Wildfires Threaten $1.5 Trillion Worth of Homes in the United States

Housing Market News

Wildfires Threaten $1.5 Trillion Worth of Homes in the United States

Housing Markets in California’s Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Clara Counties are at the Greatest Risk of Wildfire Destruction but Local Homebuyers are Not Deterred

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  • 7.7 percent of U.S. housing value–over $1.5 trillion worth of homes–is at risk of wildfire damage in 2018 and beyond.
  • The counties that are most at risk are among the country’s most expensive housing markets and are already plagued by ongoing inventory shortages.

  • Data shows that wildfires have become more damaging. For example, in 2017 about 9.8 million acres of land in the U.S. burned from wildfires. In 2016 it was 5.4 million acres of land. 2017 ranked higher in number of acres burned compared to the 10-year average.

  • Redfin agents report that homebuyers in California’s recent wildfire zones are mostly undeterred and plan to stay in the area.

  • Recent mudslides in California are the latest wildfire-related disaster to plague high-risk counties.


Wildfires have roared across the western United States for years, but a recent uptick in the frequency and intensity of the fires* has put some of the most desirable homes at risk. While only representing four percent of U.S. properties, the homes at moderate-to-severe risk of wildfires tend to also be in some of the country’s most coveted and expensive counties. The homes at risk account for 7.7 percent or $1.5 trillion, a disproportionately large portion of U.S. housing value. But local real estate agents say the wildfire risk is not deterring homebuyers from continuing to put down roots in these communities.

“People who are still in shock from losing their homes and possessions from the October fires are greeting one another at open houses while comparing notes on the hotels or rentals where they are temporary living,” said Redfin Santa Rosa agent Starling Scholz. “People view wildfire risk as a price of living in California that’s well worth the rewards: beautiful weather, nature and well-paying jobs.”

Below are the top 10 counties for risk of wildfire destruction, ranked according to the estimated total value of homes at risk. To be considered, there had to have been at least five major fires recorded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the county since 1960. Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Clara counties top the list, which is dominated by California counties. The only non-California counties to make the list were Harris and Dallas counties in Texas and Clark county in Nevada. California is so predominant in the ranking not only because of the state’s high frequency of wildfires, but also because of its desirable, expensive housing markets. If demand for homes in these places doesn’t subside, we’re likely to see inventory shortages and affordability crises in these places will likely continue as wildfires inevitably destroy more homes each year.

Top 10 U.S. Counties for Fire Risk

Rank County Major Fires in County since 1960 (FEMA) Estimated Median Home Value in County (Census data) Estimated Total Value of Homes in County (Census data, in billions) # of Homes at Risk in County (Census data) Change in Homes for Sale (December 2016-December 2017)
1 Los Angeles County, CA 42 $465,000 $918.1 1,499,576 -25.6%
2 Orange County, CA 14 $584,200 $391.5 581,506 -25.0%
3 Santa Clara County, CA 6 $752,400 $327.9 354,255 -56.7%
4 San Diego County, CA 25 $454,600 $316.5 581,635 -19.2%
5 Harris County, TX 6 $145,600 $185.6 837,912 -5.6%
6 Riverside County, CA 27 $276,300 $140.8 454,924 -21.1%
7 San Bernardino County, CA 28 $256,000 $106.1 365,576 -21.6%
8 Dallas County, TX 7 $138,600 $103.7 452,284 -8.0%
9 Ventura County, CA 18 $481,400 $93.4 170,877 -22.4%
10 Clark County, NV 5 $186,700 $88.6 384,329 -26.1%

 

“Restrictive zoning and underbuilding make wildfires  even more damaging for homeowners and renters in affected areas. Despite strong demand and severe inventory shortages, California has built the fewest number of homes per new resident of any state, with just one unit for every four new residents, compared to one new unit for every 1.8 new residents nationally,” said Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson. “When people whose homes just burned down are jumping back into bidding wars to buy new homes in the same area, you know wildfires alone won’t cool these competitive markets. However, California’s chronic lack of homes and eroding affordability make recovering from a natural disaster much more challenging than in states like Texas with more adequate housing supply.“

Redfin Santa Barbara agent John Venti has noticed that while wildfires certainly pose a risk to homes, California’s overall affordability is a bigger concern for homebuyers.

“I was touring with clients last month, and in the 15 minutes it took to see the home, our cars were completely covered in ash from nearby wildfires,” said Venti. “The homebuyers were not fazed. If anything, people are more often deterred from buying homes in this area by high gas prices and high taxes than wildfires.”

For the people who are still interested in buying homes in wildfire zones, Venti has some advice.

“It’s important to get a fire insurance quote before falling in love with a home,” he said. “We’ve had people and properties receive exorbitantly high quotes for fire insurance. Others were flat-out denied coverage because the home was too risky or the buyer had a large outstanding claim from a previous fire. California FAIR Plan property insurance may be able to provide insurance for homes that have been denied coverage.”

Curious about wildfires in your state? Click here to see a data visualization of wildfire likelihood and the value of the housing markets at risk.

Methodology

Using data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the prevalence of fires in each county since 1960, we estimated the relative risk of fires by county across the United States. Data on the annual number of acres burned from wildfires are available from the National Interagency Fire Center. County-level estimates on the number of households, total and median value of all owner-occupied homes are from the American Community Survey for 2016 (5-year estimates). The rankings were based on the total value of homes in a county that were also at risk of wildfires affording to FEMA data. Places that had higher total home value ranked higher.

*Climate research from the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that wildfires are increasing and wildfire season is getting longer in the Western U.S. because of increasing temperatures. The theory is that with global temperatures rising, mountain snow melts earlier in the season and forests stay drier for longer. Dry forests are more susceptible to burning, and high winds help the fires travel across the state. If temperatures in the western U.S. increase at the rate scientists are expecting in the next 20 to 30 years, there’s an even larger window of time for wildfires to spark and spread each year.

 

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