot strolls on the beach, and generally laid-back lifestyle, this tropical haven feels like a taste of paradise. The big question is, “Does it work for everyone?”
Living in the Florida Keys sounds promising, but it does come with its pros and cons. Among its perks is having a beach-front home and a slow-paced, relaxing environment. Conversely, its drawbacks include expensive living and being away from creature comforts found in the city.
So, is the island life worth your hedge fund? Let this article help you decide if living in the Florida Keys is and if its charm will be enough to last you through the autumn of your life.
The Florida Keys are a subtropical island chain that sits on the southern coast of Florida. The 1,700 coral atolls begin at the southeastern coast (approximately 15 miles away from Miami), progressively moving west. Key West – the westernmost part of the islands – is merely 90 miles from the northern shores of Cuba, which explains the location’s sultry, Latino vibe. This part of the island chain also contains more than 32% of Florida Keys’ entire population.
Florida Keys Islands
Geographically, the island chain splits into three major areas (starting from the north outside of Miami), namely – the Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and Lower Keys. Collectively, all three sections feature a 125-mile stretch of wetlands, forests, and shoreline areas, as well as a slew of attractions and activities.
The Upper Keys consist of North Key Largo, Key Largo, Tavernier, and Islamorada, with Key Largo being the uppermost Key. While Layton, Duck Key, Key Colony Beach, and Marathon comprise the Middle Keys. Because of their proximity to the mainland, these parts have a suburban, medium-town atmosphere. They have several shops, pricey restaurants, and a plethora of incredible fishing, snorkeling, and diving spots, among other things.
Upper and Middle Keys
Out of all the Upper and Middle Keys, Key Largo and Marathon stand out due to their picturesque homes, state-of-the-art airport, and highly praised school systems. Being the closest to Miami, Key Largo has the worst traffic on the islands but is also the most conveniently accessible. On the other hand, Marathon boasts of having some of the highest Wi-Fi speeds in Florida and virtually no crime or traffic congestion.
Then, the Lower Keys consist of Bahia Honda Key, Sugarloaf Shores, Bay Point, Big Coppitt Key, Stock Island, Marquesas Key, Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key, and Key West. Because this section is farthest from the mainland, it has a more remote, rural feel. Retirees and residents especially prefer Big Pine and Cudjoe as they are less touristy. Big Pine, in particular, has 84,000 acres of preserved land that shelters endangered species such as the Key Deer and Marsh Rabbits – making it a nature advocate’s love at first sight.
Perhaps, the most famous of the Lower Keys is Key West – the westernmost part of the inhabited Florida Keys that also happens to be the southernmost point of the U.S. This city is famous for its pastel conch-style houses and urban-suburban ambiance. Many wonder whether Key West is safe due to its closeness to the sea and the increasing petty crimes in the area.
This question, along with knowing the advantages and disadvantages of living in the Florida Keys, will be answered in the next section.
Living in the Florida Keys – Pros and Cons
To help you determine if living in the Florida Keys is your best retirement option, let us delve into the benefits and inconveniences of having a home in the Caribbean (in random order):
1. Slower Pace of Life
The hustle and bustle of city life can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Sometimes, we want to break away from it all, which is why the island life can be very appealing. The need to disconnect from the crazy mundane stuff is what the Caribbean islands offer. Casual shorts, sandals, and a tee replace power dressing. Time slows down, and the need to rush to get to places disappears. The feeling of isolation when living in the Florida Keys works to create a different, much slower pace of life.
2. Astonishing Environment
From breathtaking sunsets to gentle blue waves to the abundance of marine life – Florida Keys is just amazing! But we are only getting started. Throughout the island, one cannot help but notice the improved quality of life. Tons of privately-owned boats line the shores. Ocean-fronting houses catch your gaze. Plus, sea-to-table dining is standard – which you will seldom find, even in the classiest places of Manhattan.
3. Reduced Stress Levels
Reducing stress is one of the main objectives people have when making or finalizing retirement plans. Living near or by the beach naturally does this, as well as witnessing spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The sound of crashing waves helps lull you to sleep faster and minimizes the influence of chronic pain. Additionally, breathing in fresh, salty air is known to be good for your health.
4. Agreeable Weather
In the Florida Keys, the climate is always warm, and winters are not cruel. Not having to shovel inches of snow in the winter is highly appreciated, especially by people from the cold north. Parts of the archipelago even have genuine tropical weather – only a wet and dry season. Because the islands are sunny and hot approximately 80% of the time, it easy to predict the weather and plan activities accordingly.
