Long term risks of buying in Alameda?

We have been saving every penny we can for over 10 years to buy a home and are finally in the position to do so.  Although the market remains horrible, we are paying so much in rent that at some point it just makes sense to leap in, so long as we find a place we can stay in for the very long term.  We are increasingly feeling drawn to Alameda.  However, given that buying a house at today's prices is such a massive financial undertaking, and given that this home would be the primary thing we'd leave behind for our kids, we have been thinking and worrying about the long term consequences of buying a house in Alameda.  As in: what about the impact of climate change and rising sea levels on that little island city?  Doesn't seem that's something that you can insure for in some way, and I'm afraid I lack the confidence that local government is addressing this issue adequately.  I know that all over the Bay Area it's a bit of a "pick your poison" situation: wildfires and landslides in the hills, higher incidence of crime in some areas, earthquake risks (not a pro for Alameda there either).  Are we being illogically risk averse?  Are there specific locations in Alameda (or the greater East Bay for that matter) that we should be considering as a "safer" place to park so much of our life savings?  Thanks for any feedback.

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You are being risk averse which is logical but you can not avoid all risk.

If you purchase a home, make sure you can afford insurance(s) which concern you (earthquake, flood, etc).......and.....JUMP into the unknown! But, you don't have to purchase one. You can rent and avoid making errors.

The safest place to park your life savings is under a mattress (but that could also go terribly wrong).

Is it illogical? Who knows. But the liquefaction risk due to the fact that much of the island is on fill is the primary reason we don't live in Alameda. Not every home there is in a liquefaction zone, of course, but much of the island is, and none of the bridges over the estuary is a lifeline structure (rated to withstand a more significant earthquake). Sea level rise is certainly a concern too but I'd be less worried about that in the short term since we think about housing less as an investment and more as an amenity. Sea level rise is a slow but certain threat and is going to affect the entire region; an earthquake is uncertain but could come tomorrow (or never!) We opted to be on bedrock in an area with more escape routes. But as you note, this is not much different for fires in the hills or the myriad other risks in the East Bay. I think you just have to find your own comfort level.

It's great that you are considering Alameda. We've been here 18 years and we are very happy we moved here. Even though it seems like a low-lying island, the risks to Alameda of sea level rise are very low. Most of the main island is original land, not landfill. (It is a "man-made" island because it was a peninsula before they cut the channel to make it an island.) Some parts are landfill, particularly around the lagoons. There is a great tool at nova.gov called "Sea Level Rise Viewer" that lets you see the impact of different amounts of sea level rise on different areas. There doesn't seem to be any risks to Alameda neighborhoods until 3 feet of sea level rise. (Unfortunately for me, that one neighborhood is exactly where I live!) Even at 6 feet of sea level rise, most of the island is unaffected. If you stay west of High St. and north of the lagoons, you should be fine even if the sea level rises 6 feet! Check it out yourself at: https://coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slr

You can also find earthquake hazard maps at usgs.gov that will show you the dangers of liquefaction in different parts of the Bay Area. The earthquake hazard map for Alameda looks very similar to the sea level rise hazard map. The main island is mostly pretty safe, except around the edges. 

We are in the midst of buying a home in Alameda too, and we had the same concern. I don't think it's illogical to worry about it. There are flood maps you can look at online that will show you where there will be inundation in the event of a tsunami, which I assume is similar to what would happen with rising sea levels (though I am not a scientist). There are also earthquake maps that show you areas of Alameda you probably want to avoid if you're concerned about the soil liquefying - Bay Farm and the whole west end come to mind, as those areas are all landfill. I like to think that California, and the Bay Area in particular, will adopt methods and strategies similar to what they're doing in places like the Netherlands, so that even when sea levels rise, the land will be protected. Good luck, and congrats on the big purchase!    

FEMA is in the process of mapping flood risks for Alameda:

But they've already mapped large parts of Marin.  And flood insurance prices in certain low-lying areas have skyrocketed.  So why not try to get flood insurance quotes for Alameda?  That might be a good starting point.  Or see if the Army Corps of Engineers or ABAG have any predictions on flooding.

As to "safer" areas, I think it's easier to protect your home from earthquakes than floods, provided you ensure your house is really well secured to the foundation.  In Hilo, Hawaii (where there is sometimes severe flooding) a lot of people have resorted to building their house on stilts.  I think you'd have a hard time doing that here.  Of course, you could always get a houseboat!

Long term: historically the Bay Area has always had severe earthquakes and fires ... yet it keeps coming back, and the value of real estate historically increases.  There are no guarantees, but it's a pretty good track record.

Besides thinking about the long run, check to see what your flood insurance might be right now.  I recall having a conversation with a neighbor who was very close to the water in Alameda.  He said his flood insurance premiums were high because he was in a flood zone.  He also mentioned that he expected his rates to only go up, perhaps significantly, in the future.  He said his real estate agent never mentioned that his flood insurance would be so expensive.