When Nick Kiran (28) recently went looking for a house to buy near Rotterdam, he also looked at flood risks. Wherever he would go: two, three, four meters below NAP. “If you want to stay in this environment, you can’t avoid ignoring that advice,” he concludes. “Do I have to live in the east of the country and spend hours every day in the car to work, family and friends?” It was Vlaardingen: 0.10 meters below sea level.
Climate change hardly plays a role in relocation behaviour. House prices are the highest in the areas deepest below sea level. Take Nieuwegein, for example, below sea level and directly on the Lek. In case of heavy rainfall or a dike breach, that place can easily flood. Apartments of 144 square meters were just ahead of it seven tons for sale.
People do want to take the changing climate into account when looking for a home. The Climate Adaptation Monitor of insurer Achmea, a questionnaire that was answered by more than a thousand people, shows that 70 percent consider it important that their home is climate-proof. But they always don’t know what to look out for. Climate experts also say they are getting more and more questions about it from citizens, fueled by alarming news reports about rising temperatures. The government tries to provide information about climate change via sites such as overstroomik.nl and the already existing Climate Effect Atlas.
The rise in sea level concerns the somewhat longer term, but there are also effects that are already noticeable. Increasing heat is more likely to cause hot homes. This can lead to health problems: heat stress. In 2019, a judge ruled that housing association Ymere in Amsterdam should better protect residents against this. Drought affects the groundwater level; in peat soils it more often leads to subsidence and pile rot. It is also dangerous for the dikes: in Wilnis in Utrecht, a dike already broke in 2003 due to drought. And forest fires can start, such as on the Strabrechtse Heide in North Brabant. Finally, heavy precipitation can lead to flooding of rivers – see Limburg this summer.
In general, the higher the sandy soil and the more greenery, the more ‘climate-proof’ you live. In urban areas there are more risks. They are lower and because of the large amount of asphalt it is more difficult for water to sink into the soil.
Also read: Still a cool home at 35° Celsius
Alexander Carlo and Martijn Stroom, PhD students in real estate financing at Maastricht University, argued in an opinion piece in NRC recently for a mandatory climate label. “To limit the risk that people will pay too much for their house,” says Carlo. “Then they may still have a lot of costs later on. The insurance does not always cover everything. And in Maastricht, residents were recently evacuated due to water risk: I think you want to know about that before making one of the most expensive purchases of your life.”
Stroom: “Research shows that the affected Limburg houses are permanent” decreased in value after the floods of 1993 and 1995. But for today’s buyers, this risk feels hypothetical and abstract. While climate change is already on the agenda.”
In addition, no one has an interest in extra risk. As a buyer in today’s tight market, you’re happy to find a home at all – if you ask the seller about the flood risk, there will be five others in line for you. And as a seller you prefer not to point it out: it can only mean a decrease in value.
“But if everyone has the same information, the risks are automatically factored into the price,” says Stroom. “That’s already happening in the United States; it’s listed on home sales sites. If people want to take that extra risk, they pay a fair price for it.”
Still, it cannot be said with certainty that climate risks have no influence at all on house prices, says professor of real estate finance Piet Eichholtz, who leads the research team of Carlo and Stroom. “There are studies from the United States and Spain that show that just news of a natural disaster can lead to a fall in house prices.”
There is no such convincing research for the Netherlands. But it is possible that prices are already rising slightly less quickly due to climate risks, Eichholtz thinks. “In the current overstrained market, you see that less well.”
Hanneke Schuurmans, climate adaptation expert at Royal HaskoningDHV, came up with a climate label for homes a few years ago, together with insurer Achmea and water consultancy Nelen & Schuurmans. Via Bluelabel.net, citizens and companies can request the risks of heat, drought, rainfall and sea level rise for a few euros for a property. But it rarely happens, she says.
Schuurmans: “The government is being looked at a lot, but the changing weather pattern is a social problem. Citizens and businesses are also responsible. If only because 40 percent of the surface in cities is in private hands.”
A mandatory climate label makes citizens and companies more aware that climate change is already happening, she says. “And if you know where your home is vulnerable, you can do something about it.”
It is not only citizens who are insufficiently aware of climate change when it comes to housing – government and private parties can also do better. Marjolijn Haasnoot, climate researcher at Deltares research bureau, sees this. “A large part of the Netherlands can be flooded, partly from the sea and partly from the rivers. Many things we build have a long lifespan: preferably a hundred years or more. That means you have to look far ahead.”
It does happen – the water boards are working hard on it, and there is a national Delta Programme. “But I also see that all kinds of investments are made in places that make me wonder: is that wise? There are many plans to build even further in deep polders, such as the Zuidplaspolder, at a depth of six meters. And even after the floods in Limburg, there was talk again about building in the floodplains near Arnhem.”
Also read: Is it still wise to build houses below sea level?
There are also building plans for the Van Speyk peninsula in Vlaardingen outside the dikes, where there are periodic floods – for six hundred homes. At the beginning of this year, the House of Representatives called for tens of thousands of homes to be built in the low-lying Rijnenburg polder, near Nieuwegein.
Municipalities often say: there are dikes after all. But that’s not a good argument, says Haasnoot. Yes, the Netherlands is internationally famous for its water conservation program – you can live safely anywhere here. “But we need room to adapt. If we have to raise the dikes, we also have to make them wider. Space is also needed in the river area.”
An example: the Maeslantkering, which now protects a large part of South Holland, will have to close more often if the sea level rises. At that moment the rivers can no longer flow freely into the sea. “If you are unlucky, you will have a storm from the sea and heavy precipitation,” says Haasnoot. “At a certain point, the Maeslantkering has to close almost permanently. Then rivers have to drain their water to other places. That’s so much water. This requires pumps of an order of magnitude that do not yet exist. We need to be able to store some of that water. We have to take that into account now.”
Also read: ‘Now think about retreating if sea levels rise’
Hanneke Schuurmans also sees that little account is taken of the climate in construction. “Properties without thresholds are good for accessibility, but flooding is a disaster. Shopping areas are also still being created with large plazas in the middle. If water runs off there, it all goes to the shops and the business premises around it. You can know that in advance.”
Isa Pat-Bais (39) already took the climate into account in 2015 when she wanted to move from Rotterdam to the east of the country. She deliberately looked at the number of meters above NAP and did not want to live ‘under the rivers’. “It was mainly because of my husband. He is an urban designer and spent a lot of time on it during his studies,” she says.
They watched a lot in Arnhem. “He was firmly convinced that we should not live in Arnhem South because of the river.”
It became Apeldoorn: above sea level. But right on the Veluwe. “And well, a forest fire is not inconceivable here.”
At the time, those around them thought their argument was “a little crazy.” Now it’s much more normal to say you’re thinking about this. People have become more aware of it.”
But the fact that climate risks should be factored into house prices is still a bridge too far for many people, says PhD student Stroom. “People keep saying: there is a housing shortage, then houses are going away for far too much money. I compare houses with cars: even when there is a shortage, there is still a difference between a Ferrari and a Toyota.”
For the time being, home seekers experience little choice, according to social media. “If I would win the jackpot, I would pick up all my children and grandchildren directly from Flevoland and live higher,” says Renee Brilleman from Lelystad. And Rosianne Kolestein from Amsterdam: „I have thought about climate risks, but when we were selected for an owner-occupied home within our budget, all my standards and values went overboard. You can be happy if you can find a home somewhere.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 4 September 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 4, 2021