The hardest part of writing this year’s edition was forcing myself to stop as new information about global warming and sea level rise kept streaming in. The new book is much more comprehensive than the first edition. It has special chapters that cover developments in the field since the 2020 edition and a detailed description of what happens when sea level rise floodwater streams into a community, neighborhood, and individual property. It also has more information and instructions on how buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents can protect their financial future by performing due diligence — gathering information from more than one source — before they make a critical real estate decision in a coastal city experiencing or soon to experience sea level rise flooding.
The challenge to anyone involved in real estate along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines remains unchanged: There is no single source of reliable information that will give them the facts they need to know about past, present, and future sea level rise flooding. So they have to put on their detectives’ hats and find it themselves. “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents” will give them the tools and insight they need to gather the information they need to make informed decisions.
Please check back often. I’ll have a lot more to say about the book, and, now that Covid-19 appears to be calming down, I’ll post a lot more updates with the latest developments regarding sea level rise and real estate.
Sorry I haven’t updated the site lately, but I’ve actually been busy writing the 2021 edition of “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents.”
Managing the threat of Covid-19 threw me off my intended schedule, which was to release the book in November or December of 2020, but I’m back on track to bring you a comprehensive look at the risks involved in purchasing real estate in coastal communities that are currently experiencing sea level rise flooding or will have to confront the challenge in the years and decades to come. The new edition includes the latest developments regarding sea level rise science and the approach federal, state, and local governments are taking to address the flooding. It also has chapters that describe in detail how sea level rise flooding impacts communities, neighborhoods and specific properties, and what buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents need to do about it.
Those of you who purchased the 2020 edition of “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions” on Amazon.com will find a lot of new information presented clearly and concisely. The book will be of special value to buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents operating in coastal areas who want to make informed decisions regarding real estate transactions in areas confronting this creeping threat.
I will update the site when the book is available in paperback or Kindle versions, which should be in about two weeks. Thank you for your patience.
Once the book is released, I will get back on track to updating this site on a regular basis with the latest reports regarding sea level rise flooding and real estate.
Tropical Storm Eta made landfall in the mid-Florida Keys, but it left a lasting impression on homeowners 90 miles to the north in South Florida. Many who owned real estate inland away from the coastline in what they thought were high and dry neighborhoods in Palm Beach County, Broward County, and Miami-Dade County woke up on Monday, November 9, to flooded homes, streets and businesses. Climate experts are already saying the devastation is a result of a dangerous confluence of soils already saturated by repeated rain events in October, a tropical storm with heavy rains super-charged by climate change, and a drainage system based on gravity that’s operating less efficiently due to sea level rise.
Bryan Norcross, a hurricane specialist at Local 10 in Miami, said the region has experienced this type of flooding before, just not in recent years. “I’ve been dealing with hurricanes since the 1980s and that’s evolved into discussing how climate and hurricanes fit together,” he said in an article posted on the station’s website. “The fact that sea level is rising and rising a little more than just a half an inch, an inch at a time, that makes our drainage system work more poorly.” In other words, when there’s less difference between the elevation of water pooling on land and water in the drainage canal system and ocean level, the harder it is for the system to move water off the land and into the ocean.
In an opinion piece titled “Historic Eta flooding in Florida areas thought to be drier proves we’re all vulnerable,” Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago described what it was like living in a neighborhood that flooded. She said the experience at her home in Miami Lakes, an inland community she thought was not vulnerable to flooding, was like living on an island. Even if a resident’s house and street weren’t flooded, they were still impacted by the flooding because they couldn’t travel far before they encountered a flooded street.
“If your street didn’t flood,” she wrote, “you still couldn’t get out of your neighborhood because other thoroughfares did flood. Streets were dangerously deeper than they seemed at first.” She also worried that she would lose power and/or internet service due to the flooding.
Santiago’s final paragraphs are a cautionary tale for all who are considering purchasing real estate in coastal areas vulnerable to or now experiencing sea level rise flooding: “Global warming is real folks, not just a concept put out there that only concerns the scientists. Eta’s rains are here to show us just how up close and personal climate change can get in all of South Florida.”