5. Healthier Lifestyle
Thanks to the sunny climate, there are many opportunities to enjoy the Florida Keys outdoors. Almost all of the worthwhile activities on the island involve being at sea or near it – except for dining in fancy restaurants, of course. This alfresco lifestyle encourages recreation and exercising all year round, leading to healthier residents. In turn, insurance and health care come at a lesser price as a result.
6. Strong Sense of Community
The population of the Florida Keys (as of 2014) is just a little over 77,000 over 137.3 mi2 of land area. That is 217 people for every square kilometer, which gives folks lots of space. However, the reality is only 30 of the 882 charted islands are inhabited, meaning that locals reside in small, densely populated clusters and know each other – making for friendly, close-knit communities.
7. No State or Income Tax
While the rest of the U.S. averages between 8% and 16%, property taxes in the Florida Keys are modest. What’s more – income tax is non-existent. Yes, you read that right – residents of Florida Keys do not go through the grueling task of filing two tax returns each year unless they are business owners. As for sales tax, it is pretty modest at 7.5% in Monroe County, covering the entire Florida Keys.
8. A Sound Investment
Buying a retirement home early in the Florida Keys is a good idea. Often, early retirees spend a few more years traveling or living in the city and turn their purchased retirement houses into vacation homes or rental properties, which fetch lucrative nightly rates due to the influx of tourists. The fact that only 3% of the charted islands are inhabited also adds to the steady appreciation of land value in the area.
9. Ideal Student-Teacher Ratio
If being with your grandkids is part of your retirement plans, then the Florida Keys is a top place to consider. The school systems on the islands, especially in Marathon, are highly regarded. The student-teacher ratio here is 17:1 on average, enabling teachers to focus more on students and ensuring the children’s rapid development while at school.
10. Exceptionally Low Unemployment Rate
Monroe County’s unemployment rate has always been 0.5% to 1% lower than that of the entire country. This is despite the livelihood in the Florida Keys predominantly being around commerce, maritime, and tourism. The only time the unemployment rate went up was when Hurricane Irma hit the islands, resulting in a significant spike of layoffs in 2017. As of December 2020, the Florida Keys’ unemployment rate hovers around 2.7% – still 5% lower than the U.S. national rate.
1. Rain, Rain, and More Rain
Unless you are from the UK or some other tropical location, you may not find the amount of rainfall on the islands pleasant. Living in the Florida Keys means dealing with a rainy season that can run from as early as June to as late as October, with about six inches of rain each month. While rainfall does not affect the pleasant climate during spring and autumn, it makes summers too hot and wet and winters too cold and arid.
2. Natural Catastrophes
Despite its paradise-like setting, The Florida Keys falls in the path of occasional hurricanes and tropical storms. The island chain is on the brink of a climate breakdown. Topography does not help mitigate the effects of hurricanes with hard-hitting landfalls either, as no island area is more than 20 feet above sea level. Some inhabited islands – like Key West – are quite small, increasing the threat of natural disasters. That said, retirees often wonder, “Is Key West dangerous?” Expectedly, almost all the neighborhoods in the Florida Keys are subject to devastating winds and flooding.
3. Expensive Housing
Living amid abundant nature and blue waters comes with a hefty price tag. And by this, I mean housing expenses, which can cost you an arm and a leg. The Florida Keys may not be the most expensive place to live in the U.S., but it is part of that list. It should come as no surprise since you will find numerous Godfather-worthy mansions, upscale condos, and beach-front properties on the islands. Not to mention that less than 10% of the archipelago can be inhabited, causing land to come at a premium.
Here’s a table that shows the relative housing cost in each Key compared to the U.S. average. Note that these details are non-exhaustive and do not include data for Bahia Honda Key, Sugarloaf Shores, Bay Point, and Marquesas Key (Source: https://www.bestplaces.net/):
|Upper Keys||Housing Index||Median Home Cost|
|North Key Largo||887%||$2,281,900|
|Middle Keys||Housing Index||Median Home Cost|
|Key Colony Beach||132%||$538,100|
|Lower Keys||Housing Index||Median Home Cost|
|Big Pine Key||90%||$439,500|
|Big Coppitt Key||112%||$489,600|
Living in the Florida Keys is not cheap. But for the area alone, the more affordable places would be Layton, Big Pine, and Stock Island. Still, homes in these areas fall within the $400,000 – $450,000 range. If you want to stretch your dollars, you can opt to rent an apartment or keep your eyes peeled for a below-market listing on a condo or manufactured home around Key Largo, Marathon, and Key West.
