If you’ve ever seen a birds-eye view of your subdivision or town from a satellite image, you may have wondered about the seemingly random layout, with curving streets leaving some areas filled with buildings and other areas forested or wild. But if you were to lay a flood zone map over that view, you’d probably see why some areas are left to nature: they’re in a flood zone.
But that doesn’t mean all homes are built in safe areas. Some people just can’t resist a great waterfront view, and a changing climate and new construction can alter topography and landscapes—so it’s important to know if your house is in an area that’s at risk of flooding. Here are some steps you can take to evaluate the flood risk your home faces—and protect against it.
1. Check Out FloodTools.com
FloodTools.com is an easy-to-use site with an address lookup tool to help you determine if your property is in an area that’s at a higher risk for flooding. Entering in your address will give you an updated, interactive map with helpful overlay options that show flood plains, historical floods, and the tracks of hurricanes that have hit your area in the past. The map can also show you additional potential flood hazards nearby, like levees and dams, and you can switch between map view, terrain view, and satellite view.
While these maps won’t give you specific flood zone information, they are a great starting point to help you determine if you’re at risk.
2. Find Your Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM)
If what you find at Flood Tools has you concerned, go to the FEMA website and enter your address to see whether your house is in a designated flood hazard area. Your search will bring up a Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) for the area where your property is located. It’s not as easy to read as the Flood Tools maps, but it’s got a lot of useful information.
This map will tell you in plain English what your flood zone risk is, from “Area of Minimal Flood Hazard” to something like, “0.2 PCT Annual Chance of Flood Hazard” or even, “Special Flood Hazard Area.” The map also has overlays to show specific floodplains. For more information on how to interpret a FIRM, see page D-11 of FEMA’s Managing Floodplain Development through the NFIP.
Each FIRM is dated, but don’t be alarmed if the date is twenty or more years ago—it’s just referring to when the map was adopted as the official map for that area. FIRMs do get updated through Letters of Map Revision (LOMRs), which get published separately from the map. You’ll see notes on those just above the map in the section entitled “Changes to this FIRM.”
If you want to see the LOMR changes as part of an updated version of the map, just click the “Dynamic Map” icon, which will generate a FIRMette. The FIRMette is basically a cutout of the larger FIRM, updates included, so you can get a better look at your property and the area around it. It also has a key to help you understand map overlays, and it’s in a printable PDF format.
3. Protect Your Home
So you’ve figured out you’re in an area that’s at risk for flooding: Now what?
First, find out if you have flood insurance. Surprisingly, most homeowners policies don’t cover flood damage, even though you’re five times more likely to experience a flood in your home than a fire, according to FEMA.1 Talk to your insurance agent to find out if you can get private coverage, or learn more about government-sponsored coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Another way to protect yourself and your home against the damaging effects of a flood is to purchase and install flood sensors. Flood sensors are an affordable way to avoid damage from floods caused by leaks from appliances, like water heaters and washing machines, as well as weather-related flooding in basements. We recommend the iHome iSB02 Battery Powered Wi-Fi Leak Sensor.
4. Keep Track of Changes
With new construction and changes in topography, floodplains and flood zone designations can change over time. Make a plan to check for changes in your property’s flood zone designation every five years or so. If you think you’ll have a hard time remembering, try to tie it to your milestone birthdays—whenever you reach an age that ends in a five or a zero, it’s time to visit FEMA again to check your home’s flood zone status.
Aren’t sellers legally required to disclose if a house is in a flood zone or if it’s had flood damage in the past?
No, they’re not. Federal laws don’t require sellers or agents to disclose any previous flooding on a property when it’s up for sale (although ethically it would be wrong not to). It’s up to you as a buyer to find out the property’s history—but keep in mind that even if you don’t, your mortgage company will, and a flood zone designation could impact your ability to get financing. You don’t want any surprises when it’s time to get a mortgage for your new home, so do the research before you make an offer.
Can I still get a mortgage on my property without flood insurance?
Maybe—it depends on its flood zone designation. Properties in flood zones with a higher risk factor usually require flood insurance for a mortgage. Your house is your collateral for your home loan, and if it’s destroyed in a flood, your mortgage company stands to take a financial hit, so flood insurance is pretty important to lenders.
My area only has a 1% chance of flooding—so why is it still considered a flood hazard zone?
Floods are a rare occurrence, even for areas with high risk, like waterfront properties and coastal areas. A one percent chance of flooding means that your area is expected to get a devastating flood once every 100 years. While that may not seem like a huge risk, it’s pretty high, considering the fact that an entire geographical area could be wiped out. A one percent risk should be taken seriously, especially since you don’t know where you are in that 100-year cycle.
Will having a house in a flood zone make it harder to sell later on?
Possibly, but having flood insurance on the property can help, because that way, potential buyers will know their options for insuring the home. You can also take proactive steps to protect your home against flood, like elevating it or taking other measures to make your home more flood resistant. Read FEMA’s Reducing Flood Risk to Residential Buildings that Cannot Be Elevated to learn more about how you can better protect your home.
Kasey Tross is a stay-at-home mom with four energetic kids, and she's married to a security expert, so safety is a top priority in the Tross home. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, hiking, playing the flute, helping out at church, and eating far more chocolate than she should. Learn more