Flying debris a hazard from abandoned and
The weed-choked lawns, stagnant swimming pools, and vandals may not
be the only problems with the rapidly rising number of foreclosed
homes in Florida and other coastal states. Vacant homes are also
likely to be more vulnerable during hurricanes and high-wind
events, sustaining more damage and threatening neighboring homes
with flying roof tiles, siding, or other debris.
So warns the Institute for Business and Home Safety, a Tampa-based
advocacy group for disaster safety funded by the insurance
industry. The group says the rising number of foreclosed homes in
hurricane hot spots will lead to increased hurricane damage unless
the homes are adequately prepared for storms.
"The issue is that people aren't maintaining homes, and they are
not thinking about protecting them," says Tim Reinhold, vice
president of engineering at IBHS. "If shutters don't get put up and
a storm is coming through, you have a greater potential for the
house coming apart."
About 1.1 million homes nationwide were in the process of
foreclosure at the end of June, according to the Mortgage Bankers
Association. Nearly half of those homes — just over 500,000
— were located in the coastal states extending from Texas to
Maine, according to a May analysis for IBHS by RealtyTrac, an
online marketplace that tracks foreclosures. With 189,623
foreclosures, Florida was the leader, followed by Texas (with
77,830) and Georgia (55,764).
Cities everywhere are already struggling with derelict properties,
declining neighborhoods, and falling property values tied to
foreclosures. But should a hurricane strike, these problems are
likely to multiply, especially for cities with high numbers of
foreclosures. At least some of these cities are in high-risk
coastal areas: Florida's Cape Coral-Fort Myers area, for example,
had the nation's second-highest foreclosure rate in May, with one
in every 79 households in the foreclosure process, according to
There are few signs, however, that either banks or municipalities
have begun to grapple with the risk.
Banks typically take over the upkeep and maintenance of foreclosed
homes as they attempt to resell them, often turning over the
responsibility to property inspection and maintenance companies.
One such company is Integrated Mortgage Solutions, based in
Houston. The company uses a network of independent contractors to
inspect, maintain, and/or repair an inventory that in June totaled
100,000 homes in several states, a number that had tripled in the
previous 18 months, reports Cheryl Lang, IMS president and
Lang says she is aware of no one in her industry that is in the
business of preparing foreclosed homes for hurricane contingencies.
"It really brings up a good question that I don't think we as an
industry have addressed," she notes.
She explains that putting up shutters, moving in yard furniture,
and other hurricane preparations easily made by homeowners are not
so simple when a home is in foreclosure. Often, the legal process
takes several months, during which time the bank's access to the
home is restricted by law, she says. Plus, it is difficult to know
until the last moment exactly where a hurricane will strike. For
banks with many foreclosed properties, making a judgment call to
act could quickly get expensive.
County and city governments, Lang suggests, may be better
positioned to take advance action to protect homes. But the task
may not be on their radar, either. Jim Blink, manager for code
enforcement operation in Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes
Tampa, says he's not aware of any county program to safeguard homes
in hurricanes. The county does have a small property improvement
program to maintain abandoned homes, but the money for that program
has already been spent through the county's fiscal year ending
September 30, he notes.
IBHS "is probably absolutely right. There will be no one to
safeguard those properties," Blink admits.
That not only poses a risk to neighboring properties, but it could
also worsen the foreclosure crisis, Reinhold notes. As hard as it
is to sell foreclosed homes, it will only get harder if the homes
are damaged, he says.
"You're going to have mold and other stuff coming in there, and
that's going to make it even less likely that someone will pick up
the property," he explains. — Aaron Hoover
Rhode Island Proposes Global Warming Building Regs
New rules would lead to more stringent
standards for coastal buildings
oastal builders wondering how climate change theory might affect
their bottom line should keep a close eye on Rhode Island. The
nation's smallest state is considering new regulations aimed at
coping with anticipated effects of climate change —
specifically, more forceful hurricanes and a rise in sea levels
predicted by some authorities.
