11 Questions You Didn’t Think to Ask When It Comes to Homebuying and Climate Change
There are a lot of questions to ask before making an offer on a home: How old is the roof? Could I live here for the next five years? What school district is it in? How close is it to work, restaurants, and family members?
But at a time when grim climate change predictions are increasingly coming true all around — and when even more dire scenarios await around mid-century, before a 30-year mortgage taken out this year is even paid off in full — homebuyers need to be asking other questions, too.
On top of inquiring about the age of the furnace and the distance to the nearest Trader Joe’s, buyers should also be asking things like, “‘What is the wildfire history of this county?’ and ‘What is the flooding history of this house?’” says David Pogue, author of “How to Prepare for Climate Change.” “You might need to dig into town records, but you need to know, because both of those things are happening more often, not less,” he says. “These are suddenly questions that, the last time people bought a house, probably weren’t worth asking. But now they really are.”
1. Has the home flooded in the past?
Some states require sellers to disclose if a property has flooded in the past — however, that’s usually only “if known,” and someone who’s owned the home for just a few years (not to mention a house flipper or investor, for that matter) may not know its full history. A good home inspector can typically alert you to tell-tale signs of water damage, however. You can also ask your home insurance agent to check past insurance claims on the property.
2. Is it likely to flood in the future?
Perhaps more important for your tenure is whether the home is expected to flood in the future. An interactive website like Climate Central’s Surging Seas map can show you what portions of your neighborhood are projected to experience flooding from sea level rise in the future.
It’s not just coastal communities that have to worry about more frequent flooding. “One of the most stunning statistics from this entire book is that eight of the 10 most flooded states in America are not coastal, they’re inland states,” Pogue says.
Such flooding isn’t the result of rising sea levels so much as alternating droughts and heavy rains — the kind of pattern expected to grow more commonplace as climate change worsens. “The drought dries out the ground and makes it hard, and then these insane rainstorms come and the water has nowhere to go. So it runs into your living room,” Pogue says.
Real estate sites like Redfin and Realtor.com now incorporate flood risk data on their listings, which is helpful for homebuyers. “On Redfin, we have Climate Check and Flood Factor data on the site, so homebuyers can look up those kinds of climate risks right as they’re looking for homes,” says Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather. “The flood one is interesting because it does vary a lot, even from block to block within a city… it’s definitely something people should be considering.”
3. What will flood insurance cost?
Real quick, here’s what you need to know about flood insurance:
1. Most standard homeowners insurance policies don’t cover flood damage.
2. So, if a property is at risk of flooding — based on maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — lenders will require you to take out a flood insurance policy as a condition of your mortgage.
3. The government’s National Flood Insurance Program is the only place to get that insurance, and the program has been losing money for years, because the rates have been kept artificially low even as flood risk increases due to heavier rainfall, more intense storms, and rising seas.
4. On April 1, 2022, the NFIP introduced Risk Rating 2.0, a new pricing model that aims to assign flood risk (and premiums) more accurately, down to the individual house level. Most homes in the 100-year floodplain will see little change in their monthly flood insurance premiums, according to NFIP projections, but some homes — the ones with the greatest flood risk — will see big, long-overdue premium increases. And here’s the thing: Those rate increases are capped at 18 percent a year. So the current flood insurance premium on a risky house may be much, much lower right now than it will be in five years.
The NFIP will also be releasing new, more sophisticated maps in the next couple of years, which could put more homes into “mandatory flood insurance” territory. So if you’re eyeing a property on the edge of a floodplain, understand that, in five or 10 years, it may no longer be just on the edge, and the cost of flood insurance could be much higher than it was this year.
4. How vulnerable is the neighborhood?
Even if a particular home sits on high ground, in no danger of flooding, if the rest of the neighborhood is going to be routinely submerged in 20 years, or if the only access road in or out is frequently underwater, the whole area may become less desirable in the future, undermining the resale value of your home.
