WHY one moves to Key West is generally pretty easy to explain. Weather, island mystique, job, military, lifestyle. You know the drill. But when an online reader asked me a couple weeks ago “HOW does one move to Key West,” I had no facile answer to speed back to him. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it, so I did.
How does one move to Key West? There are lots of toss-off answers, like “marry rich” or “rob a bank,” but I decided to take him seriously. Here’s how one prepares to move to Key West:
1. Understand where we are. Key West is 165 miles, give or take a few, from Miami. That’s like driving from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh for a doctor’s appointment. Or driving from Atlanta to Montgomery, AL, for a concert. Might as well drive from Atlanta to Charlotte or Tallahassee. In other words, once you get here, it’s one long haul on a two-lane, stop-and-go road to get to many of the first world amenities you take for granted on the mainland. That’s no big deal — until you realize your access to everything from retail shopping to multiple choices for professional services is limited. Do some research if you need specialized services, medical care or can’t live without a Target, Walmart and Lowe’s.
Not everyone who dreams of island living can hack it. Despite our modern trappings, we are isolated and the sameness and small town reality can be a lot like living in a tiny town in Nebraska but with better weather. That might be perfect; or not.
2. Shed stuff. A lot of stuff. Key West did tiny houses before tiny houses trended on Twitter. Outdoor space, when you have any, is about the size of your driveway on the mainland. A closet is two-feet-by-four-feet and the only one walking into it will be the cat. I tell people to get rid of two-thirds of what they have — and then dump half of what remains. They laugh and laugh. I’m not kidding. Unless you want to spend $5,000 annually on a storage unit, lighten up the load. That includes motorized vehicles. One will do. Because there’s few places to park one, much less multiples.
3. Take a vacation. Fact is, once you move here, go to work and get a life, there’s not much chance to vacation in Key West. Living here is wonderful, what with non-stop happy hours, walks on the beach, sails to the sandbars, concerts in the park. Except you’ll spend a big chunk of your free time doing laundry, cleaning house, arguing with your internet provider, bleaching the mildew on the shower wall and paying bills. You know; just like you do with your free time on the mainland. No different if you’re living in Key West or Seattle. Although, our weather IS better.
4. Nail down a job. Key West’s unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, compared to the national average of 3.9. Everyone who wants a job (or three) has one — and there are plenty of jobs going unfilled. You can find lots of service and retail work in Key West. But the pay can be abysmal; the benefits few and far between. Compensation, even for highly skilled professionals, isn’t commensurate with the cost of living, so you’re likely going to need a working roommate, partner or spouse. And, if the job doesn’t come with health care benefits, plan on working another job or more hours.
The cost of living in Key West is 10.7 percent more expensive than the national average, so, if I were figuring out my post-move budget, I’d take my mainland expenses and add at least 10 percent. Unfortunately, finding employment that will pay you that kind of income is tough. Not impossible, if you have the right skills and experience, but tough. There are plenty of openings for managers, doctors, teachers, law enforcement and similar professions, but even if your resume matches perfectly and you’ve been hired, you’ll still face significant sticker shock living in Key West.
5. Put $20,000 in the bank. The days of driving your beater to the island and crashing on someone’s couch while you wrote the great American novel are gone. No one gets to live that myth these days. Rents are too high; pay too scarce. And, when you do find a place to rent, it’s going to be a monthly bill of $1,500 to $3,000 for not much. You can’t move in for less than first, last and security — and that’ll set you back in the neighborhood of $5,000-$10,000, before you unpack. If you’ve a big enough down payment, you could buy a small condo or even a single-family house up the Keys, but be prepared to start at $350,000 for, again, not much.
6. Make the move. If you can get through 1-5 without flinching, then come on down.
7. Make it home. Volunteer. Make friends. Get a library card. Find like-minded folks. Talk to your neighbors. Smile. Key West is home.