What Will Make Home Buyers Consider Climate Risk? What Happens Once They Do?
Realtor Gabriella Beale stopped for lunch at a cafe in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, this summer, on her way to show her buyers a home in nearby Larchmont, a neighborhood of tree-lined streets and early 20th-century houses. Then a late August downpour dumped more than two inches of rain on the city, forcing Beale to cancel the showing—because she could no longer get to the house. She watched helplessly from the cafe as flash flooding filled the road outside.
“I couldn’t even get to my car because part of the road essentially became a river,” Beale said. This wasn’t a hurricane, or even a tropical storm—just a rainy Monday in this low-lying city of 238,000. Situated between the Elizabeth River and Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk is experiencing the fastest relative sea-level rise on the East Coast—more than two inches just since 2012—so there isn’t much room for extra water. Parts of the city flood even without rainfall during king tides, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that the city’s dozen or so annual “sunny-day flooding” incidents could double as soon as 2030.
The encroaching water hasn’t gone unnoticed, Beale said: more buyers ask about flooding than in years past, even in neighborhoods outside the 100-year floodplain. She dutifully counsels all her clients on flood risk, discussing insurance costs, personal safety, and the potential drop in future resale value. Some buyers want nothing to do with a floodplain house, but others don’t mind the risk—or can’t afford to be picky. Beale acknowledges that she can’t make decisions for them. “People have different ideas of what level of flood risk they’re comfortable with, and it's not really up to me to say, ‘This is a bad house.’”
By the time the stormwater finally subsided on that rainy Monday, Beale’s car was toast; she wasn’t sure it could be repaired. “I can tell that story, and some buyers still want to live in that neighborhood,” she said. Indeed, her buyers rescheduled their showing for the very next day.
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BEALE’S CLIENTS are hardly alone in their pursuit of risky real estate. Even as climate change delivers more intense and more frequent storms, wildfires, and heat waves, home buyers across the United States continue to move into areas at greater risk of climate impacts like flooding, wildfire, drought, and extreme heat—in fact, they’re doing so at a faster pace.
That the climate is changing, and not for the better, is hard to miss. The US experienced a record 23 separate billion-dollar weather disasters in just the first nine months of 2023; the previous annual record of 22 was not even three years old, set in 2020. The number of buildings destroyed by wildfire in California each year has spiked 335 percent since 2009, according to First Street Foundation, a research nonprofit seeking to make climate risk data more accessible. Nationwide, we’re now losing an average of more than 17,000 structures a year to wildfire, a number that is forecast to top 33,700 by 2053—meaning we can soon expect to lose the equivalent of Daytona Beach, Florida, or Asheville, North Carolina, to fire every single year.
Yet home buyers still don’t seem to factor in climate risk when they make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. We keep building and buying homes in the fire-prone “wildland-urban interface” where town meets wilderness, and moving closer to the water, not away from it.
The most flood-prone counties in the US had 384,000 more people move in than out in 2021 and 2022, according to a Redfin analysis, roughly double the net increase of the prior two years. That includes Lee County, Florida, which gained 60,000 net new residents in two years even as Hurricane Ian destroyed nearly 10,000 homes in 2022.
Counties facing the greatest wildfire risk, meanwhile, netted 426,000 new residents in that time. And those most threatened by heat collectively gained 629,000 net residents—including Maricopa County, Arizona, where 76,000 newcomers sweltered in temperatures that topped 110º Fahrenheit for 31 straight days last summer and left hundreds dead.
And yet, the housing market in Maricopa County has been almost as hot as the sidewalks that gave residents third-degree burns in July: median home prices rose a staggering 64 percent in four years, from $290,000 in June 2019 to $475,000 in 2023, as more residents moved in. Prices in Florida’s Lee County rose 70 percent in that time, compared to 40 percent nationwide. Accounting for likely long-term flood damage—to say nothing of drought or wildfire risk—a study published in Nature Climate Change estimated that the residential real estate market in the US is collectively overvalued by as much as $237 billion.
