Planning for Change (like sea level rise)


After my last post, I was asked about sea level rise and how to get started with the issue in a very “red” area as it was characterized.  I have come to the conclusion that the insurance industry will make sea level rise real for politicians in those places where it is impermissible for bureaucrats to discuss it.  Here’s why.  Say you have a house in a low lying area that is vulnerable to sea level rise and/or storm surge.  One is permanent, the other temporal, but in both cases are potentially catastrophic if you live in this house.  You bought the house, got a loan for 80 or 90% of its value and then got insurance for it.  Now the insurance is there to insure that if your house gets swept away or damaged, there will be enough money to pay off your loan.  That’ s what many people miss.  Insurance is for the bank, no you, which is why your loan documents require that you get and hold insurance while you have the house.  After your loan is paid off, there is no such requirement.

Now let’s say we are out 20 years.   You have enjoyed your house but have decided to sell it.  Now the banks will value it and are willing to loan say 80% of its value.  They of course assume that the house will increase in value with time so even if you make no improvements, if they have to foreclose on it they will get their money back (a major part of the problem with the financial crisis of 2008 was they banks could not get their money out of the properties).   Even if it doesn’t, as your loan is paid down, their risk decreases.   The loan documents require that you get insurance to cover your costs.

So far so good, but what happens when the insurers will not give you insurance for the full value of the property?  In Florida the State creates Citizen’s to deal with the fact that private, commercial insurers saw too much risk in coastal areas and refused to issue policies.  Now the State and Citizen’s have the risk.  Fine, but that isn’t dealing with the same issue – if the insurer think the value of the property will decrease, or the risk increases a lot, they will not issue policies. Or they will revise policies to say they will pay once – but will not insure you for rebuilding.  You may think this will not happen, but Citizen’s is already discussing this option.  Hence if you lose your house, they will pay you (so you can pay the bank, and then you are on your own.  Now the bank may be willing to offer you a distressed property as an options (Welcome to Detroit), but that won’t be in the same risk zone.

Take this further, let’s say Citizen’s for example says we will pay full value if you lose the house but will not insure a rebuild?  That means they probably will not give insurance to the guy who wants to buy our house in 20 years.  How much is your house worth now?  Probably nothing, which means now the bank will be looking at your insurance coverage and say – whoa – if the house is not worth anything on a resale, that means they may not get paid when you sell your house if you sell if before it is paid off (the norm)!!  That is an unacceptable risk, and they need a solution.  Of course if your house suddenly has no value, it means local governments get no revenue for taxes (good for you, but bad for providing essential services like storm water.  You may not believe this discussion is happening, but it is.

So here’s what I think happens.  I think the banks figure this out and start looking at vulnerability as a part of loans.  I think they start thinking about what the value in 20 or 30 years might be and if they can get their loan monies back out of property.  That will slow property values.  I think the insurance industry does the same, and working with banks will further set the prices acceptable for vulnerable property.  They are not good investments. If you own such property, you may get insurance in the short-term, but long-term your house value may decrease.  At some point, your house will have no resale value, unless……

BUT there iis a big caveat to all this.  Coastal areas are high value markets.  Lots of activity and lots of investment opportunities.  It all depends on what is being done to protect those properties, and depending on the federal governments to bail out private property is unrealistic.  It is a local issues, so I also think the banks and insurance industry will start looking at what local governments are doing to protect investments in private property.  Do they have a sea level rise adaptation plan?  Are the storm water systems updated/upgrades/maintained?  Are roads, water supplies and sewer systems capable of functioning under the changed condition?   Is there a 50 or 100 year vision on how the community adapt to nature?  If yes, there is comfort that investments are protected.  If everyone’s head is buried in denial…..Detroit’s calling.  U-haul anyone?

PS  No disrespect to Detroit, my father’s hometown and the home to many of my current and departed family.  For those who do not know, Detroit is high, has access to lots of water, sewer, roads, power and lots of land at reasonable cost, along with a jobs and manufacturing history.  Perfect opportunity, one not lost on our ancestors.

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