Thinking about moving to Tampa? As a lifelong resident of the area who’s lived on both sides of Tampa Bay, I can hardly blame you. This area has so much to offer beyond the fabulous weather that it’s hard for me not to gush.
But trust me, there are both great and not-so-great things about living in Tampa, a place where so many people come to vacation and then dream of making it their home some day. And I think you deserve to get all the details before you decide to join the steady stream of newcomers seeking sunshine and sandy beaches.
Sit back, grab a refreshing tropical drink, and read on to get a local’s idea of what life is really like in Tampa Bay — from the practical facts to the fun stuff.
1. Looking for the best places to live in Tampa? They might be across the bay
It makes some locals crazy (especially my husband), but “Tampa” has become shorthand for referring to the entire Tampa Bay metro area. It’s understandable, considering that even the Tampa Bay Rays actually play baseball in St. Petersburg, which is 30 to 40 minutes across the bay from the city of Tampa.
Much like the San Francisco Bay area, Tampa Bay has distinct communities on both sides of its bay. About 3.19 million people live in the Tampa Bay Metro region which encompasses four counties: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando.
Here’s a quick primer to help you get oriented:
- Hillsborough County (population: 1.23 million): Home to Tampa and Tampa International Airport (TIA), Hillsborough has a total area of 1,266 square miles — making it bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Besides Tampa, Hillsborough includes the smaller cities of Temple Terrace and Plant City, plus several sprawling unincorporated areas like Brandon, Carrollwood, Westchase, New Tampa, and others. Favorite Tampa neighborhoods include:
- Carrollwood: Filled with shady mature oaks, this early Tampa suburb with comfortable homes built mostly in the ‘60s and ‘70s is about 30 minutes northwest of downtown.
- Westchase: A master-planned community started in the ‘90s, neighborhoods in Westchase are known for their neotraditional style, family-friendly sidewalks, and other amenities.
- Brandon: Once filled with cow pastures and orange groves, Brandon neighborhoods offer families affordable Florida living just east of Tampa.
- Pinellas County (population 916,000): This is where all those gorgeous Tampa Bay beaches are located, along with St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and another 22 small cities. The St. Pete-Clearwater Airport is also here, which can be a convenient travel alternative to busy TIA. (For a deeper dive into these quintessential Florida communities, see Best St. Petersburg Neighborhoods and Living in Clearwater, Florida.) Here, we’ll spotlight these favorites:
- Gulfport: This little town celebrates Old Florida charm and all that’s indie with an eclectic mix of bungalows and waterfront condos — all just 15 minutes west of downtown St. Pete and east of St. Pete Beach.
- Clearwater: From beachfront palaces on Clearwater Beach to modest but solid concrete block homes in Greenbriar, this city of about 100,000 connects to Tampa via the Courtney Campbell Scenic Highway and Trail, a 10-mile stretch of bridges and park land.
- Dunedin: With its thriving, highly walkable downtown area and beaches on Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands, this small city of 40,000 is in high demand by both families and retirees.
- Pasco County (population: 464,000): People of all ages are heading for the lower prices in Pasco. Sprawling subdivisions just north of Tampa in Wesley Chapel and Land O’ Lakes are attracting younger families while New Port Richey and Dade City tend to appeal to retirees.
- Hernando County (population: 172,000): Further north, developments in Spring Hill and Brooksville are picking up steam as the most affordable locations in Tampa Bay.
2. Tampa’s cost of living is getting less affordable as housing costs increase
If you’re moving to Tampa to save money, you may be disappointed. Most online cost of living calculators and studies that crow about Tampa’s affordability are simply out of date. Be sure to do your own research before you get your heart set on warmer weather.
The average rent for a Tampa apartment was $1,432 in March, 2021, which was slightly higher than the national average, according to RENTCafé. Experts recently told the Tampa Bay Times that newcomers moving to Tampa Bay from more expensive cities are driving up costs here. Talk about irony.