5. Has this area experienced wildfires?
“Past performance is no guarantee of future returns,” as every 401(k) disclosure states. But it’s worth checking an area’s wildfire history on the National Interagency Fire Center’s open data site to see whether a county has experienced wildfires — and when and how often, if so.
6. How vulnerable is the home to future fires?
Wildfires are unpredictable, but not altogether unexpected: Researchers know that the homes most at risk of wildfire are those built in the “wildland-urban interface,” areas of increasing rural sprawl where housing and vegetation coexist. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has studied and mapped these areas in detail, so you can check whether a home is in such a high-risk area.
7. Does the community have a reliable source of freshwater?
While wildfires present a sudden and terrifying threat, Western states also face a less-discussed challenge of drought, Pogue says. There is (and will continue to be) less snowmelt in the West: underground aquifers are drying up and Lake Mead is only a third full, near its lowest level in a century. “Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, California — they’re increasingly going to have to worry about where they’re going to get their water,” Pogue says.
That’s one reason Pogue thinks people who do plan to make a major move in the near future — and he readily acknowledges that many people can’t, for financial, familial, or other reasons — ought to consider affordable, already-built cities near the Great Lakes. Places like Madison, Wisconsin, and Buffalo, New York, have little risk of wildfire or sea level rise, he notes, and a near endless supply of freshwater.
8. Does the home have an emergency generator or battery backup?
After a series of winter storms paralyzed much of the Texas power grid in February of 2021, buyers started prioritizing whole-home generators like never before, says Houston Realtor Bill Baldwin. “Generators still have a nine-month lead time a year later, because they’re a huge selling feature for people,” Baldwin says.
And it’s not just snowstorms and hurricanes that create dangerous blackout conditions. Heat waves are actually the deadliest weather event, by far, and a 110-degree day in Phoenix (which happened a shocking 53 times last year) can easily turn deadly without air conditioning.
9. How hot and wet will it get?
The University of Maryland has an interactive map that allows you to see what the climate in your area will be like in 60 years, under both a high- and reduced-emissions scenario. At our current pace of emissions, for example, New York City’s climate will most resemble the warmer and wetter one of Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 2080. Austin, Texas, will be about 8 degrees warmer and 61 percent drier, similar to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Sure, that’s a long way off… but it’s not like that 8-degree jump is going to happen one night in 2079 — indeed, it’s already underway.
10. Is the home electric-ready?
One of the best hopes for cutting carbon emissions going forward is the full-scale electrification of home systems and transportation. Granted, that depends on where your community sources its electricity: In upstate New York, for example, over 40 percent of electricity comes from renewable sources like hydropower and wind, while in the SRMW region that serves parts of Illinois and Missouri, more than 60 percent of electricity still comes from CO2-belching coal plants. You can check the power makeup of your community’s electric grid on the EPA’s Power Profiler site.
But in most areas, the electric grid is only getting greener as more people install solar panels and more renewable energy comes online. And to heat and cool a home and charge an electric vehicle, you’ll want updated electric service — at least 100 amp service and a circuit breaker.
11. Are the solar panels owned or leased?
When everything in your home runs on electricity, it’s pretty helpful if you can get some or all of those kilowatt hours for free from the sun. But if a home you like has solar panels on the roof, ask when they were installed, and whether they’re owned or leased.
It’s fairly simple to take over a solar lease agreement, but such an arrangement typically only gets you slightly discounted energy. If the panels are owned outright, however, you get all the electricity they produce, for free, until they go kaput. (Solar panels typically last 20 to 25 years.)
If the home doesn’t yet have solar panels, but you’d like to have some installed, ask when the roof was last replaced (a good question to ask regardless). If the roof is less than five years old, you can probably expect it to last as long as a new solar array. And if it’s pushing 30, then you may want to replace it and add solar panels all at once.
This piece is part of Green Week, where we’re talking about ways to make eco-friendly choices and contributions at home. Head over here to read more!