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Climate change concerns weigh on Cape home-buying decisions

Erosion and a changing landscape are givens on Cape Cod. Above, storm surge ate away at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham in February 2013.
Erosion and a changing landscape are givens on Cape Cod. Above, storm surge ate away at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham in February 2013.Globe File photo/Globe Freelance

TRURO — About five years ago, Neil Leifer and Ellen Carno decided to build a vacation home on Cape Cod and wanted a place within biking distance of the fast ferry from Boston to avoid summer traffic.

Provincetown was too busy, they said, so they narrowed their search to the Truro area.

Friends told them to stay away from the ocean side of the Cape, saying the bay side is less prone to storm damage and erosion. The Newton couple had met people who were forced to move their ocean-side homes farther back from the shore because of the eroding sand.


“Not something we wanted to get into,” Carno said.

They spotted a home on the water along Cape Cod Bay in Truro that seemed to tick off all of their boxes.

Having just sold their condo in New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley, they were not in a hurry and let a few months pass before returning to Truro. Those few months were winter ones that included strong storms.

“When we came back. . . . The house was twice as close to the water as it had been,” Carno said. “We decided then and there [that] we wanted to be on the second row back from the water.”

Climate change has become a focal point in real estate discussions like this on Cape Cod. For generations, proximity to the Cape’s roughly 580 miles of picturesque shoreline was a major draw for home buyers. Today, however, that same water frontage is a harder sell.

Increased awareness of rising sea levels, flood zones, and storm surge have potential buyers rethinking how close a relationship they want with the ocean, said John Weyand, a realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty in Falmouth. Part of his job now entails printing out updated flood-zone maps and teaching clients about so-called SLOSH (Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) zones.


For some buyers, however, having a home with that cove view they’ve always wanted outweighs the added expense of carrying flood insurance and abiding by more stringent building codes.

“Other people are more cautious and don’t want to have a house in the flood zone, which is reasonable. It is harder to find, though, since a lot of the older houses are in flood zones because they were built years ago right on the beach,” Weyand said.

Complicating matters, new flood-zone maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency took effect in July, redefining the flood risk for Cape Cod for the first time since the 1990s (even then, data from the ’70s were used).

The new maps are based on computer modeling for storms and flooding not available in the ’70s and take into account about six inches of sea-level rise, said Greg Berman, a coastal processes specialist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Sea Grant program and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.

Whether a home sits in a flood zone determines whether the owner needs to buy flood insurance — an increasingly expensive requirement under new federal rules. Flood-zoned homes also fall under more stringent state building codes meant to protect properties from the ravages of 100-year storms.

But even the new maps do not take into account further sea-level rise, Berman said. “It doesn’t look ahead 50 to 100 years, if the house will even be there.”


Weyand said it is too soon to tell how much the redrawn FEMA maps will affect home sales.

Overall, sales of single-family homes are down slightly across Cape Cod and the Islands despite a bump in the median price. According to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, 2,483 homes sold on the Cape and Islands between January and July, which is a 3.9 percent drop from the same seven months last year. The median price, however, has ticked up 2.6 percent to $348,950 for a single-family home here. Statewide, house sales are off 4.3 percent, while the median price has gone up 5.3 percent, to $339,000.


Geologically speaking, climate change created Cape Cod.

As a land mass, the Cape has been steadily shrinking since the retreat of the last ice age’s glaciers. The gravelly rubble left behind formed the spine of the Cape, enormous ice chunks melted to form the area’s hundreds of kettle-hole lakes and ponds, and shifting sands made up the majority of the rest. As little as 6,000 years ago, even the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were part of the mainland. The land-shaping through storms, wind, and waves has continued ever since.

In 2010, a few nor’easters uncovered 111 long-buried and well-preserved stumps from a former stand of cedar trees where South Cape Beach State Park in Mashpee now stretches along Vineyard Sound. Meanwhile, other parts of the Cape shoreline routinely gain and lose enormous deposits of sand. Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, and the outer barrier beaches of Chatham are in constant flux.


Winter storms — which scientists say are getting more extreme as the climate warms — also have undercut the foundations of homes in Sandwich and carved cliffs into dunes of the Outer Cape. Two years ago, the federal government tore down several seaside cottages on Chatham’s North Beach Island, a stretch of the Cape Cod National Seashore cut off from the mainland by storms.

But still people buy waterfront property and construct new ones on the Cape, and builder Peter Coffin can’t blame them.

“If you are in a position to pay to buy the location, you are going to do it, without a doubt,” Coffin said. “You do it for the romance of it, for the beauty of it, the sheer love of living on Cape Cod.”

That beauty, however, can come with a hefty price tag, depending on where a home is being built, rebuilt, or even just renovated. If a house sits within the flood or velocity zones (in which the risk is higher), renovations exceeding 50 percent of the home’s value trigger all sorts of building requirements, Coffin said, ranging from elevating living spaces and utilities above the base flood levels to replacing septic systems and using breakaway walls to allow for flow-through of storm waters.

Coffin is building a modern replacement for a 1930s house that burned on Buzzards Bay in Pocasset, a section of Bourne. The original home was so close to the water along Wings Neck, it could not be replicated under the current rules. Instead, the home is being built on stilts.


While following these rules may ensure the homes withstand severe weather, there is no guarantee the roadways will survive, Coffin said. The home sits within a high-risk flood zone, and even a three-foot rise in sea level would submerge the main road leading out to Wings Neck — along with some 48 miles of roadway elsewhere on Cape Cod, according to a computer model generated by the Cape Cod Commission.

While Coffin appreciates the point of the regulations — protecting people and property from extreme storms — he also sees a very real human cost for those who cannot afford to renovate or insure homes that have been in their families for generations.

Overnight, he said, hundreds of families in his town of Bourne found themselves living in flood zones and subject to new rules and expenses.

Back in Truro, Leifer and Carno decided to build high enough away from the flood plains and encountered another weather complication: wind.

“I had wanted to put in folding glass doors and have the walls just open up onto the porch. Our architect said that would have worked on the West Coast but not here,” Carno said.

They completed their three-bedroom, cedar-shingled, 2,000-square-foot home — complete with hurricane anchors — in May 2013.

“We are up on a bluff, and it is like living on a ship,” Carno said. “We have had the outdoor shower door blow off. We have to latch the door shut. When we cover things up in winter, we use tarps with grommets on them to lock things down.”

However precarious life on Cape Cod may appear in the face of rising seas, Carno said she expects her home to outlast her, her husband, and their grown sons, which more than justifies the investment. She said living on the Cape is more about the experience than the real estate investment.

“It’s beautiful. . . . I understand why painters are drawn to it,” Carno said about the ocean. “The air smells different. It is a meditative and joyful place to be.”

“But people worry about Boston going underwater, too. What are you going to do? You take a measured risk, I guess.”


Graphic: Cape Cod’s changing shape

Jose Martinez can be reached at Martinezjose1@mac.com.