Banks Are Finally Realizing What Climate Change Will Do to Housing

Rising sea levels, biodiversity collapse, extreme weather—these are the grisly horsemen of climate apocalypse. But don’t forget the fretting loan officers. A study published earlier this year found that US mortgage approvals tend to dip following periods of hotter-than-normal weather. For every 1 degree Celsius that temperatures rise above average, approvals fell by nearly 1 percent—and their value by more than 6.5 percent.

Lower consumer demand was only part of the problem, according to the study’s authors. The effect was mostly down to loan officers’ worries about climate change and what it might mean for the assets they were lending against. In other words, climate change was devaluing property before their very eyes.

It’s not just the heat. In May, yet another beachfront house in North Carolina’s Outer Banks tumbled into the angry sea. It’s the sixth home lost along Cape Hatteras National Seashore since 2020. Researchers say lenders are increasingly trying to pass on the risk of mortgaging coastal properties due to calamities like this. Wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding are also impacting other financial services used by homeowners. It’s increasingly difficult to get home insurance in Minnesota, for instance, following extreme hail storms in recent years.

Big money is finally waking up to the fact that climate change is a gigantic problem. Property is the world’s greatest store of wealth, with a total value just shy of $380 trillion. This is four times global GDP. But there’s a new kind of toxic asset emerging in property portfolios. The number of homes in what you might call “subprime” locations is rising and, in some parts of the world, property value—like a crumbing coastline—is at risk of erosion. Lenders are getting noticeably more reluctant to lend against these assets. No wonder. In the Asia-Pacific region, nearly one in 10 properties owned by real estate investment trusts could be at “high risk” of climate-change-related damage—particularly those on seafronts, a report from climate risk consultancy XDI announced in May.

“Some communities are just going to become much more expensive to preserve,” says Dave Burt, founder and CEO of DeltaTerra Capital. “There’s a gravitational pull on the value of those properties.” Some banks are starting to highlight climate risk to borrowers. HSBC’s UK website, for example, has a page about how climate change could affect people’s mortgages. But Burt argues that buyers aren’t always being told about the medium- and long-term risks, nor are they necessarily having the amount they borrow scrutinized in terms of how their home might plummet in value in the coming years.

The worst-affected of these properties happen to be located on a bend in the coastline that is a natural erosion hot spot, but sea-level rise induced by climate change is only likely to hasten the damage, says Moore, and bring it to other coastal locations. “It is already more difficult to insure homes in coastal areas,” she says. “We can expect that to become more and more the case going forward.”

Plus, in locations like the Outer Banks, you can’t just build a seawall to protect vulnerable properties. The Outer Banks are barrier islands whose position and elevation naturally shift over many years as waves move sand from the front to the rear of the islands. Sticking a big wall on the front means that process goes awry. “The interior of the island gets lower and lower over time, relative to sea level, and more susceptible from the backside to flooding,” explains Moore. So, in some places, no amount of engineering will solve the problem—which is what people like Burt are concerned about.

In areas where hardening a home could reduce its exposure to climate-related risks, though, banks have been “pretty slow” to roll out products that might help people pay for solutions, including structural improvements, or defenses against flooding and wildfires, says Burt. But there are signs that the financial industry is gradually moving toward helping homeowners adapt and respond to climate change in other ways.

Lenders have cottoned on to the fact that the energy efficiency of a property has an impact on its value as an asset, for instance. It keeps people’s utility bills low, improving their ability to pay off their mortgage, for example. In the UK, most homes now have a rating that defines the property’s perceived efficiency—A being the highest, G the lowest. This takes into account things like insulation, energy-efficient lighting, and the type of heating system installed. “Banks would love to have A-rated properties,” says Stewart Cummins, a partner at PwC, a consultancy.

Research from the Bank of England suggests people with energy-efficient properties are more likely to keep up with their mortgage payments. Lenders also benefit from a PR and regulatory perspective by reducing the emissions associated with the assets in their portfolios.

For a homeowner, too, retrofitting insulation or more efficient heating technology might seem like a good investment, because banks may be happier to lend against their property in the future. This is already emerging with the rise of “green mortgages” or “energy-efficient mortgages.” In some cases, such products offer better interest rates or cash-back bonuses to buyers of properties with good energy ratings. You might also get a green mortgage if you agree to use some of the funds for an energy efficient retrofit yourself.

“Retrofit is going to happen. If mortgage lenders are at the forefront of that, they are protecting their customers,” says Rachael Hunnisett, a green mortgage specialist at the UK’s Green Finance Institute. However, buyers might not yet be swayed too much by these offers, says the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries in the UK. Consumer demand for green mortgages in the country is “not quite there yet,” but that could change if energy efficiency ratings begin to have a strong impact on house prices, the organization adds.

Clean energy firms are reaping the rewards of this emerging shift. Aira, a Swedish firm that carries out heat pump installations, recently announced that it had struck a deal valued at €200 million ($214 million) for loan commitments from the bank BNP Paribas. This will allow Aira customers in Germany to pay for their heat pumps in installments.

“Banks and financial institutions have a huge responsibility to accelerate the energy transition,” says Eirik Winter, BNP Paribas’ CEO in the Nordic region. That the financing arrangement could also boost property values is a “positive side effect,” he adds.

Home renovations and energy retrofits are not cheap. Loans are often necessary to lower the barrier to entry sufficiently for consumers. Lisa Cooke works for MCS, a body that accredits heat pumps and installers in the UK. She was able to afford a heat pump herself, she says, thanks only to a government grant and just under £5,000 ($6,300) of financing from Aira. “That’s really what has made it achievable for me,” she says. “Even with savings, I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.”

Luca Bertalot, secretary general of the European Mortgage Federation—European Covered Bond Council, says there are huge risks to economic productivity if people can’t secure homes that protect them from the worst effects of climate change. In heat waves, he notes, worker productivity falls, meaning a negative impact on GDP. Conversely, he speaks of a kind of energy retrofit butterfly effect. If people make their home cheaper to cool or heat, perhaps they will save money, which they may spend on other things—their children’s education, say, which in turn improves their children’s chances of a comfortable life (and maybe of buying a climate-safe home themselves) in the future.

But there is still, perhaps, a sluggishness to recognize the storm that is coming. Energy efficiency does little to protect properties from the sharper effects of climate change—stronger storms, rising seas, wildfires, and floods. As governments become unable to cover the costs of these disasters, lenders and insurers will likely end up exposed to the risks. The US National Flood Insurance Program, for instance, is already creaking under the weight of rising debt.

“As the damages pile up, it could well be that the markets will become more efficient and the incentives [to harden properties] become stronger—because nobody’s bailing you out anymore,” says Ralf Toumi at Imperial College London, who consults for insurance firms.

Ultimately, climate change impacts on housing will force some to move elsewhere, suggests Burt. Given the irrevocability of some scenarios, such as coastal villages that could be lost to the sea, or communities that become doomed to endless drought, there are some assets that no amount of hardening or retrofit will ever save. The structural utility of these properties will, like water in a drying oasis, simply evaporate.

To lessen the burden on people who are most at risk of losing their home to climate change, affordable loans might one day be targeted at consumers in these areas to help them move to safer places, says Burt. Lenders who don’t take this approach, and who continue offering mortgages on homes destined to succumb to climate change, may soon rue the day. “If you’re trying to support those markets,” Burt says, “you’re throwing good money after bad.”

Source : Wired