The disconnect is largely driven by short-term affordability concerns, said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin. “People are leaving places like San Francisco because their rent is too high, and then they’re moving to places like Tampa or Las Vegas because they can actually afford to buy a home there,” Fairweather said. “But what they’re not thinking about is how their housing expenses might change in the future, how the value of their home might change in the future, and also how the livability of those places might change in the future.”
Where the planet is sending us flashing red “stop” signals, home buyers and developers seem to see green lights. Why? And what will it take to get them to heed the stop signs?
Tell Me About It
One reason a driver might recklessly blow past a stop sign, putting themselves and others in danger, is if the sign itself isn’t visible—if it’s concealed by overgrown foliage, for example.
Sometimes warnings of flood or fire risk aren’t immediately obvious to home buyers, either.
“One thing that we’ve learned is that information is just so critical,” said Patrick Welch, policy analyst at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “Even though there is so much information out there about climate risks, it’s not necessarily that accessible—people don’t know about it.”
In 23 states, for example, home sellers aren’t typically required to disclose a home’s flood history to potential buyers, including in vulnerable coastal states like Florida, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Only two states, California and Oregon, require some disclosure of wildfire risk. And often such notices are confusing or reach buyers too late for them to act on the information—after the home inspection, for example, or buried in a stack of forms signed at the closing.
Getting clear, accurate risk assessments into home buyers’ hands can help them make more climate-informed decisions about where they choose to live, Welch said.
“Disclosure of risks is very uneven across states,” agreed Margaret Walls, senior fellow at the nonprofit Resources for the Future. In fact, disclosure rules can even vary within a state, which is how Walls and her colleagues were able to isolate the impact of disclosing fire risk on home values in California in a new working paper.
California requires home sellers located in a moderate, high, or very-high Fire Hazard Severity Zone to disclose that fire risk to buyers—but only if the home falls within a state responsibility zone, meaning the state manages wildfire prevention and response. In areas where the local jurisdiction is responsible, sellers aren’t required to disclose moderate or high fire risk.
That allowed Walls to compare homes that share the same level of fire risk—as well as school districts, walkability, and other location-based amenities—but have different disclosure requirements. By comparing years of sales data for neighboring homes on either side of the disclosure divide, the researchers were able to show that homes with a disclosed fire risk sold for an average of 4.3 percent less than similar nearby properties with undisclosed risk.
In other words, buyers who were made aware of the risks seemed to adjust their behaviors in a rational way—exactly what you’d hope to see in a well-functioning market. “We can’t expect markets to work and prices to reflect something unless we have all the information,” Walls said.
The effect of risk disclosure on sale prices seems to be strengthening as fire seasons intensify. The eight largest wildfires in California history have all occurred since 2017, burning more than 4 million acres, and 2020 was the state’s worst fire year on record. “We found a stronger effect in the more recent years,” Walls adds. “It’s getting more salient to people after these bad fire years.”
Past research has found that strict flood disclosure rules yield a similar price penalty of about 4 percent. In the absence of flood disclosures, though, home buyers can still get some idea of a home’s flood risk from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA’s flood maps aren’t perfect—they’re based on historical flooding, for one thing, not future climate models—but they’re freely available. Anyone can access them online, though Beale says most home buyers don’t think to do so until she recommends it. And even then, it’s hard to get a price quote for flood insurance without applying for coverage. In fact, because lenders require borrowers to purchase flood insurance on homes located within a FEMA high-risk floodplain, loan officers are often the ones breaking the bad news about flood risk and insurance premiums—typically very late in the process.
“Usually at that point, the buyers can’t get out of the contract,” Beale said. The average annual flood insurance premium nationwide was $888 in 2022, “so that’s not a huge impact if you’re spreading it out over 12 months,” she notes. But rates can vary dramatically by property, even cresting five figures. “If it comes back at $10,000, and you can still technically afford the house according to the lender … you can’t walk away.”
Major real estate sites Redfin and Realtor.com have started incorporating First Street’s climate risk data on their property listings—right alongside other typical home buyer concerns, such as school districts and taxes. And getting that information to a home buyer early in the process makes a real difference, according to a new working paper Fairweather coauthored.
