Toxic Water & Real Estate: An interview with a Realtor from Flint

What happens to a real estate market when the water is unsafe to drink? In light of the tragic situation unfolding right now in Flint, Michigan, I thought this would be a timely conversation. So I reached out to Realtor Ryan McFarlane who has sold nearly 1000 homes in Flint. This brief interview isn’t an exhaustive case study, but only one conversation centered on real estate (which has so much to do with people). I’d love to hear your take in the comments below.

Flint real estate agent interview - by sacramento appraisal blog - image purchased from 123rf and used with permission

Tell me about yourself. How long have you been in real estate? How much business have you done in Flint?

Realtor Ryan MacFarlane - MichiganMy name is Ryan McFarlane. I originally got into real estate around 2004. Overall I’ve sold over 3000 homes, and about 1000 of them have been in Flint; the company I work for now was actually started in Flint.

What is the population of Flint?

According to the census, the population is 99,763. However, it used to be 141,553 in 1990. When GM closed down their plants, it was devastating for the housing market and job market in Flint as a blue collar town.

What is the City of Flint like for those who have only read it about it recently?

I would say there are still some nice areas of housing. People are investing in Flint and trying to bring up the Downtown area. Though when you get off the beaten path, there are some rough patches. There are still good areas, but there are many bad areas. Some people say it’s all bad, but it’s not that way. There are also some good things going on, but the attention is often on the bad things.

flint listing - by sacramento appraisal blog

How much do properties tend to sell for in the city?

As of right now there are 352 active properties on the market in the City of Flint. The low end is about $500 and the highest listing is $229,000. In the last year the highest sale was $350,000, but it was over 6000 sq ft and a custom home in a historical area. Otherwise most properties in the city are going to sell under $30,000. The majority of sales are bank-owned properties. Sometimes properties literally sell for nothing since people call me and want to transfer the quitclaim deed to someone else. Sometimes a bank-owned property is in such bad condition that it is worth absolutely nothing. Other times a home will be bulldozed and the land will be sold (often a neighbor will buy the land). Some owners will not pay their taxes too because they might end up paying say $1000 for taxes when the property is only worth $500.

What is the median income of Flint residents?

The median income is $24,834 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

flint vs sacramento

How much does a typical house rent for in Flint?

I would say on average about $500 per month.

How much are water bills right now in Flint? How does this compare to surrounding areas?

A family of 4 told me recently their bill was $250 per month, and the bill has to be paid even though they cannot use the water. Even vacant houses are being charged $50-60 per month for water. Some surrounding areas bill on a quarterly basis, and the quarterly water bill ends up being about the same as someone’s monthly bill in Flint.

NOTE from SacBlog: Most articles online state Flint residents are easily paying $140 to $150 per month for water they cannot use. This is obviously only an average since Ryan mentioned above that some residents are paying $250. Keep in mind $150 per month is 7% of a household’s monthly income (based on the median income in Flint). Also, if a home rents for say $600, the water bill is 25% of rent. Imagine a $1500 rental in Sacramento and having a $375 water bill (that’s 25%).

flint listing 2 - by sacramento appraisal blog

Some say it’s illegal to sell a house with toxic water. Is that true?

Legally there is nothing that says you cannot sell. There was a recent article from the Michigan Association of Realtors that said you can sell them, but you need to disclose the water issue on the seller’s disclosure form to make people aware of the water issue. Though buyers would have to be living in a cave to not know about the water issue already, so the disclosure is only a formality.

Some appraiser colleagues working in the Flint area say FHA and USDA have asked appraisers to verify where a home is getting water from since FHA/USDA don’t want to guarantee loans on properties using Flint water. Have you found this to be the case too?

Most of my deals have been cash buyers, though there have been people getting loans though too.

NOTE from SacBlog: Who is lending in Flint? Please comment below. I want to hear if any FHA and conventional lenders are making deals happen. Unsafe water is a clear health and safety issue, which would seemingly prohibit FHA deals from happening.

flint listing 3 - by sacramento appraisal blog

What impact are you seeing the toxic water issue to have on the local market in terms of values?

In some senses we may see a slight decline in sales and out-of-state investors are probably not going to be buying properties. But at the same time, sales are going to happen. From a practical standpoint the water issue has to be fixed. Nobody knows when that will happen, but we all know it will presumably happen. Flint is still one of the most affordable places to buy for locals. At the end of the day, values are already so low that they cannot go down much more than they have already. However, anything that is considered “higher-end” will probably be impacted since buyers will definitely look at what they can buy somewhere else for the same price (and not have water issues). But I don’t think there will be much effect under $30,000. You just can’t pick up homes in other nearby places for those low prices.

NOTE on rents from SacBlog: It’s interesting to consider what may happen with rents in outlying areas near Flint. If residents leave the city, will rents elsewhere increase? This reminds me of some reports of price gouging with rents in Porter Ranch in Southern California, which is the community where residents had to be evacuated due to an ongoing methane gas leak.

Have you heard or seen any impact on the commercial sector?

Yes. Businesses serve bottled water and they seem to be careful about water filtration. A few years ago GM had a nearby used motor facility just on the border of Flint. After doing some water testing, apparently the water was not good enough to spray on their motors.


I hope you enjoyed this brief interview. Thank you again to Ryan McFarlane for his time and insight.

Questions: What if anything stood out to you about what Ryan said? What would you expect to see happen in a real estate market when the water is toxic? What would happen in your market?

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