4. Limited Availability of Jobs
The unemployment rate may be low in the island chain, but the types of jobs are not as exhaustive as the options you would have in the city. Because of its location and people’s way of life, most of the work available here involves the sea, retail, or hospitality.
If you are looking to have a career outside of these areas, you will either have to work from home, manage your own business, or be in the military/public sector. Otherwise, living in the Florida Keys would mean that your choices are limited to working in hotels, bars, restaurants, or other tourist amenities and attractions in the area. And mind you, these jobs are not exactly high-paying.
5. High Cost of Living
In addition to pricey homes, the overall cost of living in the Florida Keys is more than what most people can afford. Because of the limited route going into the islands, commodity prices are a tad higher than in the metropolis. There are additional transportation costs for deliveries, higher fees for fuel, and resort pricing to get a decent meal at a restaurant. Furthermore, you may need to spend more on maintenance costs associated with corrosion, inclement weather, and wild creatures. Below is a table summarizing the total cost of living and food/groceries indices in each Key compared to the U.S. average:
|Upper Keys||Total Cost of Living Index||Food & Groceries Index|
|North Key Largo||274%||14%|
|Middle Keys||Total Cost of Living Index||Food & Groceries Index|
|Key Colony Beach||41%||12%|
|Lower Keys||Total Cost of Living Index||Food & Groceries Index|
|Big Pine Key||32%||10%|
|Big Coppitt Key||37%||15%|
6. Perilous Roads
While there are many ways to get to the Florida Keys, Highway 1 or U.S. Route 1 is the most popular – and considered the most dangerous. It is a highway that stretches 2,369 miles (3,813 km) from Fort Kent, Maine, on the Canadian border to Fleming Street in Key West. It is accessible from major cities such as Boston, Washington D.C., and Portland and is the primary route visitors, residents, and service providers take to make their way to the islands. Because of the traffic congestion, the lack of an alternative road, and other factors, this two-lane highway has the highest per capita rate of automobile accidents in Florida.
7. Petty Crimes
Tourism brings in money to the islands, but it also leads to a higher crime rate. We are talking about property crimes, looting, and business scams, which is 25% higher than the national average. But before you think ill of the locals, know that these wrongdoings are done mainly by non-residents. Should you decide to settle down on the islands for good, make sure to take steps to protect your home or business.
8. Monotonous Activities
Living in the Florida Keys can be a very enticing proposition, but it entails a certain propensity for the ocean. I say this because once you are on the islands, there is nothing else to do but engage in outdoor recreation. If you’re not into water sports or exercise, the only other options left for you to unwind are eating out and drinking at the local bar. Most of the malls in Key West are not as developed as in the mainland. If you love film, you will have to make do with Tropic Cinema – the only movie theatre in Eaton Street – that shows only one movie at a time.
9. Repugnant Insects
Part of living the island life is being surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes, invasive snakes, mischievous raccoons, huge iguanas, feral chickens, giant horseflies, scary spiders, nasty cockroaches, and just about any type of exotic creature and tropical insect that you would love to hate. If you’re not squeamish and have a knack for the candid, they can be Instagram-worthy photo subjects. However, not everyone can develop a liking for these creatures.
10. A Lack of Culture
For a location that is sought after by tourists, near and far, former residents find it a bit ironic that the Florida Keys do not have an actual culture. Sure, there are points of interest here and there. But except for the Ernest Hemingway Museum and a few other iconic parks and underwater archeological spots, nothing truly defines the place in terms of music, customs, or heritage.
Many residents blame this on the islands’ dire attempts to cater to tourism (consisting of mediocre entertainment and partying), which results in the Florida Keys’ inability to build a standardized way of life and a higher appreciation for the arts. While 2.5 million visitors per year are not bad news, too many people in one area can lead to problematic outcomes that hinder the establishment of a localized culture and can disrupt the quality of life.
Conclusion – Living in the Florida Keys
Answering the question, “What is the prettiest key in Florida?” can be pretty subjective, as is determining if it is the right place to retire. Ultimately, that decision will rely entirely on you, your preferences, and just how much funds you have in your bank account. If you cannot survive without shopping centers, fancy cafes, and bright city lights, it is best to put your money elsewhere. But if you want a change in pace, can do without certain conveniences, and are willing to spend a premium in exchange for sun, sand, and sea, then living in the Florida Keys is for you.