Should Rising Sea Levels Influence Real Estate Decisions?

High Water Marks of the Connecticut RiverShould the threat of rising sea levels factor into the real estate decisions of home buyer or home owners?

We hear frequent debate about whether the globe is warming, and if so, whether or not our civilizations and lifestyles are the cause. We also hear about large chunks of ice that break off into the ocean. But we do not hear much about specific consequences of rising sea levels in the news. Satellite images show that the amount of land ice has been decreasing in recent years. Reports from low lying areas tell the stories of societies already dealing with higher water. At some point the issue may become “real” for the rest of the world.

Rising sea levels, attributed to melting land ice, present a different type of challenge than we’re used to facing. Rather than being an acute event that ends as quickly as it began, rising sea levels stick around to create a new equilibrium. Coastal cities around the world will need to adapt if the predicted changes actually occur over the next 100 years.

New York City is already thinking about how they will protect their extensive coastline. The Wall Street Journal’s recent article about their efforts raised a number of interesting points. Most heartening is that City leaders are monitoring the latest studies to proactively plan defenses and countermeasures. Though there is no definitive prediction about what will happen, City leaders are currently expecting a climate similar to Raleigh, NC by 2080 and higher water around the City than in other parts of the globe. Despite the research, their ability to act is limited because they “can’t make multibillion dollar decisions based on the hypothetical.”

Assuming we believe there is a threat, the logical place to look for a plan is the Federal government since rising sea levels will directly impact much of the country’s population. Current government policy is to help regions that are impacted by natural disasters. Leaders declare a state of emergency and bring in help from other areas. What happens if our country’s entire 12,383 mile coastline is threatened? Which portions do we protect? When do we begin the projects? How are these decisions made? Given our tendency to punt on hard questions, we’ll probably see little proactive planning followed by various levels of government addressing problem areas as they arise.

There is little a homeowner can individually do about rising sea levels. Their best option is to be thoughtful about the risk for their properties. Beachfront homes clearly are at a higher level of risk than those at elevation. The recent work by FEMA to redraw flood maps has made more home buyers aware of floodplains, but very few in this area consider rising sea levels in their purchase decisions. Which may be appropriate since the City of Hartford sits at an elevation of 59 feet (18 meters).

The threat of higher seas is decades, and perhaps even centuries away. There is plenty of time to plan our personal and national strategies. Some thoughts…

1. The Federal government needs to take a position early stating what they are willing to do. Because of the persistence of nature, and the massive length of our coastline, the fair and practical response is probably to do nothing.

2. Coastal property will transition from selling at a premium to selling at a discount. This should happen whether defenses are built or not, and is just a matter of degree. Markets adapt as new information is available, and once there is more certainty about when rising sea levels will be a problem, buyers will begin to consider property elevation in their purchase offers.

3. It is common for buildings to last decades, or even centuries. Ideally, real estate development will shift to areas that will be less threatened by rising sea levels. Realistically, it probably won’t since there will still be demand in coastal areas until the point when the problem becomes “real.”

Nature has changed the face of planet earth on many occasions. It is a powerful and persistent force that will prevail despite our best efforts. One way to imagine the potential impact of higher seas is by playing with a simulator. Greater Hartford, as an inland metropolitan region, should not feel the impact directly. Perhaps we’ll even benefit as people and investments move away from the coast. But like everything else about rising sea levels there are no definitive answers.