Some people are leaving risky areas because they’re worried about air quality, but many are moving because they’ve been priced out; home prices in high risk metros are 65% higher than prices in low risk metros
Redfin Journalist Services:
Isabelle Novak, 414-861-5861
(NASDAQ: RDFN) — Places facing high risk from poor air quality are losing residents faster than they used to, while places with low risk are gaining residents faster than they used to, according to a new report from Redfin (redfin.com), the technology-powered real estate brokerage.
In 2021-2022, 1.2 million more people moved out of than into U.S. metros facing high risk from poor air quality, more than double the net outflow of the prior two years. Meanwhile, low risk metros saw 1 million more people move in than out, nearly double the net inflow of the prior two years.
This is according to a Redfin analysis of domestic migration data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and air quality risk scores from First Street, which house hunters can now view on Redfin.com listings. First Street assigns nearly every U.S. home a risk rating—minimal, minor, moderate, major, severe or extreme. For this report, a “high risk” metro is one where at least 10% of properties fall into the major, severe or extreme categories, and a “low risk” metro is one where less than 10% of properties fall into those categories. First Street’s rating system is based on the number of poor air quality days expected annually today and in 30 years. It includes two common pollutants: Particulate matter (PM2.5), which often comes from wildfire smoke, and ozone (O3), which occurs when pollutants react with heat/sunlight.
“Deciding where to live is all about prioritization. With housing costs hovering near their record high, the top priority for many homebuyers is getting a good deal,” said Redfin Chief Economist Daryl Fairweather. “Even when homebuyers do consider climate change, poor air quality often isn’t top of mind because it’s not as visibly destructive as hazards like flooding and fires. But as the dangers of climate change intensify, we will likely see more people factor air quality and other disaster risks into their decisions about where to settle down.”
High risk metros are concentrated in expensive Western states like California, which has been plagued by smoke from intensifying wildfires in recent years. The median home sale price in high risk metros was $563,710 as of December, 65% higher than the $341,483 median sale price in low risk metros.
A Redfin-commissioned survey fielded in May-June found that 9% of recent U.S. home sellers cited concerns about climate change as a reason for their move. Other reasons were more common. The top three answers were more space (31%), proximity to family (24%) and getting a better deal on a home (20%).
The number of poor air quality days in the Western U.S. surged by as much as 477% between 2000 and 2021, in large part due to wildfire smoke, according to a First Street analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This has reversed some of the air quality progress the U.S. made through federal and local regulatory policies in the 20th century, and is also putting many Americans’ health at risk. The Biden Administration last week tightened standards for deadly air pollution, targeting PM2.5, which comes from factories and power plants in addition to wildfires.
There are roughly 14 million U.S. properties (about 10% of all properties) that are estimated to have at least a week of poor air quality per year due to PM2.5 today, and almost 6 million of those face at least two weeks. Some places grapple with months of unhealthy air. Fresno, CA is expected to have over two months of poor air quality in a bad year under current environmental conditions, and more than three months 30 years from now, primarily due to wildfire smoke.
From 2000 to 2023, an average of nearly 7 million acres burned in U.S. wildfires each year, up from roughly 3 million from 1983 to 1999, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. All but one of the 10 costliest U.S. wildfires occurred in California, according to data as of 2022, though fires are becoming more common in other regions.
People Are Leaving the American West, Which Is Smoky and Expensive
The American West has seen scores of people move out in recent years, and while that’s partly due to wildfires and smoke, the region’s high cost of living is likely the primary driver.
There are 13 major U.S. metros where over 85% of homes face high risk from poor air quality. All of them are in the West, with nine in California and the rest in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Over two-thirds of those metros saw more people move out than in during 2021-2022, and 3% of homes for sale across those metros last year were affordable for the typical local homebuyer, on average.
There are 57 major metros where no homes face high risk from poor air quality. Nearly all of them (93%) are located outside of the West, and a majority (54%) saw more people move in than out in 2021-2022. On average, 19% of homes for sale across those metros last year were affordable for the typical local homebuyer. While that's low, it’s over six times higher than the share in high risk metros.
