USA - Beach Houses Around the Country Are at Risk of Sinking, and Coastal Enclaves Are at War About How to Save Them

For some homebuyers, the fantasy of coastal living will forever outweigh the risks. But rising sea levels and shifting sands can mean getting closer to the ocean than you might have intended.

It was after a beachside housewarming party in Southern California that the neighborhood snitch was unmasked. Residents of the cliff-top community had gathered to eat lobster and indulge in a favorite local pastime: grumbling about coastal-protection rules that stop them from reinforcing the eroding bluffs beneath their homes under the theory that any hardening of the shore will exacerbate beach erosion.

“A new neighbor had moved in and done this beautiful remodeling job on a house that was in a huge state of disrepair,” recalls one guest and longtime resident. “And he had this incredible party [with] music playing, and everyone had the most wonderful afternoon. Later we found out that one neighbor turned him in to the city because he found out he’d built a home office,” which the tattletale suspected contravened the area’s strict environmental regulations.

The party guests were appalled when they saw the neighbor’s name on the official complaint. “We said, ‘OK, this Mr. Nosy Pants is in there, you know, having his lobster tail and his shrimp cocktail and meanwhile taking notes furiously,’ ” says the resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Soon after, others in the community realized the same person was also ratting on them to the authorities for unpermitted home repairs.

“He ended up in litigation with several neighbors,” says the resident, who hired an attorney herself after receiving an inspection notice from the city during what she describes as a simple bathroom-retiling project. In a yet-to-be-resolved case, she’s suing the neighbor for harassment, trespassing and false claims. “This is how coastal homeowners live.”

If the drama has a weird whiff of Stasi tactics, such is the level of conflict in beachside communities over efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change on that ultimate prized possession: a waterfront home. Nothing is more aspirational right now, as is evident from exponential price growth along America’s most desirable shorelines. Yet nothing is more ephemeral. The increasing frequency and severity of storms and coastal erosion mean that seaside homes are, to varying degrees, inevitably doomed.

Just ask Jesus, who spoke of the “foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Something to bear in mind if you’re eyeing property on a barrier island.

It takes a certain confidence in one’s own luck to invest millions of dollars in a house erected on sand. Even those who can afford to write off any damages don’t relish the prospect of evacuation or the dangers to their families. So why do we keep buying waterfront homes? What are the real risks? And, for those determined to stick it out, what can you do to protect yourself?

The allure of coastal living is carved into the bedrock of our collective psyche. Seven of the current top 10 most expensive zip codes in the US are on the water, in California, Florida and New York. Price increases have been particularly precipitous in the past year, with third-quarter 2022 values up 37 percent over the previous year in Malibu and 23 percent in the Hamptons, where the market share of sales above $5 million was the highest on record, at 12.9 percent, according to reports by real estate agency Douglas Elliman.

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