Touring storm damage in my own city in southern Palm Beach County, I saw many streets that normally experience sea level rise flooding, especially in the fall “king tide” months, flooded to a higher level than I’d ever witnessed. Streets that residents needed to travel to get from their homes were bisected by floodwaters rendering them useless. This is a major frustration to many property owners in my area. Experts say property values in areas that experience sea level rise flooding are already appreciating at a slower rate than properties that don’t.
Tropical Storm Eta’s nasty surprise is a reminder to all property owners and buyers that they need to perform due diligence and know the risk of flooding to homes and businesses so they can make an informed decision regarding real estate ownership. It’s also a reminder that they can’t just focus on a given property or neighborhood, flooding in the wider community and region can also impact their ability to get around town and the costs of maintenance, insurance, and taxes, as communities are forced to invest ever more in efforts to prevent flooding events.
Real estate developers rarely take the long-view when they’re considering new projects. They see their role in the economy as simply planning, building, and selling projects at the greatest return on investment. As a result, in Southeast Florida, billions of dollars worth of real estate development has proceeded even in areas known to be at risk of — or currently experiencing — sea level rise flooding. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact — a partnership between Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Palm Beach County, and Monroe County — believes it’s time for real estate developers to recognize the larger threat sea level poses to the region and their industry and to get involved in mitigation efforts for the good of everyone.
To make their case, the Compact used a state grant to pay the Urban Land Institute (ULI) — a group comprised of 45,000 real estate and urban development professionals interested in creating sustainable communities — to assess the costs and benefits in cold hard cash of implementing projects now to address sea level rise flooding, which is expected to worsen as up to 40 inches of sea level rise accumulates by 2070.
ULI recently released its findings in a report titled “The Business Case for Resilience in Southeast Florida.” In it, researchers concluded that tens of billions of dollars will be lost over the next 50 years if the region doesn’t invest in resiliency, such as elevating structures and roads and infrastructure and building higher seawalls and berms, now. The report specifically estimates that spending $22.6 billion on flood mitigation between now and 2070 could prevent $56 billion in losses over the same period.
ULI said its approach to drafting the report was to view sea level rise not as a net negative but as an opportunity to actually build the economy by investing in resiliency today, an effort that would create business opportunities and new jobs. In a report summary ULI said: “The findings … identify opportunities for the real estate industry to achieve a positive return on investment by futureproofing developments and investing in community wide resilience infrastructure over time to build incremental solutions that protect people and property and grow the economy of Southeast Florida in years to come.”
The report, which is meant to convince business interests to join the sea level rise resilience movement, isn’t perfect however. It overlooks one of the most seemingly insurmountable problems unique to South Florida: The region’s real estate is built on porous limestone, so even if you block the rising seas with higher seawalls and other structures at the coast, the seawater will still migrate beneath the surface and cause flooding along the coast and well inland.
Despite this flaw, the researchers said the investment in resilience is worth it. They estimate Miami-Dade County will benefit from a 9 to 1 return on investment, Broward County 2 to 1, and Palm Beach County 1.3 to 1. Unfortunately, they did not see any benefit for Monroe County, which covers the Florida Keys. The report said the Keys population is too small to benefit compared with its highly populated neighboring counties to the north. Rhonda Haas, resilience officer for Monroe County, told the Miami Herald: “We are probably going to have to spend more per resident for resilience and that’s okay. Just because we have a lower rate of return on that investment, that doesn’t mean the Keys should not make the investment. We should and we are.”
The preface to the report notes that there are no easy answers to climate adaptation but all interests need to get involved. It also warns developers that not participating in mitigating sea level rise flooding could lead to negative consequences beyond their control. “Developers have control over the confines of their own parcels,” it states, “but they could be faced with negative consequences from reduced investor interest and lack of financing and insurance –if this is the case, it may be too late to recover. Though financial assets are at risk, this is also the time for the real estate industry to coordinate with the public sector on resilience planning initiatives and co-create new models for partnerships, policy, and funding to help the region continue to thrive.”