“Dense American cities have some of the worst air quality, but not everyone can actually afford to leave—even if the city they live in is expensive,” Fairweather said. “If you work remotely, it’s often easy to chase greener pastures. But if you’re in a line of work that requires you to clock in in person every day—and those jobs often pay less—you may not have the means or flexibility to relocate.”
High Risk Often Overlaps With High Home Prices
Washington state is one example of a place that has been plagued by both poor air quality from wildfires and exorbitant housing costs, driving many people away. In the Seattle metro area, where 100% of homes face high risk from poor air quality, 55,092 more people moved out than in during 2021-2022. That’s a reversal from 2019-2020, when 2,510 more people moved in than out. At $750,000, Seattle has the eighth highest median home sale price among major U.S. metros; just 3% of homes for sale last year were affordable for the typical local buyer, down from 5% in 2022.
Pierce County, WA, which is just south of Seattle and includes both the city of Tacoma and Mount Rainier National Park, is expected to post the nation’s largest increase in poor air quality days over the next three decades. By 2054, First Street expects Pierce County to face 43 days of orange+ air quality per year—up from 31 today—primarily due to PM2.5 pollution. The Tacoma metro saw more people move out than in during 2021-2022, a reversal from the prior two years, amid a surge in home prices.
Skyrocketing housing costs during the pandemic priced many people out of the Seattle area, but some residents, including Redfin’s own chief economist, have moved away because wildfires have worsened.
Fairweather left Seattle in 2020 to escape wildfire smoke and moved to Wisconsin. It was free from smoke for the first few years she was there, but in June was inundated with unhealthy smoke from Canadian wildfires.
“There’s no such thing as a climate haven,” Fairweather said. “Climate change is making its mark everywhere on Earth. The Midwest may be protected from sea level rise, but it’s still vulnerable to storms, heat waves, drought and now smoke. The best thing homeowners can do is be prepared: Do your research on which climate dangers impact your area and what investments you can make to insulate your family and home from those risks.”
Bad air quality in the West isn’t only fueled by wildfires. Los Angeles, for example, is also at risk from O3. Los Angeles County is expected to have three weeks (21 days) of orange+ air quality this year due to O3—the third highest in the U.S.—and 27 days by 2054. The Los Angeles metro area saw 337,757 more people move out than in from 2021-2022. That’s the second highest net outflow in the country (partly due to population size) and is up from a net outflow of 211,756 during the prior two years. Los Angeles is the fifth most expensive metro for U.S. homebuyers, with a median sale price of $850,000.
Low Risk Doesn’t Mean No Risk
While “high” risk from poor air quality is concentrated in the West, which has seen an exodus of residents in recent years, other parts of the U.S. are also at risk. Many of these areas have seen their populations swell, and are vulnerable to numerous climate dangers.
The metros that saw the highest net in-migration in 2021-2022 are Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa, FL, Austin, TX, San Antonio and North Port, FL. While no homes in those metros face “high” risk from poor air quality, it doesn’t mean they face no risk at all. For example, 100% of homes in Dallas fall into First Street’s minimal, minor or moderate risk categories. In terms of number of fires, Texas actually ranked highest in 2022, and the state has grappled with both extreme heat and extreme cold in recent years. In Phoenix, there’s a dire water shortage. And in Tampa and North Port, flooding, storms and the disappearance of insurance coverage are major concerns.
A separate Redfin analysis found that the most flood-prone U.S. counties saw 384,000 more people move in than out in 2021 and 2022—a 103% increase from the prior two years—as high risk places like Florida exploded in popularity. Flood-prone metros are often relatively affordable, unlike many of the metros endangered by unhealthy air quality.
To view the full report, including charts, a metro-level summary and methodology, please visit: https://www.redfin.com/news/wildfire-risk-migration-air-factor/
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