WEST PALM BEACH
Counted among the "snowflakes" who flutter back and forth between their northern and Florida homes, Jeff Miller is a frequent flier. Very frequent. • Snowflakes are essentially more transient snowbirds, usually coming seasonally but returning regularly to their homes up North.
Miller, 66, a suburban Boynton Beach and Maryland resident, bought a second home in Florida six years ago and started a second career that has him traveling back and forth between his two homes most of the year.
"If you don't like the travel, the hassle, the life of a snowflake is not for you," Miller said.
Snowflakes are unlikely to dislodge the more than 1 million Florida snowbirds from their perch as most renowned part-time residents, but even snowbirds are tending to break longstanding patterns of when they visit Florida. They appear to be arriving sooner and staying longer.
More people who responded to a survey last year for the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research indicated they were snowbirds than in previous years.
When University of Florida researcher Stan Smith tackled the issue several years ago, he determined with the help of a similar survey that more than 1.2 million people lived in Florida temporarily for the winter season. They were older, as expected for retirees, and more affluent than the average Florida resident. And half of those stayed for four to six months. His research also showed that many retirees counted as permanent residents returned to their former hometowns or traveled during the summer months.
No one knows how many people are snowflakes, but their numbers may be growing.
Brian Merbler, marketing director at BallenIsles in Palm Beach Gardens, said this summer was much busier at the country club for activities and dining. He said many members do bounce between their residences throughout the year.
Miller maintains his legal consulting work in Maryland, but began teaching classes at Florida Atlantic University's hospitality program shortly after moving here in 2007. During May and June, he was flying back and forth twice a week. This semester he flies in Monday morning and leaves Wednesday afternoon.
From mid December to early May, his wife, Roberta, joins him. That's when they uncover the couches and deploy the outdoor furniture.
"We thought we would move here a long time ago permanently, but we decided not to," Miller said. Friends, siblings, seasons, a house they love keep them tied to Maryland.
Basketball and baseball tie Herb Maletz, 68, to his Long Island, N.Y., home. He retired from his accounting job, but hasn't given up his town-league coaching.
"I sneak down to Florida whenever I can," said Maletz, who owns a second home in the suburban Boynton Beach neighborhood of Ponte Vecchio. That's usually three weeks in August, three more weeks around Thanksgiving and three weeks in February or March.
Maybe one day he'll quit coaching and he and his wife will become snowbirds for five or six months. For now it's more of a vacation.
"After three weeks you get bored in Florida eating out at all the early bird specials," he said.
While January, February and March are the months with the heaviest snowbird population — as high as 7 percent of households in January — the shoulder months of September and October and May and June showed an increase this past year, the UF survey showed.
Anthony Pravata is not surprised.
He works for The Auto Transport Group in Palm Beach Gardens, a company that transports vehicles, often for snowbirds. This year, calls started picking up in mid August, a month earlier than usual. And last season was longer than usual as well.
"This year it went all the way to May, and June there were some stragglers," he said. "Primarily it used to be January and February, but it's been longer and longer."
Canadians are responsible for some of that.
U.S. law allows Canadians to live here six months of the year, and there's a bill in the Senate to make it eight months, said Michael MackKenzie, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association. He estimates 150,000 spend winters in Florida. The current value of the dollar makes it easy for Canadians to live here.
"People who went for four months will go for six," he said.
That's changed things around the Juno Ocean Walk RV Resort, said JoAnne Cassels-Lander, president of the residents association. The park achieved a five-star rating by California-based Woodall's, a nationwide recreation vehicle magazine that annually rates mobile home parks, for the third year in a row. Generally the snowbirds trickle in beginning in mid October and some stay as late as April.
Most RVers come for January, February and March, because it's just too much trouble to haul an RV back home for the holidays. About a quarter of the community are Canadians, she said, a number that grows every year. They bring their RVs down and fly home for the holidays, she said.
An improved investment environment seems to be returning the county to snowbird levels of the flush years.
Snowbirds add $2 billion to the Palm Beach County economy, said Glenn Jergensen, senior vice president of operations for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. That benefits eating establishments, cultural activities and retail centers and thus creates jobs.
Snowbirds were hurt by the recession as their portfolios lost value, so they stayed for shorter periods, said Roger Amidon, a Palm Beach County hotelier who recently left his post as executive director of the Tourist Development Council. But that situation improved last year, with snowbirds again staying for months at a time.
"Those short-term taxpayers are critical to our economy," Amidon said after this year's winter season. "They fill ballparks and theaters, their friends come to visit and occupy hotels for a couple of nights."
Some of those snowbirds used to be snowflakes.
Martin Krasny, 76, worked as a lawyer in Philadelphia for a week, then spent the next two weeks in Florida.
Now he arrives at Bellagio, his suburban Lake Worth home, in October and returns north in May. He'll probably travel home for Thanksgiving, but otherwise let the kids come visit in Florida.
"I decided after 50 years to retire," he said. "I got tired of the Palm Beach airport. I want to play golf, enjoy the weather, enjoy Florida."