Redfin started publishing flood risk data sitewide in February 2021. But before that, in late 2020, the brokerage leveraged a soft launch of the new feature to conduct a three-month experiment among 17.5 million users. Half of them saw detailed flood risk data and “Flood Factor” scores on the homes they searched, while the other half did not. That randomized flood risk information “had a significant and meaningful impact on users’ search behavior,” and influenced every stage of the home buying process, from initial search to making offers to the final purchase. Over time, buyers who encountered high Flood Factor scores on their initial home searches gradually adjusted their searches toward—and were later more likely to bid on—less flood-prone homes than were users who didn’t see flood risk information.
“Increasing information to home buyers, especially at the moment they’re buying a home, would help them make a different decision when it comes to taking on climate risk,” said Fairweather.
A Reckoning in the Insurance Market
One way markets traditionally communicate risk is through insurance rates; higher premiums quite clearly reflect a greater likelihood of losses. But right now, the home and flood insurance markets are struggling to adapt to a range of issues, with the costs of climate change-fueled disasters, reconstruction, and fraudulent claims all on the rise.
For decades, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has underpriced coverage, indirectly subsidizing homeowners in flood-prone areas by making it less expensive to live there than it should be. This is evident through simple math: The NFIP is $20 billion in debt, as premiums have failed to keep up with the actual cost of damages incurred.
FEMA took a step toward correcting that imbalance by implementing Risk Rating 2.0 in late 2021, a new methodology that better aligns premiums with an individual property’s flood risk. However, Congress capped NFIP rate increases at 18 percent a year to ease the impact on existing policyholders. A report by the Government Accountability Office found that median flood insurance premiums would still need to almost double, from $689 to $1,288, for the program to be actuarially sound, and that roughly one in 10 properties insured by the NFIP will eventually require at least a 300 percent rate hike. In Naples, Florida, for example, the average annual flood insurance premium among 1,568 policyholders was $2,228 in 2022; FEMA calculated the risk-based cost of those policies should average almost four times as much: $8,067 per year.
Meanwhile, private insurers (whose homeowner policies generally don’t cover flood damage) are increasingly finding it difficult or impossible to provide coverage at fair but profitable rates as windstorms and wildfires grow more destructive, and as reconstruction gets more expensive.
State Farm announced in May that it would no longer write new homeowner policies in California, where it is the largest insurer, citing “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure” and historically high construction costs. Soon after, Allstate announced that it would do the same, making permanent a pause on new policies instituted in 2022. More than a dozen insurance companies have pulled out of Florida and Louisiana in the past two years, leaving homeowners scrambling for coverage.
Insurance companies could theoretically just raise their rates enough to offset increased costs. But insurance is something of a necessity—lenders won’t approve a mortgage without it, and four in five home buyers rely on a home loan to finance their purchases. So, to protect consumers, big insurance premium hikes often must be approved by state regulators. And in California, insurers can only use past losses, not future risk estimates, to justify rate increases. That makes it hard for insurers to price their coverage accurately or profitably as risk intensifies.
As Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford, told KQED, the price of home insurance in California no longer matches the risk. “Our insurance system kind of pretends that climate change doesn’t exist, and that’s not workable anymore,” he said.
The price signals that private insurers ordinarily provide through premium adjustments are crucial to a functioning real estate market, “because that is ultimately how decisions get made,” University of Pennsylvania economist Benjamin Keys told Penn Today. “When there are incentives for the choices that homebuilders make, that homeowners make, that’s going to reshape where we live and where we build. When we don’t get that price signal, that distorts our perceptions of risk.”
A report by First Street Foundation asserts that millions of US homes face more climate risk than their insurance rates would indicate, creating a “climate insurance bubble” in the market. “You don’t want someone to live in a place that always burns,” First Street Head of Climate Implications Jeremy Porter told Grist. “We’re subsidizing people to live in harm’s way.” In that respect, it makes some sense for home insurers like State Farm and Allstate to stop writing new policies in the most high-risk areas—doing so could help dissuade developers from building in places most likely to burn.