The lesson from the report for everyone living and operating businesses in coastal communities in Southeast Florida and everywhere else is that we’re all in this together and saving our lifestyles and livelihoods will take a team effort.
The last couple of years, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has experienced numerous costly and environmentally disastrous cast iron sewer pipe collapses. There are many reasons cast iron pipes fail, but it’s mostly due to corrosion (rust) that degrades the pipes to the point that the effluent escapes through cracks, holes and breaks.
Recently, experts have identified sea level rise as a contributor to the pipe failures. Cast iron is notoriously vulnerable to rusting. Exposure to salty seawater as the water table rises or from repeated flooding can speed up the process.
Unfortunately, the problem of cast iron pipe failures isn’t limited to municipal water systems. Prior to the mid-1970s, cast iron pipes were the pipes of choice to hook up homes to on-site septic systems and municipal water/sewer providers. As sea levels rise and cast iron pipes are increasingly bathed in salty water, these private pipes are put at risk, too.
Buyers and owners of real estate in coastal areas need to pay attention to this threat. A friend of mine bought a home decades ago that was built along the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1940s. This summer, she noticed that her plumbing was backing up frequently. A plumber analyzed the system and found that the problem stemmed from heavily corroded cast iron pipes under her home and yard.
As she found out, repairing or replacing cast iron pipes on even the most basic system can cost into the tens of thousands of dollars. For most of us, that’s a lot of cash.
What should buyers and owners in coastal communities do about cast iron pipes? Owners of homes built before the mid-1970s that are experiencing frequent plumbing problems need to find out if their properties are serviced by cast iron pipes and what shape they’re in. A licensed plumber should be able to inspect the system and issue a report.
Knowing the status of cast iron pipes will help owners to decide whether to leave the pipes alone or to repair or replace them. Time is of the essence, especially since many insurers won’t cover flooding from sewer backups due to corroded pipes. Owners should discuss insurance claims with their insurance providers and also research the possibility of joining existing class action lawsuits against cast iron pipe manufacturers.
Buyers of older home in coastal communities should consider having a licensed home inspector or plumbing contractor inspect the pipes, first to determine if they’re cast iron and second to determine what shape they’re in. The inspector or plumber should be able to assign a rough life expectancy for the pipes. Buyers, however, must keep in mind that the pipes will be increasingly exposed to salt water as sea levels rise. If the pipes are in moderate to poor shape, the decision to proceed with a transaction will depend on the buyers’ ability to absorb the cost of repair or replacement should the pipes begin to fail.
A company called Total Care Restoration has an excellent fact sheet that’s in line with other resources I’ve read about the threat sea level rise poses to cast iron pipes. This link is not provided as an endorsement of their services, it’s only for informational purposes. https://totalcarerestoration.com/cast-iron-pipes/
Coastal cities and towns are taking different approaches to sea level rise flooding. Some communities are ignoring the problem and hoping it will just go away, which is irresponsible considering that the burning of fossil fuels continues to warm the Earth, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, the ocean continues to expand, and sea levels continue to rise at an accelerating pace. Some communities are acknowledging the problem but are waiting for it to hit a critical point before they respond — which might be too late. And still others are taking the responsible approach and planning and implementing projects to fend off the floodwaters, but even this approach, as you’ll see in the video, is not risk free.
To protect their property and jobs, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to know how their community of interest is tackling the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding. And, as this video about a well-intentioned but failed sea wall project in my South Florida community attests, if local government officials are up to the job.
My city clearly illustrates the available options and consequences of which approach a coastal community takes to dealing with sea level rise flooding. Within a half-mile stretch along the Intracoastal Waterway near our downtown core, we have: 1. A section of sea wall currently being raised to protect a roadway, critical infrastructure and million dollar townhouses; 2. A section without a raised sea wall that chronically floods for the four or five month king tide period between September and January with devastating consequences for several property owners; and 3. A section of sea wall that was raised a few years ago that has structural faults that are allowing floodwaters to inundate a park.