If you’re buying a home here, you may still save a bundle compared to bigger city markets like NYC, San Francisco, and DC, but it’s getting harder. As of February 2021, the typical home value in Tampa was $286,000, up 13.2% over a year ago, according to Zillow. In Hillsborough County overall, the value was $272,000 — the same as the U.S. as a whole. Over in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg-Clearwater), the typical home value was $278,000, but don’t expect those prices to get you very close to the beach.
To find a more affordable home, many people are going to Pasco or Hernando counties to the north, which are farther away from the employment centers in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater. Here’s a quick snapshot:
Home Prices in the Tampa Bay Metro area:
- Tampa: $286,000
- Hillsborough: $272,000
- Pinellas: $278,000
- Pasco: $226,000
- Hernando: $210,000
- United States: $272,000
Source: Zillow typical home value data as of February, 2021
What about other costs? It’s a mixed bag. Food prices at the grocery store and restaurants trend close to the national average, or somewhat lower, and there’s no state income tax (yay!). However, homeowners and car insurance rates are high, property taxes are no bargain, and don’t even think about trying to get by without a car (more on this later).
3. Incomes in Tampa are lagging behind rising housing costs
If you’re not moving to Tampa Bay to retire, then you probably need to consider the job market and what you can expect to make. Unfortunately, local incomes aren’t even close to keeping up with the upward cost spiral. Tampa Bay’s average annual wage of $49,800 is nearly 20% lower than the national average of $59,202 — and more than 40% below top-ranked Seattle’s average of $84,433. That’s according to a reliable source: The 2021 Tampa Bay Regional Competitive Report published by the Tampa Bay Partnership. However, the same report notes the area ranks fourth in job growth among 20 similar metro areas, indicating there are more jobs being created in Tampa Bay than in most U.S. areas.
4. New Florida homeowners pay more than their fair share in property taxes
If you’re buying a home in Florida for the first time, you’ll likely pay a lot more in property taxes than your neighbors who’ve owned their homes for a while. That’s because Florida’s “Save Our Homes Cap” rewards longer-term homeowners by limiting annual increases in the taxable value of their homes.
For example, our new neighbors who moved here last year from New York City have to pay nearly twice as much in property taxes as we do, even though the market value for our Tampa home is much higher. I’m not kidding. We pay about $2,000 in taxes for a 2,000-square-foot home compared to their bill of just under $4,000, and our home is about twice as large.Sadly, this tax bill disparity happens whether you’re a longtime Floridian buying your first home or if you just moved to the state. I know, it hardly seems fair!
Local’s tip: If the home is your primary residence, be sure to file for the Homestead Exemption, or you’ll pay even more. The good news is you do get to keep most of your “Save Our Homes” benefits if you sell one Florida home and buy another in the state — as long as you make the purchase within two years after selling. The main lesson is to double-check what your property taxes will be when you’re buying a home, as they may be much more than what the sellers have been paying.
5. Homeowners and car insurance are more expensive in Tampa than in most other cities
Higher insurance premiums are another expense you should factor into your budget if you’re thinking about moving to Tampa.
First, let’s talk car insurance. Even if you have a super-clean driving record, chances are you’ll pay more for car insurance in Tampa than most other places. At $2,587 for the average annual full coverage premium, Florida ranks as the most expensive state for full auto insurance coverage, according to MarketWatch. Within Florida, rates in Tampa and other major cities are considerably higher than in smaller towns because of higher accident and theft rates.
Now for homeowners insurance. Florida’s average home insurance rate is $3,643, which is nearly $1,338 more than the national average of $2,305 for $300,000 in dwelling coverage level and liability, with a $1,000 deductible, according to Insurance.com. In addition, you’ll want to check closely on whether flood insurance will be required or recommended on the home you’re considering, as that can add hundreds or thousands more. While Miami and South Florida have the distinction of the highest rates, Tampa rates are also high compared to the rest of the state because of risks related to high winds and floods from hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as damage from sinkholes.