But millions of people already live in high-risk areas. And when those homeowners can’t get insurance on the private market, they must turn to state-run plans that offer less coverage at higher prices. These public options are meant to offer policies of last resort, but their role is growing; in Florida, the public Citizens Property Insurance Corporation is now the state’s largest insurer, according to the First Street report, with 1.3 million policyholders. The number of homeowners on California’s state-run FAIR Plan more than doubled between 2018 and 2022, to nearly 273,000.
“I worry that a larger state role in insurance markets will bring political pressure to keep premiums low without reflecting the growing climate risks,” Keys said. “It’s challenging for a state-backed plan to raise rates aggressively on homeowners in that state. There’s real political tension.” State-run plans also transfer financial risk to taxpayers: Florida’s Citizens Property Insurance Corporation expects to turn a profit in 2023, but lost more than $2 billion in 2022. That’s one reason Florida is phasing in a new law over the next four years requiring all Citizens policyholders to obtain flood insurance as well.
In September, California insurance commissioner Ricardo Lara announced emergency steps aimed at stabilizing the state’s wobbly home insurance market by the end of 2024. Under these new rules, insurers will be permitted to consider climate change and future catastrophe risk when setting premiums. However, they’ll also be required to cover a percentage of high-risk homes, to start transitioning homeowners off the FAIR Plan and back into the private market. That could well be enough to draw insurance companies back, Keys says: “When an insurer leaves a state, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to write insurance policies. It means that they don’t want to write insurance policies under the current regulatory environment and with the current limits on premiums. They want to make a profit.”
As insurance rates rise to account for increased climate risk, one way to ease the impact on homeowners (without artificially suppressing premiums) is for insurers to offer discounts when property owners invest in preventative risk-reduction measures—such as raising a home’s mechanical systems above the base flood elevation, or clearing fire-fueling vegetation from around a house. A new California initiative called “Safer From Wildfires,” introduced in late 2022, requires insurers to recognize and reward fire resiliency measures by offering discounts to homeowners who create five-foot ember-resistant zones around their homes, for example, or who invest in upgraded roofs, windows, or vents.
“By incentivizing policyholders to implement wildfire-resistant measures, insurance companies can create a win-win situation,” the First Street report notes. That could create a positive cycle, reducing the frequency and severity of wildfire losses—and the resulting financial burden on both insurers and communities—while potentially preserving home values.
Change the Lending Landscape
As the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that back most mortgages in the US, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wield tremendous influence over the real estate market—and could also help home buyers heed climate risk.
The GSEs already require borrowers purchasing a high-flood-risk home to secure flood insurance as a condition of their mortgage. But they could, in theory, take more aggressive steps to dissuade risky home purchases, such as requiring a bigger down payment on high-risk properties, charging higher interest rates on such loans, or factoring climate risk into valuations. Fannie Mae has started enlisting climate analytics companies like First Street to figure out how and whether it can fairly incorporate climate risk into its underwriting and lending guidelines.
It’s a delicate exercise, however. Adjusting valuation or lending criteria to make it more difficult or more expensive to get a mortgage in flood-prone areas would very likely devalue the affected homes. And it’s not just expensive beach houses. Due to historical discrimination and redlining practices, low-income households and people of color are disproportionately represented in the most flood-prone areas. These are some of the very communities Fannie and Freddie have been trying to better support through their “Duty to Serve” mandate.
“It’s really a double-edged sword,” said Ellie White, senior associate on the buildings team at RMI. Like the Lincoln Institute, RMI is a member of the Underserved Mortgage Markets Coalition (UMMC), which seeks to hold Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac accountable for bringing housing finance opportunities to families not traditionally served by the private market.
“A main roadblock of incorporating climate risk information into the valuation of a property revolves around this challenge of ensuring that we’re not devaluing properties in already high-risk, low-income, historically disadvantaged communities,” White said. “So I think the GSEs are very cautious, and rightfully so, about what it would mean if we had wide-scale incorporation of those physical risks into the valuation of property.”
