Know Your Flood Risk Before You’re in Too Deep

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Severe weather seems increasingly routine. The coastline is pounded by waves, and rivers and streams overflow their banks. Personal property is lost and damaged, and clean-up and repairs are expensive and time consuming. The scenario repeats and intensifies, so if you’re in the market to buy a home, factor the flood risk into your decision.

Free flood map tools can be accessed online. One source is FEMA.gov, the website of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Search for the flood map service center and type in your address to see an interactive map. This is a helpful starting point.

Watch out for the fine print though. Many online resources have disclaimers like “do not rely on this information for a property purchase,” which leaves you open to liability. The problem is that most floodplain maps are created from GPS data – and we all know how faulty GPS can be for driving directions, right?

More accurate sources of flood zone determinations are Western Technologies Group (wtgroupllc.com) and your insurance company. For about $30, WTG provides a certified, insurable determination, using different methodology. Ask your insurance company whether it can do the same, as well as provide a risk assessment and insurance quote.

If you already own property, these resources can help confirm your flood risk status. Mis-classifications are not uncommon. It’s possible that you’re paying expensive flood insurance, yet needn’t be, or that you aren’t fully protected and should have better coverage. It’s a good idea to doublecheck.

Incorrect flood plain determinations can be overturned. On some sloping properties, lower areas may be prone to flooding, yet structures are safely on high ground. Were variations in elevation considered when your insurance premium was calculated? If not, map amendments and cost adjustments can be sought with the help of a registered professional engineer or licensed land surveyor.

On the other hand, is your homeowner’s policy adequate? Does is cover flood damage and temporary housing? Flood maps change over time, so an updated needs assessment may be due.

Don’t depend on the federal flood insurance program as a long-term solution. The program is billions of dollars in debt, and public scrutiny from taxpayers who’ve bailed it out is growing. A Channel 7News investigation in February 2018 revealed that hundreds of Massachusetts homes have received more in federal insurance payouts than the homes are even worth, and dozens have filed more than 10 claims each over a couple decades. In the most wasteful examples, homes valued under $350,000 have received over $1 million in federally funded repairs. How long will the public stand for such abuse?

If you are looking to buy a house, the tight inventory is probably forcing you to make compromises. Yet, keep a high standard when it comes to assessing the flood risk. If the land is likely to flood, is the house on high ground or built to withstand water? Can it be affordably insured? Will it be marketable later? If not, move on.

Heidi Paek is a Realtor at Keller Williams Realty, an Ipswich homeowner, and an admirer of local rivers and beaches.