As you can see, the city’s approach to managing sea level rise-driven flooding runs the gamut of what’s possible in all coastal communities: Try to protect the property, let it flood, or make an attempt to stop the flooding that, unfortunately, fails. All have lessons for buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents.
If the improved section of sea wall manages to hold back the floodwaters, then the the city may have found a viable solution — at least on a short-term basis. Sea level rise isn’t ending any time soon. (It’s also important to note here that South Florida is built on porous limestone which can allow sea water to flow under sea walls rendering them ineffective.) The section that’s being allowed to flood shows what can happen if a city doesn’t take on the sea level rise challenge, but the waters, as waters do, continue to rise. And the section with the failed sea wall shows the very real and expensive consequences of a well-intended approach that failed.
The failed section of seawall is falling short for two easily visible reasons: 1. Engineers left a yard-wide gap in the seawall so the cruise boats could easily be serviced — which, even with protective measures installed after the fact, allows floodwaters to course through into the park; and 2. Floodwater bubbles up in joints on the park side of the sea wall, indicating some kind of structural failure. Bottom Line: A failed sea wall is as good as no sea wall at all. Property behind it will still be inundated.
With seas continuing to rise, and mere inches of it posing a threat to property, structures, roads and critical infrastructure, it’s clear that buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents can’t afford to ignore the problem. They need to know: 1. How their community of interest intends to take on the sea level rise challenge; 2. How the plan, if any, will impact their property; 3. Whether or not the plan makes sense; and 4. If local officials are up to implementing the plan and taking corrective measures if it fails.
Without this level of knowledge, buyers, sellers and owners could be floored when floodwaters show up on their street or at their doors and they’re hit with higher maintenance costs, higher insurance premiums, higher taxes and, if applicable, association fees. They could also have to park a block from their home, take off their shoes and socks, and wade through the floodwaters to reach their doors.
King tide season returned to coastal communities this week, and with it came the king tide/sea level rise flooding that periodically inundates roads, real estate and whole neighborhoods. This video, produced for SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com, features a discussion of the many ways the king tide months — roughly from September-January — provide the perfect stress-test to give real estate buyers, sellers, owners and agents a sense of how well their communities are battling against sea level rise flooding. It also gives them a read on the level of risk sea level rise flooding poses to their property of interest.
As ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt and the ocean heats and expands due to global warming, sea levels are gradually rising. Add the many inches of sea level rise accumulated over the last hundred years or so to the ancient king tides — higher than normal tides due to the unique alignment of the sun and moon in the fall — and you have a recipe for disaster.
Coastal communities all over the world face a greater threat of flooding during this period In the U.S. this can lead to an enormous amount of property damage as well as damage to roads, water pipes, sewer pipes and other critical infrastructure. The end result is that property owners in affected areas can face higher carrying costs, including expensive repairs, insurance premiums, and taxes as communities implement plans to stave off the flood waters.
During the king tide period, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to take the time to see what’s actually happening in their communities, find out how much worse it could get, study what their local government intends to do to mitigate the flooding, and reach a dry-eyed understanding of how this will impact their carrying costs and property value. This information will help them to make informed decisions regarding real estate transaction.
When we think of properties at risk of sea level rise flooding, we usually picture properties near beaches. Due to Florida’s unique coastal geology, some areas of the state bust that myth. They’re home to real estate that experiences sea level rise-related flooding miles inland.
How is this possible? Many communities on the Florida peninsula are built on porous limestone instead of granite bedrock. As the seas rise, the salt water is able to migrate inland through the limestone. When it meets fresh groundwater trying to flow to the sea, water pressure pushes the fresh groundwater up. As a result, when it rains, the land is too saturated to absorb the runoff, so it pools (floods) on the lowest land.
Miami-Dade County’s sea level rise task force noted in a 2016 report that this dynamic will make it more difficult for the existing network of drainage canals to protect inland properties from flooding.
Government officials in some locations are struggling with the problem. In some cases they’re able to improve the drainage system. In others, they’re not.
