By Kristina Cooke
BONITA SPRINGS, Fla (Reuters) - Canadians are taking their strengthened currency and fleeing the cold.
Hard-hit realtors in Florida are welcoming a side-effect of the Canadian dollar's recent rally: more Canadians buying houses in the Sunshine State.
"Now their currency is around parity with the dollar and their money is worth something, more have decided it's time to buy," said Bill Sontag, a realtor at Florida Realty in Naples.
So-called "snowbird" Canadians who migrate to the sun during the winter months as well as those simply looking for a holiday home are lending support to the decimated housing market in Southwest Florida, realtors there say.
House prices in the seaside town of Naples have dropped more than 64 percent from their peak in the second quarter of 2006, according to the Federal Reserve. But realtors say they are beginning to see signs of stabilization, thanks in part to Canadian buyers.
"We've seen a lot of activity from Canadians," said Brett Brown, chair of the Naples Area Board of Realtors' Global Business Committee. "It's the exchange rate and also the fact that house prices have dropped so much. It's very affordable for them."
Michael Mackenzie, research officer at the Canadian Snowbird Association, an advocacy group, says that while statistics won't be available for another six months, he sees strong anecdotal evidence of this trend across Florida.
The Canadian Snowbird Assocation's annual event in Lakeland, Florida, this January was attended by around 40,000 of its members, about 20 percent more than the average over the past few years, Mackenzie said.
According to the National Association of Realtors, Canada was the top country of origin for foreign buyers in the United States last year, and more than a third of those Canadians bought real estate in Florida.
Scott Samuel, 54, a lawyer and investment banker from Toronto bought his holiday home in Naples in October.
Samuel said his decision to buy was driven mainly by the bargain prices available and that his sons studied in the United States. His wife, Julie, has been coming to Florida with friends for the past 17 years, he added.
The strength of the Canadian dollar, "perhaps to some extent assisted in the decision," he said. "It was good timing."
"We like that there are a lot of active things to do here in the sun," he said. "You can golf, boat, go to the beach, play tennis, all in the development we're in."
Samuel said the price of a similar property in Canada would cost 50 percent or event double as much as he paid.
In another sign that Canadians are flocking to Florida, Canadian airlines are increasing their direct flights to Southwest Florida.
Low-cost Canadian airline WestJet will fly direct to Fort Myers three times a week in the low-season summer months, compared with just one flight a week last summer, according to South West Florida International Airport spokeswoman Victoria Moreland.
Even Florida's coldest winter in more than a decade didn't put off the hardy Canadians.
"One Canadian woman came in the dog days of winter and when I mentioned the weather, she just laughed and said 'This isn't cold!'" said Justin Smith, a realtor with Sellstate Select Realty in Fort Myers.
All Canadians that he has dealt with, he said, have mentioned the exchange rate. "They're very cognizant of that ratio."
(Editing by Frank McGurty)