What Does a Foot or More of Predicted Sea Level Rise Mean in Real Real Estate Terms?

The foot or more of sea level rise government scientists recently predicted coastal cities and towns will see by 2050 doesn’t sound like much, especially if you live in a community that isn’t being impacted by the first foot of sea level rise that’s accumulated in the last hundred years. To people who own real estate located in areas that are now experiencing sea level rise flooding and those in the red zone targeted by the next foot, it’s a huge deal. I live in South Florida, and I’m witnessing firsthand what sea level rise flooding can do to a coastal community.

The Union of Concerned scientists predicted that an additional foot of sea level rise will put 140,000 homes at risk of flooding every other week. This means coastal cities and towns are going to have to step up their efforts to fend off floodwaters by, among other things, building higher seawalls, installing pump systems, elevating roads and other critical infrastructure, expanding flood-water absorbing wetlands, and replenishing eroded beaches.

Private real estate owners, too, are going to have to be more diligent in taking steps to protect their properties. More and more of them are going to have to install, reinforce or heighten seawalls and elevate docks, structures and entire homes. In condo communities, owners face the specter of higher association fees and special assessments to cover the cost of protecting common areas and buildings from flooding.

In cases where sea level rise floodwaters cannot be held back, private property owners are going to face a host of problems. As owners of real estate located in neighborhoods that flood now can attest, typically the first sign of sea level rise is seawater collecting on roadways or rising up out of storm drains that would normally drain into the ocean, a harbor or other waterway. Sounds like a minor problem, until you have to park blocks away from your home and wade through the water to reach your front door. Driving through seawater is out of the question. The salt is extremely corrosive to vehicles.

The next step in the typical sea level rise flooding progression is floodwater collecting on a property, where it can rend septic systems inoperable, pollute freshwater wells, and damage landscaping and exterior structures. In cases where the seawater enters a home, the costs can be devastating. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program website has a flood damage calculator that estimates an inch of water alone can cause nearly $27,000 damage to a 2,500 home. A foot of floodwater can cost over $72,000 to repair.

In extreme cases, local governments are determining that it’s no longer cost-effective to maintain and rebuild roads and critical infrastructure to serve properties that are repeatedly inundated. Officials are insisting on buyouts, where they pay an owner fair market value to abandon their homes. It’s important to note that buyouts are expensive and only possible where federal and state funding is available. It’s uncertain how long the government will be able to afford buyouts. If the funding dries up, real estate owners could be left with properties that regularly flood, aren’t insurable, and are impossible to sell.

The immediate coastline isn’t the only place at risk from sea level rise. In areas like South Florida that are built on porous limestone or Honolulu that are built on porous volcanic rock, higher seas can push seawater inland underground. The dense seawater, in turn, can force the fresh water table upward toward the surface where it saturates soils. This can create three problems: 1) Unable to absorb rainwater, the saturated soils can cause surface flooding; 2) Septic systems that rely on dry soil to filter impurities can become inoperable when saturated soils can’t handle any more water; and 3) Fresh water well systems can become polluted by saltwater making them unusable.

Beyond the physical problems floodwater presents to coastal communities, private property owners also have to keep an eye on trends in the property tax, insurance and mortgage sectors. Coastal communities are fighting for federal and state funding to pay for sea level rise control projects. When the money runs short, local taxpayers will have to cover the bill for flood prevention projects.

The National Flood Insurance Program is already in the process of making sure that owners of properties most at-risk of flooding pay higher premiums. And, after the tragic condo building collapse last summer in Surfside, Florida, mortgage backers Fannie May and Freddie Mac are now forcing condo associations to answer detailed questions about building maintenance and the level of reserve funds available to cover routine maintenance and repairs. In instances where buildings are deemed to be poorly maintained, short on cash, or unsafe, lenders will be barred from issuing mortgages. This new policy is already wreaking havoc in the South Florida condo market, where closings are being delayed due to the stringent requirements. The threat is compounded by the fact that even cash buyers can be forced to show that they will be able to get a mortgage if they don’t have enough resources to cover the cost of a condo.

