Warming planet in a hot market

by Jon Gorey

In some ways, Americans are finally confronting the reality of climate change and the threat it presents to their families, homes and way of life. More than half of Americans surveyed by Yale and George Mason universities in 2021 said they’ve personally been affected by global warming — which a majority of Americans now understand to be human-caused — and 64% said their community will be vulnerable to extreme weather in the next 10 years.

But in other ways — like when it comes to real estate decisions — many people appear willing to downplay or ignore the risks of a changing climate.

Two recent reports illustrate the gap between our awareness and our actions. In a Redfin survey of recent homebuyers, one in 10 said climate risk was the primary reason for their move, and 39% more said it was at least a contributing factor. And yet, a separate Redfin report found that flood-, heat- and hurricane-prone Miami was the most popular migration destination in the U.S. for the fourth straight month. Phoenix and Las Vegas were right behind South Florida in terms of residential inflow, despite the likelihood in both areas of more deadly heat waves and chronic water shortages in the not-too-distant future.

“Arizona and Florida continue to astound climate scientists, because they’re still, on net, showing people moving in,” said David Pogue, author of “How to Prepare for Climate Change.”

The terrifying Western wildfires of the past few years have created a minor wave of domestic climate refugees — a migration movement Pogue suspects is just beginning. Not everyone can simply pick up and move, he notes. But for the millions of Americans who do move each year, climate risk ought to be a top consideration, he said. Because while no region will completely escape the impacts of climate change, some areas will be much worse off than others.

Geography Means Winners and Losers in a Warmer, Wetter World

“The western half of the United States, especially California, has wildfires that we’ve read a lot about, and drought that we haven’t read a lot about,” Pogue said. There is less snowpack in the mountains each year, underground aquifers are drying up and reservoirs such as Lake Mead are at their lowest levels since the 1930s. “They’re increasingly going to have to worry about where they’re going to get their water.”

The southern and eastern coasts, meanwhile, face the opposite problem — too much water, from heavier rainfall events, more intense storms and hurricanes, and ever-rising sea levels.

“Boston, Miami and New York are really in trouble,” Pogue said. “Miami in particular, that is a sea level city in the first place, and the problem is you can’t build sea walls to protect yourself because the ground of Florida is porous, so the water is coming up from underneath you.” Miami already experiences sunny day flooding, where streets fill with water at high tide even though it hasn’t rained. “It’s coming out of the storm drains that were designed to let the water run away, and now they’re coughing water into the streets of Miami.”

And across the entire South, extreme heat — the deadliest weather event of all — is worsening. In 2020, when the temperature in Phoenix reached triple digits on 145 different days, the heat claimed nearly 500 lives across Arizona. “Famously, at the Phoenix airport, some of the airlines had to shut down a few years ago because the air was so hot, there wasn’t enough lift over the wings to fly,” Pogue said.

That leaves the Great Lakes Region as a potential beneficiary from long-term climate migration, Pogue said. “You don’t have the wildfires, you don’t have the hurricanes, you don’t have the heat waves … above all, you have a copious, eternal source of freshwater: the Great Lakes,” he said. “This means cities like Cleveland, Madison, Ann Arbor, Syracuse, Duluth — a lot of the great old industrial cities of 100 years ago that are no longer industrial and therefore empty and inexpensive — have a lot of room to grow.”

In his book, Pogue profiles more than a dozen cities that pair relatively safe climate profiles with a good quality of life and necessary infrastructure; the largest among those is Chicago.

“It’s not flawless,” Pogue said, noting that Chicago is one of hundreds of cities where street drains and raw sewage share pipes, creating backflow issues during heavy rains. But he calls Chicago one of the greenest big cities in America, with forward-thinking plans to deal with excess rainwater. “They’re converting thousands of streets into permeable pavement — green alleys that absorb the rainwater before it can run off into the sewer systems,” he said. “In the meantime, they still have four seasons, incredible quality of life, food and art and activities.”

John Gormley, chief executive of the Mainstreet Organization of Realtors outside Chicago, agrees with Pogue’s thesis. “It may take several decades, but I think the Great Lakes region and the Midwest and Chicago area will probably see an influx of domestic migration,” said Gormley, who’s originally from the Deep South himself.

“We’re not seeing that right now — people have been moving to warmer states and retirement states like Arizona and Florida,” Gormley said. “But I think that trend will reverse, and climate change will be a driver of it.”

High Risk Still in High Demand

In areas of heightened climate risk, meanwhile, Realtors feel an obligation to direct buyers to flood maps and other available information, but acknowledge there’s not a whole lot they can do when buyers ignore those cautions. And despite the long-term nature of real estate purchases, a surprising number of buyers don’t seem terribly concerned with future flooding and other risks.

Boston agent Kiernan Middleman, a Realtor with Warren Residential, said most of her buyers are shockingly blasé about climate risk — an attitude she finds discouraging. “From what I’ve seen, climate change does not seem to be much of a concern, let alone a decision-making factor, for the vast majority of Boston-area buyers,” Middleman said. “I can think of only one buyer who thought that purchasing in the Seaport was crazy, and another who wanted nothing to do with garden-level units in Back Bay out of concern for flooding. Other than that, though, a water view still trumps concern for flooding any day of the week for most.”

What’s more, Middleman said, many buyers aren’t placing a proper premium on sustainable home features or resiliency measures. “I have listed a few properties with solar panels, and in each case, buyers are far more concerned with their aesthetics, potential damage to the roof and the cost of removing them if work needs to be done on the roof than they are with the financial and environmental benefits,” she said. “It’s a bit disheartening.”

In South Florida, Realtor Jennifer Wollmann said buyers are a little more attuned to climate risk than in years past, but no less likely to buy in harm’s way.

