Real estate

Rising seas, rising prices... rising risks

By Dinah Voyles Pulver,

Published Aug 10, 2018
As Scott Yurchison shows potential buyers waterfront properties on the Atlantic Ocean or Indian River in New Smyrna Beach, the real estate agent fields questions about amenities, schools and nearby services. He rarely gets a question about rising sea levels.

He and agents in some of the state's most scenic communities — Coral Gables, Navarre Beach, Cedar Key and Longboat Key — said most clients aren't asking how high the nearby waters might rise before their 30-year mortgage is paid off.

“People are asking. Is everybody asking? No,” said Yurchison. “In our society today, people don’t look long-term.”

He expects that to change one day, as tides continue to rise and property values begin to drop. But so far, only about a quarter of his clients even ask if a home is in a flood zone. Of those, he estimates only about 10 percent ask about rising sea levels, despite the dozens of homes that flooded in the community during Hurricane Irma, in an area where longtime residents had never seen it flood before.

Waterfront property listings can’t keep up with the demand in Miami Beach, even though the city is spending hundreds of millions to stem the incoming tide by raising streets, installing pumps and building better sea walls. Miami Realtors Association data shows prices continue to soar as homebuyers seek out waterfront views.

Scott Yurchison, realtor. New Smyrna Beach, Friday, July 20, 2018. (News-Journal / Lola Gomez)

Similarly, county property appraisers across the state from the Panhandle to Daytona Beach said they haven't seen any downward trend in waterfront prices or values. The greater concern on barrier islands is traffic congestion and the conversion of former homesteaded properties into vacation rentals, said Charles Hackney, property appraiser in Manatee County on Florida's Gulf Coast.

His counterpart in Volusia County, Larry Bartlett, said if anybody takes note of the flooding during recent hurricanes, "they're discounting it because they think it can't happen again."

“Realistically, I don’t think people are going to be taking this seriously until water is up around their ankles,” Bartlett said.

But signs of the trouble that could be in store are emerging.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study released in May reported the number of days with flooding from higher-than-normal high tides is expected to be about 60 percent greater across the country this year than in 2000. “The underlying trend is quite clear,” wrote the authors. “Due to sea level rise, the national average frequency of high tide flooding is double what it was 30 years ago.”

Since 2000, the southeastern Atlantic coast has seen a 160 percent increase in high tide flooding, the number of days when coastal water levels reach or exceed a half meter over the long-term average highest tides, the study reported. The Gulf Coast has seen a 50 percent increase.

And while property appraisers and real estate agents say they haven't seen impacts yet, a study recently released by the nonprofit research group First Street Foundation showed that low-lying waterfront properties in Florida may not be rising in value as much as waterfront properties at higher elevations.

Risk vs. view

On the Gulf of Mexico just south of the Big Bend, parts of Cedar Key will flood at any big gust from a storm. An unusually heavy summer thunderstorm can turn some streets into waterways, and a full-on tropical event can send the gulf surging into businesses and homes, many of which already have been elevated to accommodate occasional high water. A NOAA tide gauge there has shown a long-term rise in sea level since 1913 of about 1.80 millimeters a year.

The rise has accelerated since 2006, with a 5 percent increase over the previous long-term average. Last year the community broke its own record, the NOAA study noted, experiencing six days of high tide flooding.

“We are a barrier island. We have water all around us so we are very, very vulnerable, which makes the properties vulnerable," said Fonda Fait of Cedar Key Realty. While the impacts from the rising gulf are expected to grow worse in the years ahead, Fait said it doesn’t seem to sway anyone from buying property.

She has seen some prospective homebuyers look for property on higher ground. Those homes on the waterfront come with the highest price tag, she said, but other areas will get premium dollar if they're out of the flood zone.

"It probably doesn’t have the greatest view, but they know they are safe,” she said. “I guess what it boils down to is whether people are willing to take the risk for the lifestyle and the beautiful view.”

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 105 homes in Cedar Key and Yankeetown, another small town on Levy County’s coast, could be chronically inundated within 17 years. Further south along the gulf coast, that same study found as many as 1,100 homes in Sarasota and Manatee counties could face chronic flooding by 2035.

On Longboat Key, straddling the Sarasota/Manatee border, town officials already are coping with sea water encroaching through storm drains on sunny days, and experts predict the town may experience chronic flooding at least 26 times a year by 2060.

Roger Pettingell of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate on Longboat Key. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner)

Residential real estate broker Roger Pettingell, who made more than $100 million in sales specializing in waterfront properties there last year, said homebuyers do ask about hurricane protection and insurance, but not about rising seas.

With recent federal income tax cuts and “baby boomers inheriting money and retiring,” Pettingell, with Coldwell Banker, expects the demand for Florida homes with water views to increase.

