A government adviser said Ontario house hunters should be warned about properties at risk of flooding, a proposal that would have far-ranging implications for real estate transactions in Canada’s most populous province.
The recommendation was one of more than 60 made by Winnipeg-based consultant Douglas McNeil in a report released on Thursday. Heavy rains, sudden rising temperatures and melting snow wreaked havoc across Ontario this spring, and Minister of Natural Resources John Yakabuski appointed Mr. McNeil in July to review the province’s approach to managing floods.
Mr. McNeil, a professional engineer with extensive experience in water-management issues including flooding, retired as Winnipeg’s chief administrative officer earlier this year. His report recommended Ontario introduce legislation requiring residential properties at risk of flooding be identified “in some way that is publicly accessible, at the very least on the property title.”
The proposal provided few specifics on what flood risk-information should be disclosed, or how. For example, it provided no guidance for determining when flood risks would be sufficiently high to warrant mandatory disclosure.
Mr. McNeil also concluded that much of the province’s flood maps require updating to account for recent development and to employ the latest technologies.
Such measures could greatly increase the volume of information available to prospective home buyers, although it’s unclear how that might affect sales volumes and prices of high-risk homes.
According to an estimate by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, of 10.9 million residential properties in Canada, 2.2 million are at risk of overland flooding. Typically, owners and realtors have no legal obligation to warn prospective buyers that a house has suffered flood damage or is likely to do so.
Jason Thistlethwaite, a professor at University of Waterloo’s environment school, said disseminating information about flood risks is simpler and more effective than alternatives such as imposing land-use restrictions.
“Information is a cheap and powerful tool that can avoid more rigorous, costly and disruptive forms of regulation,” he said. “The market can do the heavy lifting for you by reflecting the risk in the price of the property, or at least giving people the benefit of foresight.”
Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, also supported the measure. He argued that at a minimum, sellers should be compelled to disclose whether a home had been inundated during the past five years either due to overland flooding or sewer backup.
However, Mr. Feltmate predicted forcing such disclosures could prompt sharp, short-term declines in prices of “red-tagged” homes. Homeowners “are going to flip,” he predicted. “I can guarantee that when these flood-risk maps come out, it is going to be a political nightmare. And to a certain degree, that’s really why they haven’t been rolled out.”
Citing studies from England, where high-resolution flood-risk maps are available, Mr. Thistlethwaite disagreed. “To put it simply, waterfront properties retain value because people want to buy them, regardless of the risk,” he said.
Even so, he agreed that the proposal faces considerable logistical and political obstacles.
“Think about who could afford some of these very expensive properties along waterfronts, or in urban areas where you’ve got a nice little backyard stream,” he said. “It’s people who have a lot of resources and, if threatened, can probably pull a lot of political capital to their side.”
Following the 2013 floods in Alberta, premier Alison Redford “tried to have flood risk included on the property title,” he added. “She had to take it back within a month of saying that. It’s easier said than done.”
Mr. Yakabuski’s office, which received the report on Oct. 31, did not answer questions regarding whether or how it would implement Mr. McNeil’s suggestion, nor did it provide an assessment of its merits.
The government “will consider the adviser’s report as one input to making any potential changes to the system and would also need to consult on any future policy changes,” spokeswoman Lindsee Perkins wrote in a statement.
Earlier this year, Ontario’s conservation authorities said the government cut their budgets for flood-management programs in half. Noting Ontario’s deficit reached an estimated $15-billion last year, Mr. McNeil recommended only that the province maintain current funding levels for flood initiatives.
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