Second Homes: Meet the Splitters

A fairly new segment of home owners — people who own two or more primary residences and travel between them — is pushing the real estate industry in new ways.

April 1, 2006

An emerging generation of buyers is splitting off from the traditional snowbird flock and changing the definition of home away from home.

Taking advantage of low-cost travel corridors with multiple daily flights, advances in technology, and virtual workspaces, “splitters” choose to split their time between a primary residence and a second home. Some super-splitters split their time among three or more homes.

“Snowbirds shift residences once or twice a year at the most,” says Jerry M. Ray, senior vice president for corporate communications for The St. Joe Co. in Jacksonville, Fla. “We’re seeing splitters who may go back and forth a couple of times a month.”

A Market Force

Ray says St. Joe, Florida’s largest private land developer in residential resort and commercial communities, such as office parks and retail complexes, noticed the splitters trend four years ago.

Experts say buyers typically begin engaging in splitter behavior at about age 55 as a transition to retirement.

Atlanta; Las Vegas; Nashville, Tenn.; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle, as well as California and Florida, have all witnessed a recent boom in the second-home market.

According to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, 36 percent of all homes purchased in 2004 were second homes.

Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., a developer and lifestyle home builder in Florida, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, attributes about 30 percent of its annual home sales to splitters.

And with 75 million baby boomers heading into their golden years, experts say the splitter factor could alter the way developers build and manage the communities of tomorrow.

“The implications for future growth are considerable,” says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer and sociology professor at Loyola University in Chicago. “[Splitters] are one of the fastest-growing demographic markets.”

Other than mortgage-interest deduction, there may not be any additional tax advantages to owning a second home.

However, Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder says the alternative minimum tax, a federal tax that some taxpayers have to pay on top of the regular income tax, has raised incentives to migrate.

"In the East, there is a huge number of people who spend 183 days of the year in Florida to declare Florida residency," Vedder says. "Florida has no state income tax or any state death taxes either."

In addition to Florida, other states that don’t have a state income tax include Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.

Kyle Reinson, a spokesperson for WCI, which conducted a study on splitters last year, says the niche has been part of the firm’s core business since 2000.

Professionals, consultants, business owners, CEOs, and well-to-dos with solid investment portfolios comprise the market segment. Splitters with travel-based jobs can have lower incomes. And Ray says cities with good airport connections and low-cost airlines such as JetBlue, which offers about 40 flights daily between New York and South Florida, and Southwest Airlines, which provides a transportation corridor between California and neighboring states, are prime splitter territories and make it easy for people to regularly visit their second home.

Who Are the Splitters?

Pat and Kevin Fox split their time between the 900-square-foot Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., apartment they bought in 2000 and the 4,600-square-foot, custom four-bedroom home in Tallahassee, Fla., they built in 2004.

Pat Fox, 60, who works for the National Writing Project headquartered at the University of California at Berkeley and stays at a hotel while there several weeks a year, travels home to the Big Apple 10 to 15 times each year for long weekends or one week at a time.

Kevin Fox, 60, a senior vice president for The St. Joe Land Co. in Tallahassee, Fla., visits the New York pad about eight times a year.

On average, Reinson says splitters visit their second home about 18 times each year, for about one to three days in most cases.

For Kevin Fox, splitting is about a lifestyle. The opportunity to change venues, spend time with family, vacation without having to stay in a hotel, and have a fully furnished, turnkey home are all strong draws for splitters. In true splitter fashion, the Foxes buy two of almost everything. Stock the kitchens in both houses with staples. And travel light.

“One of [Pat’s] goals was to be able to go to New York at the drop of a hat and never bring a toothbrush,” Kevin Fox says.

The resemblance doesn’t end with Reeboks and an Oral-B toothbrush. From furniture to doorknobs and bathroom fixtures, both homes have similar appeal.

“When I wake up in the morning, the color of the walls and the furniture in the [Brooklyn Heights’] bedroom is exactly the same as it is in Tallahassee,” Kevin Fox says. “So when you go from one place to another, not only does the wardrobe in your closet work, but you’re using the same microwave that you have at your other home.”

Investing in the Future

The Foxes are typical of splitters, who are unlikely to seek rental income from their second home. They bought the apartment for themselves and their three grown sons.

“It’s not for rent,” Kevin Fox says. “This is forever.”

However, Reinson says the ability to relax and get away is the primary reason splitters visit their second home.

Building for Splitters

Recognizing the niche, builders have started to change their product lines. The vacation home with the half-sized refrigerator and no closet space won’t work anymore.

“These homes have to have all the amenities and spaces that a real home has,” Ray says.

For boomers, “real” means multigenerational gathering spaces with indoor-outdoor fireplaces and kitchens; private suites with separate entrances for visiting children, grandchildren and elderly family; high-speed Internet connections; and home offices en suite.

Senior amenities are factored in through elevators and wheelchair-width hallways and doors; multi-floor master bedrooms that allow old or young to live upstairs or move downstairs; proximity to high-quality health care; and access to fishing, golf, and other outdoor activities.

Splitter Services

Builders aren’t the ones tapping the splitter market. A growing splitter service sector makes it seem almost possible to live in two places at one time. These entrepreneurs will do whatever it takes: stock the refrigerator with your favorite beverage, collect mail, walk the dog, watch the house, hold the key until you get home, water the plants, and flush the toilets once a week.

Andrea Goldstein, a sales associate with Prudential Florida WCI Realty in Aventura, Fla., who specializes in splitters, advises that you find out how prospective splitters intend to use the second home.

“For example, if they're coming into town frequently for shorter visits, show them homes closer to the airport so they can make the best use of their down time,” Goldstein says.

Aventura’s proximity to Miami means South American clients abound. But Goldstein says a growing number of buyers are coming from other international markets, including Canada and Europe.

Changing Patterns

It remains to be seen whether splitting time between two residences will continue to grow in popularity, Ray says because how we retire has changed, the way people shift and migrate will change also.

As developers replace blighted industrial buildings with luxury condos and multi-use housing in some city centers, Ray says many splitters will buy homes downtown and split to another home at the beach. Moreover, Ray believes younger buyers will adopt the splitter lifestyle at a greater rate in the future.

“People used to live in Cleveland, retire, sell everything they had, put it in a truck, and move to Florida,” Ray explains. “The [new generation] will split for a period of seven or 10 years and have a home of some sort in both locations. They may sell their home in suburbia and buy a one-bedroom or loft-style condo to maintain connections with their original home and shift their primary home to Florida over a period of years.”

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Segmental arches have a partial curve, like an eyebrow. One of the earliest examples of a segmental arch in the West is the Ponte Vecchio Bridge...