With all of these factors in play, it’s clear that the prospect of another foot of sea level rise is something that real estate owners and buyers can no longer afford to shrug off and ignore. Every additional inch of water that accumulates between now and 2050 is going to compound the challenges faced by coastal communities. Due diligence — staying up to date on the latest developments and responding appropriately — is the only way to protect real estate investments.

Miami-Dade County Begins to Address Thousands of Septic Tanks Failing Due to Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise has many negative consequences on coastal communities. One of them is causing septic systems to fail.

How dow this happen? As sea level rises, saltwater migrates inland underground through porous rock, such as limestone. As it moves, the denser saltwater forces the freshwater water table to rise toward the surface. If the water rises high enough, it can saturate soils near the surface.

Septic systems take wastewater from a home and sends it to a concrete box buried underground. From there, the effluent is distributed underground through soils that remove impurities. If the soil is already saturated, however, it can’t absorb the wastewater and remove the impurities. As a result, the untreated wastewater can emerge and pollute the land and streams, rivers, estuaries, bays and other bodies of water.

Miami-Dade County in South Florida has thousands of septic systems that are failing due to rising seas. The problem is so bad experts say some of the the septic systems are sending untreated wastewater into Biscayne Bay, where it’s killing fish and other marine animals.

To fix the problem, county officials broke ground on a project to disconnect thousands of homes from their currently failing or at-risk septic systems and hook them into the municipal wastewater treatment system. The county has $230 million to invest in converting 13,000 of the counties 120,000 septic systems over the next five years. Their immediate goal is to address the 9,000 tanks that they believe are polluting Biscayne Bay.

Miami-Dade has funding to bring sewer lines up to property lines, then it’s up to property owners to cover the cost of new pipes to hook into the municipal wastewater system and to remove the failing septic tank. Estimates are real estate owners will have to spend $10,000 out-of-pocket to do this. The county has state funds available to help low-income residents with the expense.

Oddly enough, the county is still issuing permits for the installation of new septic tanks. County officials told the Miami Herald that it continues to issue permits because some Miami-Dade residents can’t afford to tie into the municipal wastewater system and because developers are building homes in places where municipal sewer lines haven’t been installed.

Aaron Stauber, an environmentalist and board member of Miami Waterkeeper, applauds the county for starting to address the septic system issue. He told the Miami Herald, however, that the county should only allow development in areas that already have sewer service or force the developers to install new sewer lines.

Coastal real estate owners who have properties served by septic systems clearly need to keep abreast of any changes to regulations that govern their septic tanks. Buyers in those areas need to know whether a property of interest is served by municipal wastewater systems or septic tanks. They also need to know if the septic tank is in good working order and if the local government has any intention of forcing homeowners to tie into the municipal system.

The State of Septic Systems Has to be Considered when Purchasing Coastal Real Estate Under Pressure from Sea Level Rise

When purchasing real estate in coastal areas, buyers need to ask whether a property of interest is has a septic system and how well its operating. This question is especially important now that sea level rise is causing thousands of septic systems to operate less efficiently and even fail — sometimes well inland from the ocean.

Most septic systems take household waste water and pipes it into a holding tank buried in the yard. There, the solids sink to the bottom and the liquids flow into a leaching field where microbes in the soil treat and filter out the remaining impurities. Ideally, after that, the treated, purer water eventually flows into groundwater, nearby rivers and streams or the ocean without a problem.

Sea level rise disrupts the process by forcing the water table to rise. This saturates the soils that are needed to treat and filter out the impurities. As a result, the septic system outflow can pollute yards and contaminate groundwater and water on the surface.

When this happens, property owners usually have two choices: 1) Invest in improvements — such as raising the septic system if that’s feasible and adding more dirt to the system — or 2) Abandoning the septic system and tying into a city wastewater treatment system.

To protect themselves from unexpected expenses, real estate buyers in coastal areas need to know if a property is served by a septic system or already tied into the municipal sewer system. If the answer is septic, they need to have a home inspector determine if the system is operating well and how long it will be effective as seas continue to rise.

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