Realtor.com® made a game-changing decision two years ago, becoming the first real estate listing site to display properties’ flood risk. As a member of NAR’s Insurance Committee, I was proud to collaborate with realtor.com® to present this information in a consumer-friendly and factual way through a tool called Flood Factor, from the nonprofit First Street Foundation.
Now, the site has taken another bold step in risk management and mitigation. Realtor.com® announced today that it is adding Fire Factor, an online wildfire risk visualization tool developed by the scientists at First Street, to the valuable information it provides to consumers. I've put together answers to some questions I know many of my fellow real estate professionals will be asking about Fire Factor.
Why add Fire Factor? An estimated one in five single-family homes in the U.S. are at risk of being damaged by a wildfire over the next 30 years, according to an analysis by the First Street Foundation. While flooding is the most frequent natural disaster in the U.S. today, recent wildfires in Colorado, California, and now New Mexico; winter storms across the Midwest; and large tornado outbreaks in the South have demonstrated the range of risks facing property owners. In fact, wildfire is the fastest-growing economic climate risk, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On NOAA’s billion-dollar list of natural disasters, wildfire damage has grown significantly since 1980. The damage in 2020 and 2021 alone surpassed all damage from 1980 to 2000.
How will Fire Factor help consumers? A home is often a family’s biggest asset. However, there isn’t currently a reliable, property-specific source of public information on wildfire risk to help owners and prospective buyers understand potential issues and protect their home. Displaying the First Street Foundation’s Fire Factor model, developed by dozens of fire experts and scientists using data from the U.S. Forest Service and others, will give buyers, sellers, and real estate professionals a distinct advantage. Realtor.com® will also be the only real estate site where people can learn about the wildfire risk specific to each property.
How will Fire Factor help my business? Providing Fire Factor information can help foster trust and confidence during the homebuying and homeselling process. It also provides great value to homeowners, whose improved understanding of fire risk could lead them to take protective measures to reduce risk and potentially realize cost savings of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars by avoiding damages.
Why not just use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service website? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service offers government-driven national wildfire risk data at WildfireRisk.org. However, the site is designed for community leaders, not consumers, and intended to compare risk nationally or between states, counties, or communities rather than neighborhoods or specific addresses.
USDA data also doesn’t adjust risk based on more recent fires or changing environmental conditions; their analysis considers only the current risk to homes, exposure type, wildfire likelihood, and vulnerable populations—and it's strictly based on pre-2014 wildfires. With 45 percent of wildfire damage since 1980 occurring in the last three years, the site’s risk data may be underestimated.
Does highlighting natural disaster risks stigmatize properties? Not in my experience. My business is located in Savannah, Ga., where significant numbers of homes have high Flood Factor scores. My sales did not slow down after this information was added to realtor.com® listings. Flood Factor ensured my clients went into transactions with eyes open. My commitment to giving them the information they needed to make informed decisions helped me build trust. Some of my clients who were initially concerned with higher Flood Factor scores ended up submitting contracts and going to closing because the inclusion of this information prompted the sellers to disclose and explain property improvements they had made to mitigate risk.
How should I answer client questions about Fire Factor? As a real estate professional, I’m a source of property information, not a natural disaster risk expert. I’m always careful to avoid making statements beyond my license and training. I stick to the facts and have contact information for professionals who can answer more detailed questions. Most importantly, I never discourage customers from considering information from credible scientific sources, even if there is uncertainty around data, because more data sources help buyers make more informed decisions.
The U.S. Fire Administration offers useful wildfire statistics that REALTORS® can share with their clients. My colleague Mabél Guzmán, 2022 chair of NAR’s Insurance Committee, created an excellent video on Flood Factor, which is still timely and applicable to wildfire data. And REALTOR® Magazine ran a great article on Flood Factor when it was introduced.
In my experience, Flood Factor has been a welcome addition to realtor.com®, providing my clients the credible, scientific information they need to make informed homebuying decisions. Making this data more accessible is pro-disclosure, pro-transparency, and pro-REALTOR®. This is a great time for realtor.com® to expand its factors to include wildfires and other natural disaster risks.