Living on the Edge: Coastal Realtors Adapt to Devastating Floods

Living by the ocean has always held a special allure. But in today's world, buying and selling coastal real estate requires more than just conveying the magic of living by the sea. It also involves...

A seawall, which stretches along portions of Kennebunk Beach, was destroyed along with the sand dunes behind it during January

Living by the ocean has always held a special allure. But in today's world, buying and selling coastal real estate requires more than just conveying the magic of living by the sea. It also involves understanding flood zone maps, projections for sea level rise, and insurance availability. These tools provide critical information for prospective coastal homeowners, helping them make informed decisions in an era of changing climates and strengthening storms.

Recently, more than 100 real estate professionals gathered in Freeport for a presentation titled "Living on the Edge." This event aimed to equip realtors with the knowledge and strategies needed to navigate the challenges of coastal living in the face of increasing natural disasters.

The Changing Landscape

Periodic storms and flooding have always been part of life on the Maine coast. However, for many in the real estate business, the impacts of climate change seemed abstract and distant. That changed with the historic flooding in December and the record-breaking storms that followed in January. These events shattered the notion that a waterfront home is safe from harm simply because it has stood for a long time.

According to the Maine Climate Council, sea levels could rise by an average of 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.9 feet by 2100, depending on global emissions. This trend exacerbates the impact of storm surge and tides, as demonstrated by the January storms. To address these challenges, Maine has identified five options: property owners on higher ground may not need to take action, avoiding new development in high-risk areas is another consideration, maintaining vegetative buffers and elevating structures are potential solutions, and nature-based approaches like sand dune restoration can provide additional protection.

Residents monitor seaside homes at Higgins Beach in Scarborough during the Jan. 13 storm, as waves threaten. Real estate agents are coming to terms with how to market coastal properties as stronger storms become more common. Photo courtesy the Maine Geological Survey.

As a last resort, buildings can be relocated or removed, as demonstrated by the historic Silver Sands hotel at Higgins Beach in Scarborough after a major storm in 1978. Hard decisions regarding zoning changes and infrastructure resilience are also on the horizon for property owners in Portland.

Assessing Risk

Assessing a property's vulnerability to storm damage is crucial for home buyers. Federal flood hazard maps can provide valuable insights, and updated FEMA maps for York and Cumberland counties will be available this summer. These maps determine whether a home with a federally backed or insured mortgage requires mandatory flood insurance, as regular homeowners insurance does not cover flooding.

However, it's important to note that even properties outside mapped flood zones can still be at risk. James Nadeau, a Portland Realtor and land surveyor, highlighted that 40% of flood claims in the past five years came from homes outside designated Special Hazard Flood Areas. Maine's property disclosure paperwork may not fully address flooding risks, so additional due diligence is advisable. Websites like Climate Check offer resources to estimate storm, flood, and weather-related risks based on future projections.

Railroad Avenue at the intersection of Ocean Avenue in York, Maine, flooded Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, amid high tides and a storm.

Beyond the Coast

While coastal storms have recently dominated the headlines, the risks extend beyond the immediate coastline. As December's heavy rains demonstrated, rising rivers and streams can wreak havoc anywhere in Maine. Homeowners can take steps to lower their risk, such as keeping gutters clear, installing water and freeze alarms, and considering whole-house generators. However, it's important to note that flood insurance rates may rise, and underwriting guidelines in the private flood insurance market may become stricter.

Evaluating Property Values

The impact of climate change on property values is becoming an increasingly important consideration. A study of sales in Saco's Camp Ellis neighborhood, a flood-prone area, revealed a nearly 17% difference in median sale prices between homes inside and outside the FEMA mapped flood zone. However, this analysis has limitations and doesn't account for factors such as age, condition, or size of the homes.

A Risk-Reward Calculation

The recent storms have prompted a necessary conversation about the impacts of climate change on real estate. Realtors, like Julia Bassett Schwerin, have taken the initiative to educate professionals about the future of flooding and the effects on waterfront properties. As the founder of the Sustainability Advisory Group, Schwerin believes it's important not to shy away from the challenges we face. Instead, we must confront them head-on and find ways to adapt.

Cars are flooded in a parking lot at the Hathaway Creative Center alongside the Kennebec River, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, in Waterville, Maine. A severe storm on Monday flooded rivers and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands.

As the market adjusts to the new reality of climate change, homeowners and realtors alike need to consider the risk-reward calculation of coastal living. People cherish the waterfront in Maine, and they will find ways to adapt and mitigate the challenges ahead.

Living on the edge is no longer just a metaphor for coastal living. It's a call to action for realtors, homeowners, and the entire community to come together to navigate the changing landscape and ensure a sustainable future for Maine's coastal real estate market.