The Surfside Florida Tragedy Will Change How People Handle Coastal Real Estate

As a long-time resident of South Florida, this is the most difficult post I’ve had to write for SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com. My condolences to the family and friends of those who lost their lives in the tragic Surfside, Florida, high-rise building collapse. May they find comfort in the memories of their days together.

Although the investigation into the disaster has barely begun, structural engineers analyzing potential causes have suggested that rainwater and maybe even sea level rise-driven, salty ocean floodwater that pooled on a flat pool deck may have damaged the building’s concrete and steel reinforcement structure to the point that the pool deck collapsed into the garage and brought the floors above with it. For a few years, structural engineers had warned the condo board that the water damage needed to be fixed immediately. The condo board says that it did its best to convince the residents that they needed to fund the repairs, but it was a slow process. Investigators will have to sort out the details.

Regardless of the ultimate cause of the catastrophe, the lessons are clear for buyers and owners of real estate in coastal communities. They need to practice due diligence when evaluating coastal properties.

When buyers are purchasing condos, townhouses or homes in seaside communities, they need to have the structures fully evaluated by licensed and experienced home inspectors. When they receive the inspection report, they need to read it in detail and ask the inspectors to explain any deficiencies and whether it’s still worth purchasing the subject property.

In cases that involve homeowner’s associations or condo boards, buyers need to treat the interview process as not only an opportunity for the board to become familiar with them but as an opportunity for them to find out if the board is managing the property well. To do this, buyers need to get a copy of financial records and annual reports and actually read them to see if the association is properly funded or burdened with debt and holding enough reserves to cover the cost of anticipated maintenance. They also need to find out if the property is properly maintained, if there are any ongoing maintenance issues, and if there are any anticipated maintenance projects — and how much each resident will have to pay toward the projects. Special assessments can cost each owner tens of thousands of dollars. Another crucial part of this due diligence process is asking the board for a copy of recent property inspections, whether they were conducted by a private firm or city department.

Both salt-water infused rain and sea level rise flooding can damage structures. Buyers need to find out in writing from sellers or the board whether or not the property is subject to sea level rise flooding now or will be in the near future. They also need to know what, if anything, is being done to control the problem and how much it will cost.

Buyers aren’t the only ones who need to practice due diligence. Owners of coastal real estate need to be pro-active when it comes to the maintenance of what is essentially their home. They have to get involved either by becoming board members or becoming active participants — and problem solvers — in the board’s deliberations. When a structural engineer identifies a problem that needs to be addressed immediately, they need to pressure the board and other residents to get on board and get it repaired.

Owners also need to pay attention to the threat sea level rise flooding poses to a property and what the board intends to do to address it. If fellow residents aren’t interested in properly maintaining a building, it might be time to sell.

Over the years, I’ve rented condos in buildings that were well managed and some that weren’t. One condo building I lived in a block from the ocean was so poorly maintained that saltwater intruded through the stucco exterior causing so much damage practically the entire structure had to be replaced to make the building habitable. Another building I’ve lived in was so well managed that the owners fixed slight deficiencies before they caused any noticeable damage. Condo and homeowner’s association fees for some buildings might seem high on the short-term, but if the money is being used to avoid costlier problems down the road, the investment is clearly worth it.

Over the past few months, I read an article in the Charleston Post and Courier that said one of the first questions buyers in Charleston — a city that’s being impacted by flooding from sea level rise, storm surges, and heavy rain — were asking is “Does this property flood?” A real estate agent quoted in a Miami Herald article said agents in her city rarely if ever asked that question — this despite Miami being ground zero for sea level rise flooding. The Surfside tragedy will likely result in buyers being much more likely to ask questions regarding flooding and building maintenance. Condo and homeowner’s association boards and owners in their building are going to have to be much more pro-active regarding building maintenance to protect their investment and their lives.

Sea Level Rise & Real Estate: What happens when whispered truths are spoken out loud?

Sea level rise flooding is rapidly transforming from an issue that was whispered about in many coastal communities — for fear mere mention would tank the local real estate market — to one that’s appearing on the front pages of major newspapers. This week alone the Miami Herald featured articles titled “‘Now, It’s About Elevation’: Buying a South Florida home in the era of sea level rise” and “Miami Beach residents want sea level rise fixes. But finding the right spot is a battle”.