6. Tampa residents tend to be younger than their neighbors around the region
One of the major differences between the two sides of Tampa Bay has always been age. Early on, Tampa developed more as a place for working families, while the beaches around St. Petersburg-Clearwater in Pinellas attracted more than its share of retirees. While the Pinellas side has grown younger over the years as more families have moved in along with an economy that’s diversified beyond tourism, the age discrepancy is still reflected in the U.S. Census numbers. With a median age so close to the national median of 38, Hillsborough County is often selected as a test county by marketers.
Median ages in the Tampa Bay region:
- Hillsborough: 37.2
- Pinellas: 48.1
- Pasco: 44.5
- Hernando: 49
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2019)
7. Tampa hosts America’s third largest parade and booze party
New Orleans has nothing on us. While they know to spread their partying out over the two weeks of Mardi Gras, we cram it all into one day in January during the Gasparilla Pirate Fest. About 400,000 spectators crowd together to snag beads and watch this swashbuckling parade wind its way along Bayshore Boulevard and through downtown Tampa.
Named for Jose Gaspar, a totally mythical pirate known as “the last of the buccaneers,” Gasparilla has been attracting partygoers since a newspaper columnist and city booster conspired to create the celebration in 1904 as a way to promote Tampa.
Local’s tip: If you’ve got kiddos, I recommend the Children’s Gasparilla Parade, which takes place the week prior and features all the same exciting pirate floats but with smaller crowds and no booze allowed.
8. Bayshore Boulevard is the longest continuous sidewalk in the U.S.
Besides being the staging ground for the Gasparilla parades, Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard is 4.5 miles of gorgeous scenic views, with Tampa Bay on one side and majestic mansions on the other. Besides frolicking dolphins, you’ll see a regular stream of walkers, runners, bikers, and parents pushing strollers along this winding path.
9. Personalities in Tampa Bay can be as warm as the weather
Do you find strangers at the grocery store smiling at you for no apparent reason? Or maybe you’re caught off guard when that woman at the park tries to strike up a conversation. If you’re from another region of the country, you might be wondering what’s up or even feel a little uncomfortable. Don’t worry, you haven’t stepped into Night Vale country, the home of the sci-fi comedy podcast. People in Tampa Bay just tend to be friendly. I chalk it up to a combination of the sunny weather and influence of southern hospitality. Just enjoy and roll with it. Though it may push you a bit out of your comfort zone, you don’t want locals to think you’re rude.
10. When it comes to sports, Tampa is the city of champions
After decades of humiliation, Tampa fans were finally rewarded in 2020 with multiple titles. Led by former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, our Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first team ever to both win and host the Super Bowl at the same time. The Lightning took it all the way to win the Stanley Cup. And the Rays beat the oft overrated New York Yankees on their way to winning the American League pennant. Did it hurt that this all happened in a year when fans couldn’t even go to the games? Yep. But it sure cheered us up during a tough time.
Local’s tip: Many Tampa fans take it personally when so many people who move here still cheer for the visiting team (especially the Yankees), even when they’ve lived here for decades. As the song says, “root, root, root for the HOME team.”
11. The beaches in Tampa Bay are among the best in Florida — and the world
This is not hyperbole or a local’s bias. Over the years, Tampa Bay’s beaches have been rated among the best by plenty of objective sources like Dr. Beach, TripAdvisor, and US News for their sugary white sand, breathtaking sunsets, and the warm, clean, and crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Local’s tip: Since Clearwater Beach is the most popular, it’s also the most crowded, complete with weekend traffic jams. Unless your main goal is to see and be seen, I recommend trying the beaches less traveled. Here are three personal favorites:
- Caladesi Island and State Park: Since this is totally undeveloped and you have to take a short ferry, this is the most natural, unspoiled beach. You get to Caladesi via Dunedin, on the north end of Pinellas.
