For decades, affluent homebuyers in search of coastal vacation property gravitated to the ocean, where real estate prices were higher but returns on investment were reliably strong. But this summer, rising sea levels are changing the way people think about waterfront real estate.

Share story

Under normal circumstances, the six-bedroom oceanfront home on Oregon’s northern coast would be a sought-after haven for summer beachgoers. With a hot tub and a swimming pool, the Tuscan-style residence spans 3,300 square feet and includes sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

But these aren’t normal circumstances along the Oregon coast.

The home is in the town of Rockaway Beach, where large swaths of beachfront have been eaten away in recent years as rising tides fuel record levels of erosion. When it was built in 2009, at a cost of more than $1 million, the property sat nearly 30 feet from the ocean. Today, it’s perched perilously just eight feet from the edge of the dune, and local officials predict it will come tumbling down before the end of the year.

The home’s owner is spending much of the summer – and tens of thousands of dollars – trying to stave off its demise: driving dump-truck loads of sand onto the beach in front of the residence, while seeking permission from state officials to install permanent rock-and-boulder barriers to protect the bluff from the onslaught of waves.

“Its foundation is already starting to slip,” said Phillip Johnson, executive director of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, adding that Rockaway Beach has lost about 164 yards of beach in recent years. “We’re going to see more of this kind of thing happen to coastal housing, and not just in Oregon.”

For decades, affluent home buyers in search of coastal vacation property gravitated to the ocean, where real estate prices were higher but returns on investment were reliably strong. But this summer – as rising sea levels increasingly change the way people think about waterfront real estate – wealthy enclaves on both coasts are fighting the same desperate battle against erosion and rising tides.

From New England to California, some of America’s most prized waterfront real estate is disappearing into the ocean, despite deep-pocketed homeowners spending enormous sums to put off the pain of losing their homes.

“I plan to stay and fight as long as I can,” Justine Kenney says, adding that despite the dire warnings she isn’t about to retreat. Her 1940s cedar shingle home on the Siasconset coast in Nantucket, Massachusetts, is one of several that have been battered by rising tides in recent years, ravaging the bluff beneath the coast and edging homes closer to the sea. Some homeowners have spent millions of dollars moving their homes back on their lots, while others have moved elsewhere on the island as the ocean has advanced.

“I’m not even thinking about giving up my house,” said Kenney, a retired stockbroker whose property has lost five to 10 feet of coastline since March. “At least, not yet.”

In Malibu, California, one of the priciest beachfront areas in the country, experts estimate that some slices of that wealthy community have lost up to 50 feet of beach over the past decade.

Local officials there are planning to spend $55 million to $60 million every 10 years – at taxpayers’ expense – hauling in many tons of sand to restore the disappearing beach and dunes in front of a pricey mile of real estate that includes more than 100 homes.

Waterfront property in Nags Head, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks, can soar well above a million dollars. The beach there has been eroding at about six feet per year, according to the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management. That’s more than four times the median rate for North Carolina’s coast. The town is spending $48 million – and raising taxes for property owners – dredging sand from the sea floor and pumping it onto beaches.

“These beaches are doomed,” says Orrin Pilkey, a professor of geology at Duke University. “The buildings are doomed, too.”

Nantucket is an upscale haven for summer vacationers 30 miles south of Cape Cod, but beach erosion and rising seas are threatening some of the most expensive real estate on the island. Some areas have lost nearly 100 feet of beachfront over the past few years, according to the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund. Island officials – along with some deep-pocketed residents – are installing seven-foot-tall jute sandbags to line the bluff for 1,000 feet in a desperate effort to save rows of beachfront residences.

“Homes on the beach are no match for this kind of erosion,” says Josh Posner, president of the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund. “It’s a losing battle, no matter how much money you have.”

Beach erosion is nothing new, of course. Shorelines have been shifting for thousands of years. But after a decade of mostly affecting low-lying areas, where homes are typically less expensive, pricey oceanfront communities are now squarely in Mother Nature’s crosshairs.

“A lot of these wealthier homeowners are playing chicken with nature, and losing,” says Johnson, of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition.

Some residents are employing expensive short-term solutions to try to save their properties. Such efforts include installing sand berms and retaining walls, and building pricey steel bulkheads and synthetic dunes. Many are spending thousands of dollars hauling in sand to replenish their beachfront.

But rising sea levels are exacerbating the problem, with most of the U.S. ocean coastline eroding faster than ever, geologists say. And that could spark a crisis in wealthier coastal housing markets.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists says that more than 300,000 homes in the United States are likely to be affected by chronic flooding within the next 30 years because of rising sea levels. The study suggests properties valued at nearly $140 billion across the country are at risk from the effects of the rise.

Some Washington, D.C.-area beaches are also in harm’s way, the report notes. Ocean City in Maryland – where town officials are spending millions replenishing the beaches – is listed among several locations along the Atlantic Ocean most at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.

A growing chorus of scientists argues that the only permanent solution is relocation.

“Erosion doesn’t destroy the beach or the environment,” says Robert Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University. “The problem comes when you build on them and you don’t want to move away.”