A solution they’re increasingly turning to is using federal funds to buyout properties that flood repeatedly. After the properties are purchased, they’ll turn the land into parks and fields that can store excess runoff. This approach, they say, is less expensive than repeatedly repairing properties that flood.
Miami-Dade County and Brevard County together are in the process of purchasing about two dozen inland properties that experience chronic flooding. Overall, Florida state officials have earmarked more than $44 million for buyouts across the state. As sea level continues to rise, this is likely just the beginning of the buyouts.
Not all homeowners are pleased with the buyout program. WLRN, a local public radio station that serves South Florida, canvassed at-risk inland neighborhoods and found homeowners had several concerns. In an article posted on the station’s website, the owners said they didn’t want their property values to decline because buyers were worried about the threat of flooding. They also said they worried that empty lots left after the houses were razed would give the wrong impression that every nearby property was at risk of flooding and further erode the value of their homes.
The hidden threat of sea level rise-driven flooding miles inland from the coast is a powerful reminder to real estate buyers to perform due diligence before submitting an offer on a property. They need to determine whether a property or neighborhood currently floods or if it will flood any time soon. The answer will impact the carrying costs, value and live-ability of the property that caught their eye.
“Sea level rise flooding of U.S. coastlines is happening now, and it is becoming more frequent each year.” That warning is the opening sentence of a new U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report titled “2019 State of U.S. High Tide Flooding with a 2020 Outlook”.
Agency scientists report that in 2019 fifteen communities, including Miami, Charleston, and Savannah, set records for the number of days that they experienced so-called “sunny day” flooding that isn’t related to rain storms or storm surge. From May through April, East Point, a city near Houston, TX, reported 64 days of high-tide flooding.
According to the report, the situation is going to get much, much worse as sea levels continue to rise in the coming decades. In some cases, it will reach the point that the high tides now bringing “nuisance” flooding will one day be considered the normal high tide.
It’s important to note that NOAA only measures high-tide flooding at 89 sites, so there may be many more communities experiencing regular sea level rise flooding on an increasing basis that aren’t included in the agency’s findings. The experts list New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington among the communities that could see 100 days a year of high-tide flooding by 2050.
Of special interest to real estate owners, the report mentions that the bouts of sea level rise-driven flooding are already “damaging to infrastructure and cause other economic impacts (transportation delays, businesses closed, tourism impacts, etc.) in coastal communities”. As we’ve seen, coastal cities and towns are already scrambling to find hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for projects — such as sea walls, pumps and the raising of roads and water and sewer pipes — to deal with sea level rise flooding. With federal funds hard to come by, the burden of paying for the much-needed projects will likely fall on taxpayers. Owners and buyers need to stay informed about this pressing problem to protect their financial futures.
When buyers are considering purchasing coastal properties in areas that are forecast to experience sea level rise flooding in years or decades to come, one of the questions they have to ask themselves is: “How long do I expect to enjoy the property?”
This question came to light bluntly when I had lunch today with friends who live on an island in San Francisco Bay. My friends, a husband and wife in their mid-60s, said they weren’t too concerned about sea level rise — though they know it’s coming — because it’s not predicted to actually flood their property for another 50 years. As the wife put it, “We’re pretty sure we’ll be dead by then.”
Actuarial tables say she’s probably right. As long as the current sea level rise forecasts hold, they probably will get to enjoy their property for the remainder of their lives.
Sea level rise vs. life expectancy is an important issue for buyers and owners in coastal areas to consider when they’re pondering their real estate options. Sea level rise forecasts are putting a potential expiration date on many communities along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines. Knowing when rising seas will begin to inundate cities and towns is critically important for buyers and sellers. Other factors that have to be considered are how will sea level rise impact carrying costs, such as home maintenance, taxes, flood insurance and condo and homeowners’ association fees.
Combining sea level rise forecasts, your life expectancy, and your ability to afford the carrying costs as you age, is a good way for buyers and owners to tell if it makes sense to get involved or stay involved in real estate in a coastal community. When you’re talking about such fun areas to live in, this level of analysis can sound like a real downer, but not taking this dry-eyed look at the sea level rise situation could lead to an even greater downer: financial disaster.