- Fort Desoto Park: The beaches in this county park are natural and condo-free, but there are more facilities — like picnic shelters, bathrooms, and showers. On the south end of Pinellas, Fort Desoto is easy to get to via I-275 South through St. Petersburg.
- Pass-A-Grille Beach: At the southern tip of St. Pete Beach in south Pinellas, this beach is special because there are no buildings on the beach side. There are a lot of dunes and sea oats, too, and you can walk to the Don CeSar Hotel, a “pink palace” built in the roaring 1920s.
12. Tampa Bay ranks low in transit availability and high in pedestrian fatalities
You’ll need your own wheels to get around, and if you choose to walk or bike you need to be careful. Compared to 19 other major metro areas, Tampa Bay ranks last in transit availability, according to the 2021 Tampa Bay E-Insights Report.
Being so car-centric comes with a high price. The area ranks eighth out of the 20 deadliest metro areas based on the 2021 Pedestrian Danger Index measured by Smart Growth America. Statistics also show that those getting around Tampa Bay by bicycle are also at high risk compared to other parts of the country. While local governments and organizations work to improve transit as well as pedestrian and cyclist safety, you can help protect yourself and family members by following these safety tips.
13. Having air conditioning that works is a necessity here
From May through October, you don’t want to get stuck in a car or house without decent AC. If you’ve only visited Tampa in the winter, spring, or fall, you might want to spend some time here in July, July, or August before deciding this is the place for you.
Although our temperatures seldom go higher than the 90s, it’s the humidity that gets to you. Unfortunately, the steamy, hot weather seems to start earlier and last longer every year. Retired snowbirds have the right idea — they escape to cooler climates for the summer. These days, if you’re fortunate enough to work remotely, you may be able to live that life at a younger age (this has been my own personal dream for years). But if you can’t get away, your best strategy is to have your AC checked in April, so you can head off any problems before they become an emergency.
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14. There are so many things to do in Tampa Bay, you’ll wish you were retired
Whether you’re new or a longtime resident, you can always find something fun and interesting to do in Tampa Bay. Besides the beaches, outdoor activities abound. You might be surprised to find some of the most lush Florida wilderness in Hillsborough County right outside Tampa. Downtown St. Petersburg is brimming with first-class museums and foodies of all types can easily eat their way around the entire bay area without ever getting bored.
Local’s tip: The picture-perfect days in winter and spring are so packed with entertaining events that it’s not unusual to get frustrated by the necessity of having to choose. Stay tuned into what’s happening by visiting the Tampa Bay Times’ frequently updated Things to Do page or sign up for their free weekly Top 5 Things to Do newsletter. For now, here are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Stroll, bike, eat, and party on the 2.4-mile Tampa Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. On the way you can visit parks or museums, or stop at Armature Works and Sparkman’s Wharf on either end, where you’ll find eclectic food and cocktail options.
- Witness an historic attraction come back to life at the St. Pete Pier, which has been packed by locals and tourists since reopening to rave reviews in 2020. A fitting crown for downtown St. Pete’s many jewels, the pier features a linear park, restaurants, the Tampa Bay Watch marine Discovery Center — and of course, stunning bay views.
- Meet Winter, our movie star dolphin with the prosthetic tail at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where you can get up close and personal with other rescued marine life.
- Experience wild Florida at Hillsborough River State Park, where you can hike 7 miles of trails, fish, or launch a canoe or kayak for a closeup view of alligators and stunning birds like ibis, great blue heron, and even roseate spoonbill.
- Watch manatees roll around underwater at Zoo Tampa, where you’ll also find elephants, penguins, orangutans, and other species from Florida and around the world.
- Let Flamenco dancers romance you while dining at the historic Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
I could go on, but I’ve already gone way beyond what you have time to read. Thanks for being interested in our hometown. I hope this local sampler has given you some helpful advice about your next move. Happy trails!
Liz Taylor is a freelance writer based in Tampa who is always looking for ways to declutter after living in the same house for 28 years.