The first article features interviews with a real estate broker and other experts who commented on how higher elevation properties in the flat, flood-prone South Florida landscape are becoming the most valued by middle-class buyers as sea level rises. (Apparently, wealthy buyers can afford to absorb the loss if their properties are flooded.) The second article examines the growing NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement among residents in Miami Beach as the city struggles to find a location for a much-needed pump station that threatens to sully residents’ views.

Both articles are well-reported and matter-of-fact about the many complications sea level rise flooding poses to people involved in South Florida real estate. Reading the pieces made me think about how far we’ve come toward acknowledge the problem and what this tide change (pardon the pun) in awareness means to buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents.

One thing’s clear: As buyers become more educated about the risk of sea level rise flooding, they are becoming more sophisticated about where they purchase property in coastal communities. An article published last December in the Charleston, SC, Post & Courier put it bluntly: “Downtown Charleston house hunters ask about home’s flooding history first”. With flooding an ever-worsening problem, “Does this property flood?” is sure to become the first question buyers ask in coastal communities all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico.

This reality is going to force owners to pay more attention to sea level rise to make sure that they get out before their property begins to lose value due to the direct flooding of their property or their neighborhood. Sellers are going to have to be very careful that they fill out seller’s disclosure forms in accordance with their state’s laws. (At this point, state seller’s disclosure laws range from full flood disclosure to none at all.) And real estate agents are going to have to make sure that they’re aware of which neighborhoods and properties in their farm area experience sea level rise flooding, that they fulfill their obligation to disclose the flooding to buyers in accordance with their state’s disclosure law and, if they’re a Realtor ™, their association’s Code of Ethics, and that they advise their sellers to comply with their state’s disclosure requirements. Conferring with real estate attorneys is always a good idea as there have been cases where real estate brokers and agents have had to pay out large sums of money for mishandling flooding-related issues.

Most Americans’ greatest investment is their homes. As buyers become savvier about sea level rise flooding and the many ways it can impact their home and their financial futures, it’s going to become harder to sell them a property that’s experiencing flooding now, soon to experience flooding, or difficult to access due to flooded roads. With this in mind, everyone involved in coastal real estate has to keep up to speed on this creeping catastrophe to make smart real estate decisions.

Coastal Real Estate Buyers, Owners & Agents Need to Start Paying Attention to Storm Surge Prevention Projects

A major impact of global warming is stronger storms with more powerful storm surges. Climate change-driven sea level rise will also further magnify the ability of storm surges to inundate valuable real estate.

Cities along the U.S. coast are shifting from considering the threats stronger storm surges pose to local real estate to actually proposing solutions. Real estate buyers and owners need to pay close attention to what’s appearing on the drawing boards. The surge control projects could impact their property values, businesses, tax rates and quality of life.

Real estate agents need to stay current so they’re armed with facts when buyers, sellers and owners ask for the latest information about projects in their farm areas.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, ground zero for sea level rise flooding, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently unveiled a draft plan that would spend $4.6 billion on a series of 1-to-13 foot tall sea walls and pumps to protect 2.8 million people and tens of thousands of buildings worth $311 billion from storm surges. According to a Miami Herald article, the project also calls for moveable barriers to be installed at the mouths of three waterways and the elevation of thousands of buildings.

The Corps of Engineers is holding online public hearings regarding storm surge the plan this week. The impact on some property owners could be enormous. For example, a thirteen foot wall and pump stations would certainly change the view from front-line properties. The loss of a beautiful view would impact the quality of life for the owners as well as property values.

In addition, current estimates are that local taxpayers would have to bear up to 35% of the project cost while the federal government would pick up the remainder. Depending on how the project financing is structured, property owners could face substantial tax hikes. (After Covid-19 rocked the economy and government budgets, funding is bound to be a big X-factor even for projects that receive a stamp of approval.)

According to an article on the YaleEnvironment360 website, ambitious storm surge control projects are also being considered in Charleston, SC, Galveston, TX, coastal communities in New Jersey, and in and around New York City. Real estate buyers and owners in coastal areas need to keep up on the latest developments to weigh the benefits and costs of the the proposed projects. Put another way, they need to ask if the projects will protect their property, property value and quality of life without emptying their wallets.

