Christy Gentry and her husband have been dealing with California’s wildfires for the past four years.
In 2017, the couple evacuated their Santa Rosa home for three weeks. In 2019, they were forced to cut a trip to Hawaii short and get their animals and stuff out of their house as a fire approached.
“It was just one thing after another. It was smoke, it was the fire danger, the potential of fire danger, the potential of being evacuated,” Gentry said. “It changed the way we viewed our property.”
After so many fires, Gentry and her husband rented a home in Bend, Oregon, in August 2020 so they would have somewhere to go during the California fire season.
Fires finally hit their property in September 2020. Although they didn’t lose their home, one of their barns burned down and they couldn’t get back to their property until mid-November. So Gentry and her husband bought a home in Bend in January 2021 and now split time between there and Santa Rosa.
“It comes down to feeling safe,” Gentry said. “Everybody has a little PTSD — I won’t even light candles in my house.”
‘Wealthier people can adapt’
Gentry is among a growing number of homeowners citing climate change as a primary reason for moving.
Nearly half of Americans who plan to move in the next year say natural disasters and extreme temperatures factored into their decision to relocate, according to an April survey conducted by real estate brokerage firm Redfin.
Last month, the United Nations’ climate panel delivered a dire report calling for immediate action. The agency warned that limiting global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels “will be beyond reach” in the next two decades without rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The report said that at 2 degrees Celsius, heat extremes would often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.
One in 5 Americans believe climate change is already negatively impacting home values in their areas, and 35% of homeowners have already spent $5,000 or more protecting their homes against climate risk, according to Redfin. Meanwhile, 79% of Americans said they would be hesitant to buy a home in areas with increasing frequency or intensity of natural disasters, 75% said they’d be hesitant to buy in an area with extreme temperatures and 76% said they would be hesitant to purchase in regions with rising sea levels, Redfin’s survey found.
“We know from these surveys that homebuyers, homeowners, homesellers — they’re recognizing the threat of climate change and it is impacting their home’s values and will impact their home’s values,” said Daryl Fairweather, Redfin’s chief economist.
At the same time, there’s no shortage of buyers for the properties that concerned homeowners are abandoning — in fact, Redfin found that more people are actually moving into areas facing high risk from climate change than out of them, according to an August survey.
Affordability is a major factor. According to Redfin, counties where many homes face high heat risk are less expensive on average.
“Climate change will definitely impact poorer people more than wealthier people,” Fairweather said. “Wealthier people can adapt. They can modify their homes to be more resilient … and they can also just pick up and move. You can sell your home and buy another home somewhere else pretty easily.”
Fleeing fires and rising seas in California
Kathryn Kelly moved back to her hometown of Natick, Massachusetts, in August after more than 30 years living in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Kelly and her husband had grown concerned about the increasing frequency of wildfires surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area and the impact their smoke could have on the long-term health of their 13-year-old daughter.
“We want to make sure she doesn’t end up with lung cancer when she’s 20 from breathing that kind of air,” Kelly said.
Last summer, the family escaped the Bay Area fires by heading to their second home in Huntington Beach, in Southern California. Although they were able to get away, they also worry about the potential impact of rising sea levels on their second home. This summer, the family ended up getting caught near one of the California fires as they drove back to San Jose in June.
“The whole mountainside on the freeway was on fire, and it was super scary,” Kelly said.
These experiences prompted the family to move, and they settled on Kelly’s hometown of Natick. The family is no longer worrying about fires and is excited about how green and lush their new area is. Despite Massachusetts getting its own smoke from wildfires in July, Kelly said these concerns are exponentially higher in California considering its year-round drought conditions.
“We can’t escape the effects of climate change completely by moving to Massachusetts, but we lessen the impact on our health greatly with less smoke and smog year round,” she said.
The Covid-19 pandemic helped ease the way. Although Kelly had already been working from home for several years, her husband had not. But when the pandemic forced corporate workers out of the office and into remote work, his job gave them the flexibility to make a move as long as he remained in proximity to one of their offices.
“Even though Covid has been such a disaster, it was a pivotal time for us to say ‘This is it. This is our chance to do it,'” Kelly said.
Giving up the flooding fight in Key West
The pandemic also played a role in Kim Romano’s climate change migration.
In July 2020, Romano left her home in Key West, Florida, for Seattle to be near her son during the pandemic. In 2019, Romano had received an estimate that raising her Key West home of 12 years by 7 feet to avoid future floods would cost her $250,000 or more. After arriving in Seattle and falling in love with the city, Romano decided she was not going to relocate rather than paying to harden her Florida home.
“I decided that I just need to leave,” Romano said. “The mitigation costs for climate change are already starting, and it’s just going to be way too expensive. I don’t want to spend my money in that way, I’d rather be here in Seattle.”
Following that decision, Romano’s son bought her a home in Seattle in May 2021, and she is now in the process of selling her Key West home.
There are plenty of potential buyers. Consistent with Redfin’s findings that more people are moving into high-risk areas, Romano said that the market is hotter than ever. After buying the house for approximately $650,000 12 years ago, she and her realtor are going to list it for $1.2 million.
“Basically, it’s a great time to sell,” she said.
For Romano, who is retired, climate change is the last thing she wants to worry about as she enjoys her golden years. She’d rather just get ahead of it.
“I feel like this is the last quarter of my last quarter, and I’m going to make good use of it,” Romano said.
Watch the CNBC documentary “America’s Climate Crisis” to hear more stories from people who are being forced to adapt to climate change.