When I left Kansas City, MO, this spring for a 30-day scouting trip to Tampa, FL, I was certain I’d be moving to that area by the fall. I’d spent a year perusing real estate listings, watching YouTube videos, and studying Tampa and St. Petersburg rental prices.
Still, the only way to get a true feel for the area was to actually live there. So I hit the highway with two dogs and a packed car for the 1,300-mile drive and a month’s stay at an Airbnb house in Tampa.
Here’s what I learned living short-term in The Big Guava:
1. Stay in the Right Location.
I love the beach so I wanted to check out St. Petersburg. However, I chose a Tampa Airbnb because it had a fenced yard for my dogs. I wrongly assumed that I could drive from Tampa to St. Pete’s beaches within 20 minutes. Instead, gulf beach trip commutes were an hour-and-a-half roundtrip.
Don’t equate distance with drive times. Before you rent temporary housing, use your GPS to look up city driving distances and times for exact locations. Check routes at different times of day to gauge traffic flow.
2. Shop at Various Grocery Stores.
Grocery items were nearly double the price of what I pay in the Midwest. Prices varied greatly when I shopped around.
Don’t judge prices by those at the ubiquitous local chains. Check out discount grocers like Save-A-Lot, Aldi or Walmart for less expensive options.
3. Budget Extra For Gas.
I spent around $240 on gasoline in Tampa, since gas prices in Florida were high and I had to drive back and forth to St. Petersburg.
Look up gas prices and city scouting distances in advance to budget accurately.
4. Visit Open Houses.
There’s nothing like actually walking the creaking floors of condos, apartments and houses to see what you can get for your money. Online photos don’t reveal neighbors with cars parked in the yard or streets lined with title loan stores.
Go to open houses in various neighborhoods to investigate housing prices.
5. Be Prepared to Fend For Yourself.
Unless you’ve already got friends in your scouting city, you’re on your own. When I sprained my ankle in Tampa, I couldn’t call a friend to drop off a bag of frozen peas to ice my injury. Instead, I had to hobble around an unfamiliar grocery store.
If you are the outgoing type, make new friends while you’re in town through Meetup groups or chatting people up at coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
6. Expect to Be Disorientated.
It took me a week or so to figure out east from west and unfamiliar streets, Initially, I also found it hard to focus, locate a good coffee shop workspace or even find the perfect spot in my Airbnb home to write.
Use your GPS and accept that you may feel ungrounded for a bit. Figure out alternate routes on non-busy parallel streets to get around town.
7. Watch the Local News.
I learned about hurricane season and local flooding and watched a news anchor hold up a Solo cup filled with 40,000 dead mosquitoes trapped in a single day. But I also watched stories on city festivities, communities and organizations around the city.
Believe the weather forecaster. When I left Tampa one afternoon for Treasure Island, I ignored news warnings of evening rain, since the blue sky was clear. As soon as I arrived, a torrential thunderstorm stranded me for an hour due to flooded streets.
8. Talk to Everyone.
I got directions to the best pizza joint from a woman in line at the grocery store. I discovered a sparsely populated beach by questioning a barista.
Don’t be afraid to explore. When I asked a fellow CVS customer where to find a good taco, she pointed me toward the Taco Bus—a restaurant that I’d driven past for weeks. Behind its nondescript facade, I found a colorfully lighted patio and workers serving tacos from a converted school bus.
9. One Trip Might Not Be Enough.
Honestly, after my scouting, I’m not that that crazy about moving to Florida. However, I also know that while I got a feel for the area, I didn’t get a true picture because it rained way more than usual and I stayed too far from where I wanted to live.
Consider scouting nearby cities. I may not be able to afford a nice house in St. Pete but I noticed smaller cities within a short drive to the beach that offer more affordable housing.
There’s a good chance I’ve got another Sunshine State scouting adventure in me. Hopefully, with some proper planning for that trip, next time I’ll be spending less time in my car and more on the beach.