The stakes are uniquely high in the US, where homeownership has long been a primary engine of wealth creation. “If not done correctly, this could really completely wipe out families’ generational wealth, and it would disproportionately impact low-income communities,” Welch said. “It’s a really complicated, tricky issue.” Local governments that rely heavily on property taxes could also see major shifts in their tax base if climate risk were fully reflected in home values. While municipalities can typically offset potential revenue loss by adjusting tax rates when property values decline, large shifts in the distribution of tax burdens can create political challenges.
But the GSEs could do other things, like using risk research and data to guide policy, and helping homeowners in high-risk areas pay for resiliency upgrades like elevating structures. “The GSEs can take more action on the community engagement front, to support educational programs and raise awareness of these risks and resilience solutions among home buyers,” White said.
In a letter to Federal Housing Finance Authority Director Sandra Thompson in August, the UMMC made a wide range of policy recommendations. Among them: requiring the disclosure of both climate risk and energy performance on existing homes backed with GSE mortgages, and requiring new homes backed by GSE loans to meet more energy-efficient building codes. The latter would reduce long-term ownership costs for home buyers, while also reducing financial risk to the GSEs.
Zoning for the Future
Figuring out how to protect, insure, or move residents of existing neighborhoods that face increased climate risk is a thorny problem without many satisfactory solutions. But at the very least, experts say, we should stop creating more at-risk residents, and focus new development in climate-resilient places.
“New construction has been increasingly going in places with high climate risks, particularly when it comes to wildfire risk and drought risk,” Fairweather said. “And it’s exurban sprawl that is to blame. Because of single-family zoning, people build more and more into places that aren’t naturally equipped for climate change—they’re building into the forests in inland California, they’re building into the deserts, which don’t have access to water.”
Communities should instead be trying to shift development away from high-climate-risk areas, and encouraging more density and affordable housing in safer areas, says Michael Rodriguez, research director at Smart Growth America. “Climate-informed zoning can easily overlay with a lot of other priorities that a city has,” he said, such as transit-oriented development.
Right now, land markets clearly aren’t sending the right signals about climate risk, Welch said, but planners and elected officials could help correct that at a local level. “Updating zoning codes and land use regulations to reflect climate risks, whether it’s wildfire or flooding, are relatively simple ways that local governments can start to move the needle on this,” he said.
Back in Norfolk, Virginia, city leaders have taken the lead on climate-informed zoning. Over the past decade, Norfolk has adopted a pair of new land use plans: the short-term PlaNorfolk2030, and the long-term Vision 2100, along with accompanying zoning overlays.
The long-range plan divides the city into four color-coded sections. Red zones, which include the naval base and the downtown district where Beale watched stormwater surge through the streets, are densely developed and economically important, but very vulnerable to flooding; the plan calls for investments in flood protection and mitigation in these areas. Yellow zones indicate flood-prone residential and historic areas, where a resilience overlay will discourage new development but support existing residents’ adaptation efforts. Low-risk green zones are where the city wants to invest in denser, transit-rich neighborhoods. And purple zones, which also have a lower flood risk, are slated for infrastructure investments and lower-density development aimed at preserving housing affordability.
Such a climate policy can influence land use and real estate decisions in a couple of ways, Rodriguez said. “It might work through literal policy incentives and disincentives, in a tangible sense, like money or regulations,” he said. “But then there’s also the signaling aspect. The city government has now put out a map, and that map in itself can send a signal that can have market impacts.”
Some people worried that, by officially declaring some places risky and others preferable for development, Norfolk’s plan could spook home buyers and investors and sink home values in the high-risk areas. But Rodriguez and his colleagues compared years of sales and permit data before and after the Vision 2100 plan was released, and, as they describe in a new working paper commissioned by the Lincoln Institute, there was no statistical impact on home prices.
That could be the result of the unusually strong pandemic real estate market during the years studied, the authors wrote, or a general lack of climate concern among area home buyers at the time. But it may offer some assurance to hesitant communities: Enacting climate-informed zoning to guide future development doesn’t necessarily have to wreak havoc on existing home values, at least in the short term.
“It’s a long-term solution—it’s not going to change the development patterns or reduce the risk today or tomorrow,” Welch said. “But it’s going to slowly incentivize and push development into less risky areas. And I think one of the takeaways from that study was that you can do this and not immediately crash the local housing market or cause a panic.”
