Can bushfires affect the real estate market?

Written by realestateview.com.au in Buying on February 10, 2020

With heavy rains hitting NSW and dramatically reducing the number of active fires in the state, two potential disruptors to the real estate market now stand side-by-side. They beg the question of what influence increasingly severe and reoccurring weather events may have on the real estate market and whether they are having an effect already.

Over this summer, more than 11 million hectares have been destroyed by bushfires while over 2,000 homes have been lost from fires over the summer.

While these fires and the advent of coronavirus have been marked as two significant potential impacts on the Australian economy in the short-term, there is also the question of how these fires will affect the real estate market or whether they will have much of an impact at all. While there have been structural losses to many homes, much of the destruction has occurred to bushland in and outside of national parks, which complicates the potential for fires to have an impact on the real estate market acutely.  

How will increasingly frequent and large-scale fires affect insurance premiums?

Since September last year, approximately 8,500 claims worth $700 million in losses have been made to insurance companies. The Insurance Council of Australia, led by chief executive Rob Whelan, warned the Australian government in January that insurance premiums could rise due to these events without effective adaptation and mitigation. This involves measures such as reevaluating where we live and how we prepare against future bushfire effects.

Climate risk analyst Karl Mallon authored a report with the Climate Council in 2019 called ‘Compound Costs: How Climate Change is Damaging Australia’s Economy’, noting that the property market could lose $571 billion in value by 2030 due to climate change and consequent extreme weather.

The report extended this projection to estimate a loss of property values from climate change of $770 billion by 2100. However, these projections do focus on the effects of flooding more than fires. While the Commonwealth Bank’s 2018 annual report noted the impacts of flooding, inundation, bushfires, soil contraction and wind as all having a potential impact on the major bank’s lending portfolio and insurance premiums, inundation/flooding was seen as the most significant.

“High risk properties make up only 0.01% of our portfolio (by outstanding balance) in 2020,” the report states, “and rises to be around 1% in 2060 if there are no changes in the way we lend in these areas.”

“Locations affected by climate risk are expected to experience an increase in maintenance and damage costs, leading to higher insurance costs, due to flooding, storms, bushfire and drought, with rising sea levels expected to have the most significant increase.”

The relatively small scale of structural damage caused by fires compared to floods poses less of a direct risk to the insurance industry and property prices, but there may be a strong potential for indirect impacts.

Will bushfires affect property prices?

The same report from the Climate Council warned that the effects of climate change could potentially wipe off $571 billion from property values by 2050, while the Actuaries Institute warned that 1 in 10 houses could become uninsurable by the end of the century due to climate change, but predictions like these are made harder to make when you consider certain shifts in how (technological advancements, mitigation, adaptation) and where we live in the future as we continue to adjust to increasingly extreme weather events.

In the short term, there are more indirect effects on real estate prices that may be harder to measure. These include pressures placed on living standards, industries and businesses that may have a cumulative effect on markets. For instance, air quality in Canberra over the 2019/20 summer fires was so poor that in early January the very department which oversees Australia’s response to disasters and emergencies, the Department of Home Affairs, was forced to temporarily shut its offices, while the health effects of Canberra’s compromised air quality is not yet known. The Washington Post reported that emergency room visits for asthma and breathing problems in Sydney “increased more than 34 percent in the period from Dec. 30 and Jan. 5 compared to a year earlier.”

This raises the potential for people to consider their future options and seek new destinations less prone to such risks (though as was seen with smoke reaching New Zealand, this can be hard to escape). Whether this has an effect on prices is unclear.

Similar indirect effects might be seen when considering industries such as tourism, which are impacted by these volatile summer seasons exactly when they expect and rely on peak tourist numbers. If tourism and related small business industries are hit by repeated seasons as was seen this past summer, the commercial and residential real estate markets may be affected.

The rental system sees short term pressures placed on it during times of severe natural disaster, when people forced from their homes require immediate living alternatives. As part of the recovery from natural disasters such as fires, those that can afford to repair and rebuild faster than others can financially land back on their feet faster, potentially exacerbating inequalities in the market. This isn’t restricted to individuals but entire communities, such as those on Kangaroo Island, which saw severe fires that damaged almost half of the island.

Finally, as part of a growing awareness of increased risks from intense fire seasons, there is the potential effect from increasing demand for homes within urban centres and decreased demand for homes in regional markets, growing this price divide between urban and regional markets.

In the short term, however, there seems to have been little impact on regional markets from the fires. Corelogic data for December dwelling values showed .5% month-on-month growth for regional NSW, .7% growth for regional Vic and .8% growth for regional Qld, despite the large-scale fires. It may be too soon to be assessing the effects of the fires on regional areas of those states most impacted. Larger market forces may have played a stronger short-term role in house values, such as interest rate cuts, the loosening of loan serviceability policies, and the fact that standard variable mortgage rates are sitting at rates not seen since the 1960s, with November seeing rates at 4.8% compared to a peak of 17% in November 1989. Capital cities on the eastern seaboard weren’t affected by bushfires, which is hardly surprising, with Sydney seeing values rise by 8.2% since finding a floor in May 2019.

What is clear from this past bushfire season is that the economic considerations being factored by major industries, such as the banking sector, have moved from abstract calculations in annual reports to real impacts on regular homeowners and that calculating the effects of increasingly volatile fire seasons is more complicated than simply looking at those areas immediately affected by bushfires.