It’s important to note that the storm surge project in Miami-Dade isn’t intended to protect communities from the increased tidal flooding that will occur as sea levels continue to rise in the decades to come. That will take a whole other effort, if it’s possible at all. This is due to the fact that South Florida is built on porous limestone, which allows seawater to easily flow beneath structures such as seawalls. Things are, indeed, getting complicated for coast-dwellers.

Challenges Facing Southeast Florida — Ground Zero for Sea Level Rise Flooding — Described in Exhaustive BBC Report

With its low elevation and proximity to lots of water on all sides and underfoot, Southeast Florida is clearly ground zero for sea level rise flooding. The BBC recently published an exhaustive report on the current status of sea level rise in the region — that includes the Florida Keys all the way north through Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — and the challenges of controlling the inundation. The report makes fascinating required reading for anyone investing in residential and commercial real estate in coastal areas that are threatened by surging tides.

The BBC report, written by Amanda Ruggeri, is full of fascinating facts about sea level rise. Among them:

  1. Current predictions are that sea level could rise by up to 10 inches in the region by 2030 and 5 feet by 2100.
  2. Each additional inch of sea level rise can have a substantial affect on coastal real estate.
  3. The region has more people at risk from sea level rise than any other state, and Miami, specifically, has more financial assets at risk than any other major coastal city in the world.
  4. Cities in the region are already making changes to infrastructure to address sea level rise flooding, including raising roads and seawalls and installing hundreds of tidal valves and pump stations.
  5. Despite the efforts to hold back the sea, experts recognize that they will not be able to save every property and neighborhood from flooding.
  6. Every community faces different challenges. Governments, homeowners, business owners, taxpayers, insurers, developers, engineers and planners are going to have to work together to decide how to address sea level rise in their communities.
  7. Each community is an intricate puzzle where making a change to one piece of infrastructure, such as raising a segment of seawall or roadway, can lead to the unintended flooding of neighboring properties.
  8. Reaching consensus can lead to clashes over proposed solutions, costs, potential impacts and private property rights.
  9. Among the encouraging signs is that in the absence of federal and state leadership, county and local governments are forming regional partnerships to address sea level rise in a coordinated fashion.
  10. Among the discouraging signs is that finding funding sources for the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects needed to hold back the rising tides is difficult.

While the BBC report provides a broad, holistic view of how Southeast Florida is tackling sea level rise flooding, real estate buyers, owners and agents still need to invest time and effort evaluating how rising tides are impacting their properties and communities before making decisions. Sea level rise is already resulting in increased property maintenance costs, taxes, insurance and association fees in some areas. It’s also hurting the rate of property value appreciation and forcing extreme measures, such as road abandonment and property buy-outs.

As the polar ice caps continue to melt and the oceans expand due to global warming, these sea level rise is going to challenge more and more coastal residents.

Are Miami Area Real Estate Owners Ready for 13-Foot Tall Walls to Control Storm Surge?

How do you protect nearly 3 million residents and $311 billion worth of real estate in and around Miami from more intense storm surges driven by climate change and rising seas? That’s the challenge taken on by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the solution its proposing could have a massive impact on real estate owners.

According to a report in the Miami Herald, the Corps has drafted a proposal that includes 10-to-13-foot high walls, moveable storm surge barriers for canal and river openings, along with the elevation of 10,000 homes and floodproofing of 7,000 buildings. The proposal, due to be formally released this spring, carries an $8 billion price tag, 65% of which would be federally funded. Local governments would pick up the rest of the cost.

Included in the proposal is the purchase of 350 properties through eminent domain to make room for the walls. If the plan is approved, the Corps aims to start construction on the massive project by 2026.

The Corps’ plans could have a major impact on the real estate market in Miami and Miami-Dade County. Some property owners could face the prospect of losing their real estate to eminent domain. Those who remain could see a spike in their property taxes and a loss in property value due to the higher taxes and proximity to flood-control structures. For example, properties that lose their water views to concrete walls could witness a drop in value.

Clearly something has to be done to reduce the threat posed by storm surge driven by climate change and rising seas. To protect their real estate investment and financial futures, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to get involved when the final details are being hammered out over the next year.

One point to keep in mind is that the Corps’ plan only addresses storm surge, not sea level rise itself. Because South Florida is built on porous rock, seawater can seep under walls.