Norfolk’s experience also showed that an inclusive process can ease perceptions of malicious remapping. “You’re drawing lines on the map, and you’re saying, ‘Build here, don’t build there,’” Rodriguez said. “That feels weird, and it feels a little bit like redlining in a historical context of planning. And that feels doubly weird when we know that a lot of the places facing the most climate risk tend to be poor, and tend to have more people of color. . . . There has to be a lot of community input and communication as to what it means to have climate-informed zoning to try and mitigate some of those concerns.”
In that sense, while Norfolk’s policy lacks “teeth” and the city has yet to implement follow-up measures such as density bonuses or the transfer of development rights (which would allow landowners in vulnerable zones to sell their development rights to builders in a low-risk zone), the city has already taken a huge step. “They were one of one of the few communities out there that did anything like this,” Rodriguez said.
States and municipalities have other levers they can pull, too—some more drastic than others.
In water-stressed Arizona, for example—where the Colorado River is overdrawn, and depleted underground aquifers are projected to eventually run dry at current usage levels—state officials recently announced a moratorium on new residential construction that relies on groundwater in the Phoenix metro area.
Even without placing an outright ban on new construction in high-risk areas, communities can, through zoning and other regulations, effectively stymie risky new development by refusing to fund or permit new streets, water service, and other key infrastructure in high-risk settings. The federal government uses a similar approach to protect sensitive coastal ecosystems through the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. The CBRA doesn’t explicitly outlaw development in those areas, but dissuades it by withholding federal support for things like infrastructure, flood insurance, and disaster relief. That disincentive has proven remarkably effective, research commissioned by the Lincoln Institute has shown, reducing development by 85 percent.
It’s worth noting that Norfolk didn’t outright ban new construction in high-flood-risk areas, either. But it did set stricter building codes in those zones, which can help the city’s built environment adapt to climate risk by accomplishing two things at once. “To the extent that you do build there, at least you’re going to build something that’s more resilient,” Rodriguez said. Meanwhile, higher design standards can add cost and complexity to construction in vulnerable areas, creating a disincentive to build there, and encouraging developers to locate projects on safer sites instead.
Local governments can also charge higher taxes or impact fees to discourage building or buying in high-risk areas—for example, raising water and sewage rates in water-stressed areas, or funding wildfire prevention efforts with a higher tax on fire-prone properties. “Higher fees in risky areas serve two purposes,” write Brookings Institute researchers Julia Gill and Jenny Schuetz. “They encourage price-sensitive households to choose safer locations, and they also provide local governments with more revenue to upgrade the climate resilience of infrastructure.”
All of these policies could help point home buyers toward making better, more rational decisions. But where we choose to live sometimes defies reason.
Beale, the Norfolk realtor who counsels all her buyers about flood risk, understands why some of them still choose a high-risk home. For some, it’s straightforward economics. “If a buyer can only afford $150,000, and they want a detached house, Norfolk’s going to be it—and it’s maybe in a flood risk area,” Beale said.
But for others, it’s a deep-seated desire that isn’t so easily erased by rising insurance rates or flood disclosure forms. “These are beautiful neighborhoods” of century-old Colonials and tree-lined sidewalks, she said. “It’s not all about money. It’s this perceived dream of homeownership—this ideal of, ‘What do you want your life to be?’”
Unfortunately, the one thing that does seem to break through and change home buyer behavior is witnessing a weather disaster. Beale says many buyers still shy away from particular streets because they remember driving past flood-ravaged houses there after a bad storm.
After all, no one’s ideal dream of homeownership involves fleeing a fire or wading through floodwater. Fairweather expects attitudes to shift as risk increasingly becomes reality for more people. “I think experience will be a teacher,” she said, “as there are more hurricanes and more fire events. I think more homeowners will start to worry about it when they see it in real life.”
Jon Gorey is a staff writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Lead image: Tidal flooding in Norfolk, Virginia. Credit: Aileen Devlin/Virginia Sea Grant via Flickr.