Dear Dot: Where Should I Buy a House?

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I’m a realtor curious about how climate change is going to impact where people will want to live. What are some climate change concerns people should be considering before committing to a next home/next location?

Karen

Dear Karen,

When Mr. Dot and I were betrothed, we purchased a cottage on one of the Great Lakes. It was perched high above a thin strip of sand that sloped gently to the lake and faced west, allowing us to enjoy one of the top ten (reportedly by National Geographic) most beautiful sunsets in the world. But what Mr. Dot and I learned fairly quickly was that, some summers, our beach was vast, offering plenty of space for cottage crowds and beach volleyball. Other summers, our beach shrunk, sometimes vanishing entirely, waves lapping at the foot of the wooden staircase that wound down the cliff from our cottage. It was those years that Mr. Dot and I wondered if our investment was likely to vanish, too.

Put another way: Climate change is coming for all of us and we’d be wise to consider how best to plan for those impacts.

So Dot took your question to Jim Miller, a Bluedot editor and economist, who's studied both climate change and housing economics.

Jim urges your clients (indeed, all of us) to consider two things:

  • How a new home could be impacted by climate change
  • How a new home can impact climate change. 

For example, Jim explains, if you’re considering a new house in a hot climate but it isn’t built with efficient cooling in mind, not only will the house be increasingly uncomfortable as temperatures rise, but it will be increasingly costly and polluting to cool. You’re simultaneously affected negatively by climate change, and, in a small way, contributing to climate change.

And, increasingly, homebuyers need to factor vulnerability to natural disasters into their choice of locations. One harbinger to note? How easy is it to get flood or fire or hurricane insurance? Companies may only offer policies if you have met certain conditions, like fire-resistant or wind-resistant construction. If that’s the case, your house should have those things. But sometimes, you can’t get insured for those things at all, which speaks volumes in words that sound like: Danger. Don’t go there.

I’m not sure where you’re writing from, Karen, but Jim suggests it hardly matters. “There is no place to run and hide from climate change,” he says. “So live where you like, on the coast, in the mountains, on the plains, city or rural.” But wherever your clients may roam, Jim recommends what to avoid: Specifically, low-lying areas and areas with high wildfire risk. “Both risks can be tricky to judge,” he says. “I don’t imagine many Vermonters impacted by August’s horrible floods thought they were in danger. Same with wildfires in places that haven’t burned historically.” But our new normal makes particularly low-lying coastal areas, as well as heavily wooded rural areas in drier climes a no-go for Jim Miller (who, incidentally, makes his home in San Diego, where he helps edit both the San Diego and Santa Barbara Bluedots).

Indeed, Jim points to the 2017 fire and 2018 mud flow in the chic Santa Barbara enclave of Montecito as a cautionary tale. “Montecito is an absolutely beautiful place, and home to some of the world’s richest and most-famous people,” he explains. “But in late 2017, a fire ripped through the hills and mountains above Montecito. Most properties were spared from fire, but when heavy rains came in January 2018, there was no longer vegetation to absorb and slow the water. Massive mudslides ripped through the area, killing 23 people, destroying 100 homes, and damaging 300 more. And later in 2018, wildfires ripped through the mansions of Malibu. So if you think you can buy your way out of climate change-related danger, guess again.”

But while Jim urges us to think about climate change concerns when we’re considering where to live, assuming the housing market isn’t crazy, he says, “the risk of climate change should essentially be baked into the price.” A caveat, however: The market isn’t as attuned to climate change, so there may be hidden threats or opportunities. Jim and his wife Nicki, with whom he co-edits the two Bluedots, thought specifically about the threats of severe weather and sea-level rise before bidding on each of the two homes the couple have bought, both in coastal areas.

And, while important, location isn’t necessarily the primary consideration, he suggests.

“It’s less about where you buy than what you buy,” he explains. “The house should be smartly designed to be energy efficient for the climate you live in, and sited and built to be resistant to foreseeable disasters.” Ideally, it’s an all-electric home with solar panels — or fairly easily renovated to become so.  In the short-term, yes, this will probably mean more expense, Jim says. “But in the long run, it will probably save you money, and maybe save your life.”

Apocalyptically,

Dot

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