Selling Real Estate in the Era of Disaster

As climate change forces a new reality on the industry, four agents and brokers recount their struggles to help themselves, their clients, and their businesses recover after catastrophic events.
Flooded homes in Wilmington, N.C., after Hurricane Florence

© Courtesy of Jody Wainio

Jody Wainio, SFR, managing broker at Keller Williams Realty in Wilmington, N.C., snapped this photo of homes submerged in floodwaters after Hurricane Florence ripped through the area in September 2018.

In 2017, the U.S. tied its record for the most expensive natural disasters, with 16 climate-related catastrophes—from hurricanes to wildfires—causing a total of $306 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The next year edged close to that record: With 14 disasters causing $155 billion in damage, 2018 became the fourth most devastating year in U.S. history in terms of weather events.

This data alone should give real estate professionals pause as the effects of climate change begin to impact housing markets across the country, not just on the coasts. (This year, January’s polar vortex caused 60-degree temperature swings from one day to the next in parts of the Midwest, which can be detrimental to homes’ plumbing, electrical, and other systems.) The new reality is that the country must contend with increasingly violent climate events, and practitioners who live and work in disaster-prone areas are likely to experience more disruption to their transactions.

It also means more clients may need your help and guidance as they decide the future of their damaged properties. Here are snapshots of what agents and brokers faced in the wake of four recent natural disasters.

Hurricane Michael: A Community Starts Over

Ida Hargaray, CRS, GRI, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Panama City Beach, Fla., had eight pending home sales when Hurricane Michael slammed into the state last October. Hargaray lost four of those deals because the storm either hurt the buyers financially or forced them to relocate outside the city. Her own home in the bayside community of Lynn Haven, although still habitable, sustained $70,000 to $80,000 in damage.

Over the last several months, Hargaray has been working to get the other four homes under contract ready for inspections. One of the homes sustained minimal damages, but because contractors in the area are inundated with much more labor-intensive work due to the storm, she’s done most of the wood rot repairs herself. “It’s just what you have to do to get deals done and closed,” Hargaray says.

Michael made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with 155-mph winds—just shy of a Category 5. It was the third most powerful storm to hit the U.S. mainland. The community of Mexico Beach, where Zach Childs works as broker-owner of 98 Real Estate Group, was hardest hit. Five of Childs’ 16 agents had homes that were completely destroyed, and seven—including himself—had homes that flooded.

Childs’ real estate office, although heavily damaged, was one of the few structures left standing on the beachside. Of the homes the firm had under contract when the storm hit, three-quarters of them were either damaged or destroyed, and the sale contracts had to be cancelled. “Quite a few that were set to close the week of the storm no longer exist,” he says.

But business must go on. In the months since the storm, Childs’ firm has closed six deals. His agents have been working out of cars, closets, and other people’s offices. “You just take it one day at a time, one call at a time,” Childs says.

California Wildfires: Resilience Against Turmoil

When the Northern California home of Kathleen Haskett’s sister-in-law burned to the ground last November as wildfires raged across the state, the memories of blazes past were still raw. “It’s like we keep reliving this nightmare over and over again,” says Haskett, a sales associate with Timothy Toye & Associates in Cobb, Calif. “Every year, we know someone who loses a home.”

Three of California’s most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015. Last year’s Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, was the state’s worst in its history. Haskett herself has been a wildfire victim. In September 2015, she and her husband made a short trip to the mountains, and in the brief time they were gone—a matter of a few hours—their house burned to the ground.

Haskett didn’t sell houses for seven months afterward. Between her own losses and the devastation to the local housing market, she needed some time away from real estate while she rebuilt her home. But when Haskett started selling again, the market was in chaos. Many homeowners weren’t receiving insurance payouts, and people didn’t know what to do. Haskett found that helping other fire survivors took her mind off her own hardship. “I was getting people into their homes and seeing their joy. I fed off it. That made me happy,” she says.

Only about 20 percent of the homes in Haskett’s area have been rebuilt, but new homes are selling quickly, and spec homes are going up. Haskett’s main goal has been to help people get back to a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible—even though that may mean moving on from their old homes. “They just want a home,” she says, “and that’s what you try to find them.”

Hurricane Florence: An Opportunity for Outreach

Jody Wainio has been through about a half-dozen hurricanes since moving to Wilmington, N.C., in 1986. But Hurricane Florence was different; the storm broke flood records in 28 areas when it hit the Carolinas last September. “It just seemed like it lasted forever,” says Wainio, SFR, managing broker at Keller Williams Realty. “It hit on a Thursday, and it was still raining on Monday.”

Wainio remembers that in 2016, after Hurricane Matthew struck, the National Association of REALTORS® sent emergency funds to Wilmington through its REALTORS® Relief Foundation and reached out for volunteers to manage the award process. Wainio was the first to step up. “It’s a little different when it happens in your hometown, and you see people who you helped purchase homes and friends and family experience total devastation,” she says.

Relief efforts after Florence were on a much larger scale than those for Matthew. Wainio helped over 100 applicants receive NAR grants and manually sent in 66 applications for people who had no internet access. Wainio also felt compelled to reach out to current and past clients to assess their damages and provide them with resources to have contractors take down a damaged tree or patch a roof. “That may not produce business today, but they know I was there when the times were bad,” she says.

Hurricane Harvey: A Time to Give Back

Tim Surratt, a sales associate with Greenwood King Properties in Houston, was visiting his son in Austin, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017. Although Surratt’s own home wasn’t damaged, the storm shut down highway access to much of Houston, stranding him in Austin. Rather than sit around in his hotel room, Surratt immediately went to the American Red Cross office in Austin and started volunteering. “There was nothing else I could do. I was so devastated about my city,” he says.

The Red Cross stationed Surratt in its downtown Austin command center, where he spent about a week working as part of a team helping displaced Harvey victims. “I was able to tell them, ‘I’m from Houston, too,’” he says. “So it was really an incredible experience to be able to help my hometown, even though I wasn’t home.”

After he returned to Houston, Surratt went to the local Red Cross and volunteered for another week, delivering food to storm victims in flooded areas. The entire time Surratt was volunteering, he was also handling his real estate business and taking calls from clients. Despite being in crisis mode, Houston REALTORS® hit the ground running to get the real estate market going again, helping clients who were trying to figure out whether to rebuild, tear down, or remodel and sell. “We were super busy the whole time, not necessarily bringing in money but helping our clients,” Surratt says.

Harvey dumped more than 60 inches of rain into the Houston area, setting the record for single-storm rainfall totals in the U.S. and damaging more than 204,000 homes and apartment buildings in Harris County. Having practiced real estate in Houston for about 35 years, Surratt is well-versed in what to do to help clients who face devastating losses from catastrophic storms. “It’s very emotionally wrecking for those people, and they’re very lost,” he says. “They just need someone to say, ‘You’re going to be OK, and we’re going to help you get through it.’”

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Lessons From Katrina for a Devastated Houston

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