Builder groups are in discussions with the state but have yet to
get involved in debating the issue.
Within the next six months the Rhode Island Coastal Resources
Management Council, which oversees development along the state's
400-mile-plus coast, expects to propose rules raising minimum
first-floor elevations on new structures to accommodate a projected
sea-level rise. Other rules could follow, including more stringent
wind requirements in coastal zones that today are not considered
most vulnerable to storms.
Work on the new rules started in 2006, when the council was
authorized to work with the state's building commissioner to adopt
new codes "to take into account climatic changes and potential
climatic changes and sea-level rise."
Relying on advice from a panel of scientists from Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, the University of Rhode Island, and elsewhere, the
council estimated a potential sea-level rise of 3 to 5 feet the
next century. As a result, the new rules are likely to raise
elevations of new coastal structures based on their design life.
The longer the structures are likely to last, the higher the
first-floor elevations will have to be, according to Grover Fugate,
executive director of the council. Structures having an expected
life span of 100 years will need to elevate their first floors 5
Also on the table as a result of the council's projections: new
rules that apply Rhode Island's most stringent "Coastal V-Zone"
codes to homes currently built in the less stringent "A-Zone."
That's because if predictions about rising sea levels turn out to
be true, they will place many A-Zone homes in the V-Zone, Fugate
says. "If you've got a structure expected to be there 50 years, the
policy may be that you have to build to V-Zone standards," he
The Rhode Island Builders Association has yet to come out against
the proposed rules but has met with Fugate and raised some
concerns, according to Roger Warren, the association's executive
director. "We recognize there may be some issues that need to be
addressed," he says, but adds that the association is awaiting
further information before making additional comment.
On the other hand, Warren is concerned that Rhode Island's already
"very limited" land available for development will shrink if the
council's proposals become law. And increasing elevations raises
the cost of construction and may have other consequences as well,
"What does it do to neighboring properties in terms of view?" he
asks. "There are lots of issues that haven't been explored."
Builder Groups Skeptical About New Efficiency Standards
Concern grows that new regulations will raise
Energy codes in California, Florida, and other states are becoming
increasingly stringent. In June, for example, Florida governor
Charlie Crist signed an energy bill that schedules a 50% increase
in building efficiency by 2019. That comes on top of a new state
energy building code, to go into effect at year's end, that will
raise efficiency by at least 15% and as much as 28%, according to
the Florida Home Builders Association.
While the new rules will help reduce homeowners' energy bills,
builders are concerned about potentially higher home costs and
other unintended consequences. "There are cost consequences, and
there are design issues, and there is ‘can we even get
there?' " says Doug Buck, governmental affairs director for the
Florida Home Builders Association.
Jack Glenn, technical services director for the association,
estimates that the code changes will raise the cost of homes
"several hundred to several thousand dollars" depending on the home
and the upgrades chosen.
Options to meet the new code requirements will likely range from
reduction in window areas to high-
efficiency air conditioners to solar water- heating systems to
increases in building envelope insulation, he predicts. As for the
future 50% requirement, he is uncertain whether current building
technology can achieve that efficiency without requiring homeowners
to make lifestyle changes.
Glenn suggests that increases in efficiency standards should be
correlated with market demand. "If people are really energy
conscious, they are willing to pay extra money," he notes. "If they
are not and you haven't changed the mind-set, then they are going
That position is echoed by the National Association of Home
Builders, which has responded to the building efficiency/climate
change trend by urging "voluntary, incentive-based initiatives,"
according to a policy paper published last year. This year, in
April and again in July, builders representing the NAHB reinforced
that message in testimony to congressional committees, stressing
tax breaks, government funding initiatives, and other nonregulatory
efforts to encourage growing market support for green
"Policies that encourage energy savings are the most meaningful at
stimulating greater demand for conservation in home operation,"
read a summary of July 17 statements by NAHB representative and St.
Louis builder Matt Belcher to the House Subcommittee on Energy and
Air Quality. "The ability of aggressive building code mandates to
achieve massive energy emissions savings is incredibly limited."