The Wash Up – Who Wants to Live in a Flood Zone?

April 1st, 2022

Last month, our region experienced a catastrophic flood event like no other. The repercussions are yet to be fully integrated but they will certainly affect the property market.  This article will discuss some of the possibilities going forward, in relation to property prices, insurance, and general liveability.

Lismore, a town that is no stranger to floods, is now having to question its whole viability. Their council is probably regretting they did not masterplan the new high development of Goonellabah to include a new CBD. Ballina, Mullumbimby, Billinudgel and large parts of Ocean Shores were also badly affected.

And then, as if the Gods wanted to put salt in the wound, we had another major downpour within the same month. We now have a 30-day flood event. This not only flooded the CBD and other low-lying areas in Lismore which were recovering from the previous record flood but also affected Byron Bay, Suffolk Park and Ballina. Byron has flooded like this in the past but one minor advantage is that it was not a river or creek flood with massive inundation of mud and silt. It was caused mainly by the drains in Byron being unable to cope with over 200 mm of rain in one night.  At least it was easier to clean up without the river silt or mud.

Short Memories

Our last flood event was in 2017. This flood height was a new record and over two metres higher than the previous record – that is an entire floor. The question is whether this one is going to fade in the memory as quickly as 2017 did. My guess is this one was so overpowering that people will now realise we can’t comfortably go back to business as usual.

Property Values

Let me use two specific areas as examples of how values may change. The north side of Mullumbimby and South Golden Beach were suburbs I have always felt positive about. I encouraged clients/buyers to consider buying there as I thought they would only have upside. After these recent flood events, the best I can see for these locations is that they might hold their value but will most probably see an immediate depreciation of 10 – 20%.  We will have no way of knowing until a few brave or desperate sellers test the market.

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

South Golden Beach is interesting. The majority of the houses in SGB are well off the ground but the amount of damaged furniture and white goods was still immense. I wondered how much of this mess was from ground floor granny flats which were probably never approved. Quite a few, I’m sure as I was one to advise people to do this, partly for the extra income to buyers to cover the mortgage, but also to help solve the persistent housing crisis in Byron Shire. I would now advise owners who have done this in flood-affected areas not to refit their ground floors for accommodation. Unfortunately, this will further impact the shortage of available housing in the shire, which the flooding has only exacerbated. Apparently, there are around 1600 people who need emergency housing.

I also wrote a post a while ago advising highlighting the good value to be had in South Lismore. Houses were then going for $350-400K and promised a good rental yield. As long as they were built high enough off the ground the chance of flooding would be slight. Then there would be no need to pay for flood cover, especially if tenants were prepared for the occasional yard clean up. I regret that advice as in retrospect it was not a good idea.

I also misunderstood, like everyone else, that the 100-year flood event means that a flood hits this level only once in a hundred years. This is incorrect and a 100-year flood means there is a 1 in 100 chance (1% probability) of a flood of that magnitude happening in the same year. What this means is that these events are a lot more likely to take place more often than every 100 years.


The term uninsurable is not really correct. Something is always insurable if an insurer and the customer agree on the cost of the premium. But in reality. a property just becomes economically uninsurable if flood cover gets to $30-40K a year – as it already is in some parts of Lismore.

What will be happening more in the future, in my work for clients at least, is more calls to insurers for quotes on fire and flood cover before purchasing a property. There is also the request that the government subsidises flood premiums in some circumstances. I have written about this in the past as well.

What to do, where to go?

This is a big wake up call for everyone. All Northern Rivers councils are pondering the options. We were faced with a mammoth housing shortage and with this, the problem just grew by another 10- 20% overnight.

I predict that house-raising firms will be busy in the future. It can cost anywhere from $25-80K to raise a house. I could see most of the wooden post-and-beam houses being raised a metre or more. Brick houses on a slab in badly flood-prone areas will be reduced to land value only. The existing houses will be fit only for demolishing and new homes will be built with more floor height.

But some of these existing houses can also be retrofitted to be resilient and easy to wash out post flood. That includes concrete floors with recessed door sills to make mud removal easier, hardwood kitchens with disposable shelving that is easily replaced, and high storage in roof eaves. Wainscoting could come back in fashion so lower parts of walls can be removed post-flood, dried out and then replaced. People will need to choose if they can live in a flood zone, without insurance, but be prepared to do the cleanup.

Planned Retreat?

Planned Retreat sounds good in theory, but in practice is another matter. A small town like Grantham in the Lockyer Valley was moved to higher ground. But it was only a small village of 29 houses. Towns like Lismore and Mullumbimby have long-established town centres with businesses mainly near floor level. These commercial buildings can never be easily raised or moved. Their vulnerability is exacerbated in Mullumbimby because of the town’s old and damaged ceramic drainage pipes which are in dire need of replacement. Planned Retreat along Belongil Spit also means we are sacrificing the Byron Bay CBD. Is that really a good idea so soon?

Bad Infrastructure

There are other reasons besides climate change why flooding events will get worse. The Ocean Shores development which was done in the 60s and 70s eliminated two of the three natural ocean outflows. Then, when the new highway was built on the flatlands at Tyagarah, Myocum and Bruns it did not include ANY conduits to release water to the east. The rock walls at Brunswick Heads are a bottleneck. Belongil Creek and the tributaries of the Brunswick and Richmond River could benefit from de-silting – but this is not encouraged.

Our towns and villages were built on rivers because back in the day boats was the main form of transport. That is no longer the case but it is hard to imagine new town centres with the charm and convenience – and history – of the present ones. The climate and local weather may not be as benign or manageable as they once were. Everyone involved, from Federal and State governments down to residents and property owners has existential decisions to make.

Related Articles

Byron’s Ongoing Housing Debate
Post Flooding Funding and Donating Links
We Need to Talk About This: Good Development vs Bad Post Flooding

2 Replies to “The Wash Up – Who Wants to Live in a Flood Zone?”

  1. A minor correction – a 1 in 100 year flood meant that, *in the past* floods reached that level one in a hundred years, looking forward with the combination of climate change, and development in floodplains (like West Byron) are we really betting that this will happen less often than once in 10 years.

    With a state government that keeps approving developments over local wishes, and federal governments, of both parties, that keep approving coal and gas we can only presume those odds will get a LOT worse.

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