Another important point that needs to be considered is that Miami and Miami-Dade County aren’t the only coastal real estate markets facing upheaval due to climate change and sea level rise flooding. Cities and towns all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines are struggling to draft effective plans to combat rising waters. Coming up with the billions of dollars needed to fund their projects is a whole other problem.

Twitter Helps Researchers Identify Localized Sea Level Rise Flooding

When it comes to identifying localized sea level rise flooding, tidal gauges aren’t necessarily giving the full picture.

Climate researchers published a study this week in the journal Nature Communications that concluded Twitter may provide a more accurate read on what’s actually going on on the ground. Why? For one thing, there are only 132 tidal gauge stations covering over 3,700 miles of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coastlines. That leaves enormous gaps between the measuring locations.

As a result, the same high tide that causes little or no flooding in a location with a gauge could cause damaging flooding in another location with a different elevation or concentration of people and structures. The study says, “The same degree of inundation could have substantially different social impacts, depending on the distribution of people, infrastructure and economic activity along the coast.”

To get a clearer picture of how the flooding is impacting coastal locations, the researchers studied nearly half a million tweets sent by 5 million Twitter users in about 235 counties. What they found was that nuisance flooding was occurring in many locations that was not detected by tide gauges.

Most of the undetected nuisance flooding occurred in 22 counties, including those that encompass Miami, New York and Boston, with over 13 million people.

Having a clear picture of what’s happening everywhere is critical to drawing up plans to address the sea level rise flooding as the ocean level rises. “Understanding where coastal floods happen, identifying which meteorological and tide conditions produce floods, and grasping the consequences for flood-affected communities and infrastructure is critical for coastal flood preparation and response,” the study said.

Study co-authors, Frances C. Moore, of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis, and Nick Obradovich, of the Max Plank Institute of Human Development in Berlin, Germany, caution that one major limit of their study is that once people get used to the nuisance flooding they become less likely to report it on social media.

The fact that even tidal gauges can’t always be relied on to give the complete picture of sea level rise flooding in a given area is all the more reason that buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to rely on more than one source when considering the flood risk for a given piece of property.

New Report Names Miami the “Most Vulnerable” City in the World for Sea Level Rise Flooding

A new report by Resources for the Future (RFF), a nonpartisan think tank, concludes that Miami will soon become “the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world” for sea level rise flooding, storm surges and other impacts of climate change. The experts based their conclusion on the fact that Miami has billions of dollars worth of real estate and other assets that will be put increasingly at-risk as the seas continue to rise between now 2040.

The RFF published a graphic-rich report titled “Understanding Sea Level Rise in Florida, 2040” last week that illustrates the challenges faced by Miami and the entire state of Florida. The report was created using data collected by the Climate Impact Lab, a group of scientists, economists and other experts who are trying to quantify the impact climate change will have on the world economy in real numbers.

In a press release, the RFF listed the following potential impacts on Florida if the world doesn’t reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming and sea level rise flooding:

  • Severe “100-year floods” will potentially occur once every few years rather than once a century, endangering about 300,000 homes, 2,500 miles of roadways, 30 schools, and four hospitals statewide.
  • Rising seas also threaten the 490,000 Floridians who live on land less than 3 feet above the high-water mark, and coastal properties worth an estimated $145 billion in property value. The counties with the largest number of people facing these risks are Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas, Monroe, and Hillsborough.
  • In some areas—the Keys in particular—it is unlikely that communities will be able to meet the costs of raising all public roadways to accommodate higher sea levels by 2045, suggesting that some roads and neighborhoods will need to be abandoned.
  • Miami has over $400 billion in assets put at risk by coastal flooding and storms—the largest amount of any major coastal city in the world.
  • Extreme temperatures and other impacts will seriously affect public health. In a moderate emissions scenario, the rate of mortality is projected to increase by 3.8 deaths per 100,000 Florida residents per year—that’s roughly 1,000 additional deaths annually by 2035.
  • Federal carbon pricing policies, which would reduce these risks, are projected to cost less than $1,000 annually for Florida households earning under $99,000 per year, with costs for higher earners reaching as high as $5,000 annually.

The study’s co-authors said: “Addressing climate change has up-front costs. But failing to address climate change? Those costs are likely to be much greater and long lasting.”

The RFF research was funded by the VoLo Foundation, a private family foundation established to educate the public to create a sustainable and secure planet for generations to come. 

