You don't need to rent An Inconvenient Truth to see that Florida is sinking. You see it in the faces of the homeowners whose insurance rates have soared after a streak of bad hurricanes. You see it in their incredulous gazes as simple residential moves trigger a surge in their property tax bills. If The Golden Girls were around today, they'd probably be bronze, at best.
The state's government has a plan to bail out its distressed citizenry, but the sorely misunderstood measure faces an uphill battle in winning over skeptics. The idea -- eliminating property taxes for residents on their primary homes by increasing the state's sales tax rate by 250 basis points -- is a bold move, yet it supposedly pits hopeful homeowners against resentful renters.
No one seems to be saying the obvious -- that this is ultimately a move to help the state's battered developers -- but I'll go ahead and say it. That's all it really is when you think about it.
How the southeast was won
Like a lot of Florida's eccentricities, its homebuilders come in all flavors. You have conventional developers like Lennar
The housing slump has impacted its players. St. Joe has backed out of the actual homebuilding market, handing over the grunt work to Southeastern developers like Beazer Homes
How the southeast was lost
Downfalls can be found in hot markets all around the country. The problem has been exacerbated in Florida due to the spiraling tabs of home insurance and property tax statements.
The real estate insurance market in Florida is a problem, especially in the storm-ravaged hotbeds. I speak from experience. My home's policy has more than doubled to $5,500 over the past three years. I'm actually one of the lucky ones. My younger sister has seen her insurance premiums quadruple in that same span of time.
Higher insurance rates mean that Floridians have less disposable income. They also make real estate ownership appear less attractive, especially to investors who now have higher holding costs before flipping properties for profit.
The state has moved to freeze hikes, though it's a temporary Band-Aid of a solution to a real gusher of a wound.
It doesn't get any better on the property tax front. Florida caps property tax increases for current homeowners. It isn't until a home is sold that new, higher tax rates kick in. The spike can startle homeowners who bought their homes and budgeted their payments based on the seller's property tax bills. Someone who buys a new home for the same price at which they sold their old home would likely get slapped with thousands of dollars more in annual taxes.
Florida has made some moves to ease the blow. Voters agreed to double the homestead exemption for seniors in the fall. The government is now proposing that the tax break go to all primary homeowners, along with making the property tax caps portable for new homes.
Many of these suggestions would be moot if property taxes are swapped out for a consumption tax. I expect the debate to get fierce. The tourism trade will resent out-of-towners bankrolling free rides for the locals, although most states tax overnight hotel stays at higher levels than their prevailing state tax rates.
Renters will shout even louder, though it's naive to think that they are immune to their landlords' rising ownership costs. If tax moves encourage the development and purchase of rental property, wider supply should help lower monthly rents. The property tax proposal would only present a partial break to non-primary homeowners like landlords, but renters should see some form of relief, or at the very least avoid the rent hikes that are coming down the pike if the problems are left unchecked.
Invest to win
Will the Florida-heavy real estate companies benefit if the property tax measure passes? You bet. However, you don't even have to be a cynic to realize that shifting around the tax liability isn't going to change the sums that are ultimately collected.
As an investor, I'm going to watch this for an opportunity to pick up Florida developers at attractive prices. However, I'm more interested in stock plays that won't fall apart if the move dies.
So I'm looking at some unlikely stocks here, like Overstock.com
In the end, this may be little more than an exercise in futility. Lobbyists will distort the implications, and the most financially motivated side will win the race. If you want a more optimistic outlook, take heart in knowing that no level of politicking and agenda-pimping would ever let a state sink into a watery grave.
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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't interested in selling his home, even if he recognizes that the once red-hot South Florida market is cooling off quickly. He does not own shares in any of the stocks mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.