A rising tide floats all buildings

Sometimes reality catches up with fiction.

Yesterday, a Florida Senate committee advanced legislation that would require the state to plan for rising seas. The action comes after storm surge has repeatedly flooded parts of Miami and threatened its infrastructure.

The proposed legislation is unique in that it avoids the politically divisive issue of climate change and addresses the economic aspect of rising sea levels.

Lawmakers aren’t alone in considering the financial impact of coastal development. The economics, and ethics, of building in flood zones form the central premise of Permanent Vacation, a novel set in a fictionalized version of Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida, both of which border the Gulf of Mexico. Central to that issue is whether governments should encourage or discourage behavior that puts people and property at risk.

Permanent Vacation is available from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords. You can read the story about Florida lawmakers here.

Housing’s New Job: Rebuilding the Economy

Here’s something we haven’t heard in the last five years: while government and retail shed jobs, builders continue to add them.

A closer look at the numbers shows a split recovery. While the overall economy added 88,000 jobs in March, three areas lost workers that month: government (7,000), retail (24,000) and manufacturing (3,000). Since the start of 2011, government has shed 391,000 jobs, and millions of workers continue to leave the labor force, according to figures quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

The opposite is happening in the building trades. Reflecting the growing recovery in the U.S. housing market, the construction industry added 18,000 positions in March and a healthy 169,000 since last September. That brings construction’s cumulative gain since 2011 to 367,000, beating the 357,000 gain in manufacturing.

Those figures reflect increasing activity in the market. Privately owned housing starts in February stood at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 917,000, 27.7 percent above the February 2012 rate of 718,000, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Sales of existing homes and condos have also grown, from 4.52 million to 4.98 million over the same period.

While the economy still faces headwinds, housing looks like it’s building a solid foundation for recovery.

10 things Fla. can learn from Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy wasn’t our first major storm but it was the first since we bought property in Sarasota, Florida. After five days without water, power or reliable phone service, we’ve discovered what many Floridians know: that while you can’t move your home out of harm’s way, you can mitigate the discomfort with a little planning. Here are 10 tips from a northerner who has learned about infrequent but damaging storms:

  1. Plan for the worst. Create two options, one for sheltering in place, the other for abandoning your home. Find a place to shelter before hurricane season. If you can’t stay with relatives or friends outside the disaster zone, investigate nearby motels and plug that contact information into your mobile phone. You can tough it out without hot food but not a shower: you don’t want to report for work with bat hair. Don’t assume your neighbors can shelter you. Chances are they won’t have electricity, either. Book lodgings at least two days before the storm hits or you’ll lose your place to other homeowners and utility crews.
  2. Everything runs on electricity, not just AC and the Internet. Even alternative-fuel systems with electric starters, like pellet stoves and some gas hot water heaters, won’t work. Credit card and ATM machines need power. So do gasoline pumps at service stations. Assume no one will have electricity, including the municipalities, and plan accordingly. That means bulking up on generators, manual appliances, and cash.
  3. Invest in battery backup. Power outages outlast computers, cell phones and smartphones. Consider universal power supplies and dedicated cell-phone chargers. Once a storm approaches, charge all devices every night you have power. And remember to check the batteries in flashlights. You don’t want to be one of the things that go bump in the night.
  4. Sign up for text alerts from the electric company so you’ll know when it restores power to your home. Create a neighborhood phone tree so when the electric company says it has restored power, you can verify, or challenge, that assessment.
  5. Store essential phone numbers on paper. Keep a copy in your house, car and pocket.
  6. Inventory your medications. Keep a list in your wallet or purse. As soon as the first storm forms, refill your prescriptions. Every time the weather service begins tracking a new storm, use those alerts as reminders to check your supply.
  7. Save plastic containers to fill with water for washing, drinking and flushing toilets.
  8. Fill your cars with gasoline as soon as the weather service says a storm will make landfall within a few days.
  9. Pack a crash bag and keep it in the trunk of your car. Include clothing, personal hygiene items, bottled water, flashlight, cell-phone chargers and over-the-counter and prescription medications. If you’re stranded on your way home, you’ll have a few essentials.
  10. Don’t overstock the refrigerator or freezer. Perishables perish. In addition to paper products and plastic utensils, stockpile liquids packaged in bricks, dry goods like pasta, peanut butter, bottled water, canned goods and a manual can opener.

If there’s one lesson Hurricane Sandy has taught us it’s this: hope for the best but plan for the worst. Your future self will thank you.

Learn about how to prepare for hurricanes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Ready.gov site.

Are boomers betting the farm on the house?

Chances are you won’t retire debt-free like your parents’ generation.

That’s the conclusion of a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization dedicated to promoting free-market alternatives to government regulation. The study compared the pre-retirement spending habits of today’s middle-aged (45-54) and older workers (55-64) with those in the same age groups 20 years ago. It found that more boomers carry mortgages, and spend a higher percentage of their income servicing that debt, than their predecessors.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Home mortgages comprise almost three-quarters of all consumer debt, and three-fourths of middle-aged and older workers’ households have mortgages.
  • From 1990 to 2010 the share of expenditures on housing — including principal, mortgage interest, taxes, maintenance and insurance — for these age groups increased about 25 percent.
  • For 55 to 64 year olds, nearly half of this increase was due to an increase in the interest portion of housing expenditures — even though mortgage interest rates have fallen over time.
  • The portion of income boomers spend on mortgage interest increased 47 percent, from 4.3 percent to 6.3 percent.

Housing debt has risen for several reasons, according to NCPA senior fellow Pamela Villarreal:

  • Since a higher percentage of pre-retirees purchased their first home at a later age, many will still be paying for their homes when they retire.
  • In the mid-1990s, the Federal Housing Authority allowed more borrowers to qualify for loans with lower down payments, bumping up the size of those loans.
  • Instead of paying off their mortgages, many baby boomers borrowed against the equity in their homes.

And then there are the effects of the Great Recession on boomers’ children.

“Fifty-nine percent of these parents are providing financial support to adult children who are no longer in school,” Villarreal said. “Nearly one-third has paid off student loans for their children.”

As they say in Vegas, never bet against the house.