The Miami Association of Realtors has seen a rise in median sales price year over year every month since June 2011, said Lynda Fernandez, senior vice president of public relations. That includes a 19 percent increase in price per square foot in the second quarter. Fernandez said sea level rise hasn't had an impact “anecdotally or statistically" on prices or demand. In some cases, she said, the demand for luxury properties exceeds the supply.

Even in Coral Gables, real estate agent Ron Shuffield, president of EWM Realty International, said he "very seldom" gets asked about sea level rise.

"We have a lot more discussion in the media than we have in the sales field," he said. "I think people in our area feel confident that our governmental authorities are taking action to mediate (the threat) for the future.

"People that live on the waterfront, they value that location more than they’re concerned with what they may have to deal with every decade to build something back," he added. "Water is mesmerizing to people. They love it and they want to have that view and that access."

'Losing our most valuable properties'

On the sparkling white sandy beaches of the Panhandle's barrier islands, waterfront homes still sell for significantly more than those further inland. That tells Mack Busbee, the county property appraiser for Okaloosa County, that the market isn’t bending to fears of rising seas.

“The perception doesn’t seem to be there in the market, and all we do is reflect what’s happening in the market,” Busbee said. “We act as historians and look at what has happened. And sea level rise or flooding hasn’t had an effect on sales or sale prices.”

A dune was built to help protect Navarre Beach properties owners from beach erosion and rising Gulf of Mexico water. (Daily News / Nick Tomecek)

Like many Florida counties, waterfront properties make up a sizable part of the tax values in Manatee County. Just the properties on Anna Maria Island and the Manatee portion of Longboat Key account for about 15 percent of the more than $36 billion tax base. The city of Anna Maria saw a 10.3 percent increase in the taxable values prepared by Hackney's office this year. And in the Manatee County portion of Longboat Key, taxable values increased more than 5.5 percent this year.

Appraisers set the values by the market, and values are still going up, said Bartlett, the appraiser for Volusia County, home of Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach.

However, Bartlett has grown more concerned about rising water levels since taking office nearly two year ago.

“Florida is a great place to live, and people want to come here and participate in this climate,” he said.  “But eventually — it probably won’t be in my lifetime — the water level is going to get to the point where people say they have a water level issue down there.”

At a speech to a regional association for responsible development last year, Bartlett invited his listeners to imagine what will happen in the community when people realize, “Wow, we’ve got to get out of here because the water is just staying.”

The response? “Crickets.”

“Right now, no one wants to think about it,” he said. “Times are booming and values are up and let’s not come up with negative vibes about sea level rise because it’s a total downer.

“But I’m not the one thinking this up out of thin air. I’m reading scientific journals and I pay attention to what the Army Corps (of Engineers) is saying," he said. "What we’re facing is losing our most valuable properties. Of course it will be replaced by other property that becomes waterfront.

“You have to wonder about the value of properties that are being threatened by these rising waterways,” he said. “I have to believe that’s going to have an effect on property values.”

Steven Mcalpine with the New York-based First Street Foundation and Thomas Ruppert with Florida Sea Grant talk about the sunny day flooding occurring in Florida as a result of rising seas. The men stand in a street flooded during a king tide in Miami Beach in November 2017. Mcalpine and a colleague recently released a study concluding home values in areas like this one, where street flooding occurs, aren't rising as fast as properties in areas where the impacts of sea level rise aren't being felt. (News-Journal / Dinah Voyles Pulver)

The First Street Foundation's recent study concluded high tide flooding already is having an impact, said Steven McAlpine, chief of data science for the New York-based foundation that runs the Flood IQ project.

At least some buyers are considering sea level rise when buying homes, McAlpine said. A study published in July used computer models to evaluate more than 5.5 million property transactions in five coastal states between 2005 and 2017.

“All things being the same, homes that are near flooded areas are selling for a little lower rate than the homes that aren’t near flooding,” said McAlpine, who was in Miami Beach during the king tides in November. Certain homebuyers aren’t considering homes in areas where the streets are flooding more often, he said, resulting in homes in flooded areas appreciating at a lower rate than waterfront homes outside the flooding areas.

“It’s easy to understand how that could happen because the signs are so evident," he said.

Of the loss in value the study calculated — $7.4 billion overall in the five states — two-thirds was lost because of proximity to roads that flood, he said. Most of that was in Florida, where Flood IQ estimated the loss in potential property values has already exceeded more than $5 billion.

“When people are in the home-buying market and driving around,” if they see debris or water flowing up through storm drains, it’s affecting the market, he said. "When it prevents people from getting to and from their homes, the evidence is on the street.”

The foundation hopes that by quantifying the dollar amount of loss of real estate value, it will prompt better conversations about resilience and adaptation, he said. “So we can talk about the preservation of home values, which also leads to tax revenue that’s being preserved.”


GateHouse Media reporters Dale White, Tom McLaughlin and Cindy Swirko contributed to this report.