“People do disclose if a property has flooded before due to a hurricane — that is a disclosure requirement,” Wollmann said. “But to be honest with you, I mean, our waterfront property sales are booming. People are just attracted to the waterfront. I think more than being turned off by it or afraid of it, they calculate the risks and do what they can to strengthen and fortify their home.”

Among buyers who do consider a property’s climate risk, “mostly what they’re looking at is flood zones, flood insurance, how to strengthen the home for hurricanes,” Wollmann said. “So they’re looking more for homes that either are newer and built to the newer codes, or that at least have had the updates with a strengthened roof and impact windows and all of that.”

Others take comfort in the fact that Miami-Dade County has formed a resiliency compact with Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties, and is taking some steps — like elevating roads and homes, investing in waterfront parks and building denser housing inland — to adapt to an expected 2 feet or more of sea level rise over the next 40 years.

But there is evidence that coastal Florida buyers have started discounting riskier homes: A University of Pennsylvania study found that sales of homes more vulnerable to sea level rise started falling after 2013, relative to safer lots nearby; prices followed suit after 2018, dipping 5% to 10% compared to less exposed tracts of land in 2020.

Wollmann said she advises buyers on existing flood zones, but not on future projections — which show that much of Miami could be dealing with regular flooding by 2050. “I don’t tend to get into the what-ifs, because it could be a what-if about everything, you know?” she said. “Is the economy going to bust in two years? Is a massive storm going to come through?”

A Changing Climate Changes Minds

In Houston, which suffered some $200 billion in damage from Hurricane Harvey and other flood events over the past decade, Bill Baldwin, broker-owner at Boulevard Realty, said he tries to talk his buyers out of risky real estate purchases all the time — with varying degrees of success.

“We had a client the other day. We were pushing him, ‘Please don’t buy this house, I believe it’s not only at high risk of flooding, but that the insurance premium will go up significantly,’” Baldwin said. “They literally got mad at us, and accused us of trying to talk them out of a house that they really wanted.” The buyer got the house under contract, and then a deluge dropped two-and-a-half inches of rain in about a half-hour during the home inspection. “Their cars were basically flooded while they were at the inspection, and they saw the water rise right over the curb and go right over to the front door — in a little-bitty, insignificant rain shower that occurs very regularly in Houston, Texas,” Baldwin said. Only then did the buyers understand what Baldwin had been warning them about.

“I can tell people all day long, but the reality of it is, until they experience it for themselves, they often are not cognizant of the high level of risk,” he said. “So our job is to educate and inform.”

Houston has consistently flooded throughout its history, Baldwin said, but it took a devastating citywide disaster like Hurricane Harvey — which dumped nearly 60 inches of rain on the city in 2017 — to inspire broad action on things like building codes and flood resilience. “If just South Houston floods, I assure you, no one in North Houston, East Houston or West Houston wants to do anything about it,” Baldwin said. “But when you have an event like a Harvey, and there’s an equitable distribution of pain, then you’ve finally got the consensus of all communities, all the city council members, everyone on board that it was time to do something.”

New resilience-based building codes that go into effect in Houston on April 1 will require much new construction to be built at least two feet above the 500-year floodplain elevation. And in the wake of Harvey, the state of Texas now requires sellers to disclose a property’s flood history, and for landlords to notify renters of potential flood risk.

The flood disclosure rule is an important step, said Baldwin, who teaches a class for Realtors called “Houston and Flooding,” but it’s still imperfect. “Remember, you’ve got institutional sellers, you’ve got house flippers, you’ve got plenty of people that are unscrupulous or don’t know,” Baldwin said. “If Zillow sells 8,000 houses that they were iBuying in Harris County to an institutional investor in Baltimore, do you think the guy in Baltimore has any idea if that house ever flooded or not — the vice president of operations filling out the seller’s disclosure form? He doesn’t know diddly about those houses. So they either check ‘no’ or ‘unknown,’ and then someone finds out later that the house flooded by talking to the next door neighbor. So I think we can continue to improve upon the information.”

The National Flood Insurance Program, meanwhile, which underwrites all residential flood coverage in the United States, is rolling out a new pricing model: Risk Rating 2.0 will base insurance premiums on a property’s actual, specific flood risk — raising prices for the riskiest properties. The corresponding new flood maps haven’t been released yet, but Baldwin expects most Houston homes will see their flood insurance costs increase as a result.

“Houston has, for a very long time, had artificially low insurance premiums, which entice people to build homes in a higher-risk area and in a higher-risk fashion, because insurance was cheap,” Baldwin said. “So one way to get people out of harm’s way is to raise the rate for high-risk properties that have a high probability of flooding.”

Flooding isn’t the only climate risk Houston faces. Baldwin is building his own house up high, but worries about fiercer hurricanes and wind-driven rain, not to mention deadly grid failures like the one Texas experienced a year ago. “Nobody wants to go through what we went through last February,” he said. “That’s why generators still have a nine-month lead time a year later, because they’re a huge selling feature for people.”

People are going to continue moving to and living in Houston, Baldwin said, and the trick will be learning to live with more frequent flooding — just as Houstonians have adapted to intense heat and soggy humidity — through appropriate construction, smart drainage and other resiliency measures. It will also demand a willingness among residents to pay for such investments, Baldwin notes.

Houston is making some good progress on climate resilience, Baldwin added — he just isn’t sure it’s enough, given the magnitude of the problem. “We know exactly where Houston floods, we just don’t have all the money to solve all those sorts of problems in a short time frame,” Baldwin says. “And if you’ve got a boat with nine holes, and you fill three of them, you know what you still have? A boat that’s sinking with six holes. That’s kind of the scenario that we’re in… it takes a lot of time, effort, money, perseverance to solve many of these problems.”

Read More Related to This Post

Join the conversation

Oops! We could not locate your form.