The Canadian couple on my television screen tours a small home on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. The couple, on HGTV’s Beachfront Bargain Hunt, are hoping to buy a vacation home for $300,000 or less—something in a secure neighborhood and with an ocean view. This home looks ideal, with a modern kitchen and infinity pool, the back gate just feet from the ocean.
What’s never mentioned are the piles of sandbags sitting between the back fence and the high tide line. Does the house flood during storms? During exceptionally high tides? Is the ocean eating away at the land?
Home and garden shows sells dreams, not reality. According to them, anyone can have that perfect kitchen with granite countertops, an open-plan first floor, a master bathroom bigger than most New York City apartments—or a home just steps from the ocean.
The first three may empty your bank account, but the fourth is truly dangerous. Sea level is on the rise. What’s oceanfront this year could soon be sitting in the water. The beach is one of the most reckless places to invest in property.
Despite this, recent home shows have capitalized on people’s fantasies of beach living and encouraged them to buy waterside. They follow the formula of the home-buying genre, in which a couple is shown three or four properties and the drama lies in which one they decide to purchase. The difference is only in location—beach towns in the United States, Caribbean, or sometimes farther afield. Beachfront Bargain Hunt and Buying the Beach are on TV now, and a similar show, Island Hunters, aired over the winter. Like a lot of reality TV, these shows aren’t that realistic. (The archetype of these home-buying shows, House Hunters, certainly isn’t.) And avoiding reality is perilous when it comes to the sea.
Buying a home on the ocean has always been something of a gamble. Hurricanes have wiped whole towns off the map. Beaches and barrier islands have never been permanent structures; instead, they wax and wane and move over time. Measures to fix the land in place, such as seawalls and jetties, may protect a home or beach for a bit, but usually at the cost of someone else’s property.
Buying the Beach actually does a decent job of mentioning some of the dangers of coastal living, such as hurricanes, and how to protect waterfront property with features such as sand dunes or stilts. One episode even highlights the moving of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in response to beach erosion. Incorporating the fact that sea level is rising wouldn’t be out of place.
But discussing sea-level rise means mentioning climate change.
Climate change is altering sea level in a couple of ways. As the oceans soak up heat, the water expands. And when glaciers and ice sheets melt, that water drains into the sea.
Sea levels rose mere inches in the 20th century, but scientists estimate that oceans could rise 2 to 7 feet by 2100. Even 1 foot—possible in some places within the next few decades, or less than the length of a 30-year mortgage—will eat away at beaches and destroy homes. Nuisance flooding has already increased significantly on all U.S. coasts, with no hurricanes or other storms required, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in July.
Just play a bit with Climate Central’s Surging Seas sea-level manipulation map and it’s easy to see why coastal areas might be risky places to invest in. Even a tiny increase puts swaths of beach and waterside land at risk of being drowned.