This report further reinforces the fact that buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents in coastal areas need to be aware of sea level rise and its impact on a property of interest, neighborhood and community to make informed decisions that will protect their financial futures.

Miami’s Sea Level Rise Real Estate Challenges Coming Soon to a Coastal Community Near You

Miami’s extremely low elevation puts the city at the front lines of the battle against sea level rise flooding. The city is constantly grappling with ways to control floodwaters that are serving as a general guide for other cities and town all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines.

This week, the city of Miami unveiled its “Miami Forever Climate Ready” plan to combat climate change and sea level rise flooding. Jane Gilbert, the city’s resiliency chief, said the plan outlines 86 actions that need to be taken to control flooding and reducing the city’s carbon footprint.

Among the recommendations to address climate change heat are making buildings more energy-efficient, buying electric vehicles, and planting more trees. To meet the challenge of rising seas, the city plans to upgrade failing stormwater system, raising sea walls, installing stormwater pump stations, and creating wetlands to shift floodwaters from city streets. In areas that experience extreme flooding, the city is considering buying out private property, which, in many cases, is cheaper than rebuilding structures that are repeatedly damaged by floodwaters.

Massive amounts of money will be needed for the city to address sea level rise flooding and climate change, which will worsen in the decades to come. City officials say the challenge is finding funding for the projects when real estate could lose value, which would reduce the amount of tax revenue the city has to work with. If this happens, issuing bonds to pay for the projects could also become more difficult.

Despite the challenges, the report says Miami shouldn’t wait to implement the recommendations. The report says, “Now is the time, while Miami’s economy is still growing, to turn this climate change into an opportunity.” In 2017, Miami voters approved a $400 million bond to improve the city’s sea level rise flooding defenses.

Buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents need to know what their local governments are doing to combat sea level rise for several reasons: 1) The projects could impact their tax rates and flood insurance premiums; 2) The projects could determine whether or not their property floods; 3) The project’s effectiveness could impact their property value; and 4) The projects could impact their quality of life if nearby seawalls are raised or pump stations are installed.

Real Estate Buyers Need to Be Aware of Sea Level Rise’s Impact on Infrastructure

Buyers of real estate in coastal areas don’t just need to know if the property of interest experiences sea level rise flooding. They also need to know how salty floodwaters are impacting critical infrastructure.

Case in point: Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For decades, officials there have raided the city’s sewer and water budget to fund other projects. Without critical maintenance, the system is collapsing. Last month alone, breaks in a pipe caused 126 million gallons of sewage to course down a neighborhood street and into a river.

In 2017, an engineering firm gave the city an 800 page report that said $1.4 billion worth of work that needed to be completed on the leaky wastewater treatment system to stop the sewage spills. Experts said part of the problem is that the system has aged beyond its useful life. Another problem is that sea level rise is immersing metal pipes in salty water which is causing them to corrode and fail.

Fort Lauderdale isn’t alone in confronting this costly challenge. Miami, too, has a failing wastewater treatment system that has led to spills and huge fines. Many other cities all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coastlines are bound to get hit with similar problems as their infrastructure is invaded by rising seas.

One thing Fort Lauderdale and Miami have in common is the struggle to find money to make the needed repairs. The only options are higher taxes or bond issues. Either way, property owners are bound to get soaked.

The timing of these costs couldn’t be worse. In addition to the need to upgrade their wastewater treatment systems, both cities need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to raise roads and pipes and build barriers and pumps to hold back the ocean.

In the end, buyers need to take future tax hikes into account when they’re considering whether or not to purchase real estate in areas impacted by sea level rise flooding. This issue is discussed in detail in “7 sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions.”

Sea Level Rise Picks Up Pace in South Florida and the Keys

The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact is warning member governments from Palm Beach County to the Keys to start planning for 17 inches to 31 inches of sea level rise in the next four decades. The group released data at its annual meeting in Key West last month that increased sea level rise projections an additional 3 to 5 inches over previous forecasts.

Chronic sea level rise flooding already has Keys officials considering instituting a managed retreat, where the government buys out real estate and abandons roads. Many coastal governments are considering retreat as an option, especially in areas where maintaining infrastructure is considered too expensive for the number of residents served. The challenge if finding the money to purchase the distressed real estate and convincing owners who don’t want to sell. Read more in this Bloomberg Environment article.

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