Real Estate

With storms intensifying, rainfall increasing and sea levels rising, waterfront property owners have to get more creative. For some, that means moving to higher ground, but for others, it’s just moving the house higher.

House lifting has long been a strategy for waterfront real estate, but it is now becoming a far bigger business due to climate change.

“The more that things flood, the more there’s going to be a need for it,” said Mike Brovont of Wolfe House and Building Movers. He’s been in the house-lifting business for more than two decades.

Brovont points to flooding hot spots like Houston, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. “Of course, New Jersey and Connecticut shoreline are always susceptible to that as well,” he added. “And then you get those high tides, what they call king tides in some areas. You get that combined with a storm coming in, and that can just do tremendous damage.”

New Jersey tops the list of states with the most homes that are expected to see at least one major flood per year by 2050, based on projected sea-level rise. Some 74,165 homes in the state will be affected, according to Climate Central. Next are Florida (57,865), California (36,845), Louisiana (33,372) and North Carolina (33,334).

Santo Siciliano and his wife adore living by the water. “I grew up on the shore. So for me, it’s a no-brainer,” he said.

The flood risk to their Oceanport, New Jersey, home is increasing, however, so to stay in their home, they had to lift it.

The Siciliano’s in front of their home.
Oscar Molina | CNBC

“It’s just something that unfortunately we’re faced with,” he said. “You know, whether it’s climate change or anything else.” 

The Sicilianos lifted their home to comply with new local flood zone building codes. Their home is now one of several houses on the street that was lifted. 

“It’s fairly safe. It’s down to an art,” said Wolfe’s Ryan Hess, the foreman on the Sicilianos’ project.

Hess said he has lifted all kinds of homes, from bungalows to 7,000-square-foot mansions.

“We’ve had a lot of work from Hurricane Sandy,” Hess said. The superstorm slammed the Northeast Coast in 2012, causing widespread catastrophic destruction along the Jersey Shore, Long Island and New York City.

And as storms increase in frequency and intensity, it’s likely this kind of devastation will continue. There were 22 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters across the U.S. in 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That crushes the previous annual record of 16 events, which occurred in 2017 and 2011. The 22 events cost the nation a combined $95 billion in damages. The U.S. saw a record 30 named hurricanes last year, and 12 made landfall, also a record. 

As the water rises, so too must the real estate. House lifting can cost anywhere from $10,000 for a small home to more than $1 million for a large, historic building.

While the danger from rising water is high, the risk of lifting the house is actually not. Experts in the field say it is a precise, gentle, almost delicate practice that happens very slowly and carefully. In some cases, homeowners can leave their furniture inside the homes. 

“There’s always risk but over the years, we’ve definitely come up with ways to mitigate that risk quite a bit,” said Brovont. “Now, really, most houses can be lifted without any expectation of damage. A lot of times we can even lift them without any cracks in the drywall.” 

Companies like his carry special insurance, of course — a cargo or a rigger’s insurance that specifically covers the house for damage caused by the house mover. 

For some, the flood risk is all part of the waterfront reward, and so they try to rise above it.

“We’re shore people,” said Siciliano. “You know, something about not being able to get to the beach in less than 10 minutes … it’s not something I want to do.”