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The basics of living in a risk zone

Experts offer tips on protecting your home from natural disasters

Carmen Troesser

Nobody wants to consider natural disasters striking as they hunt for their dream home. But at a time when flood and environmental risk is rising with no sign of slowing down, taking a property’s vulnerability into account before investing is a crucial consideration.

“Everybody lives in a risk-prone area,” says Annmarie Camp, the Executive Vice President of North America Personal Risk Services for the insurance agency Chubb. “It’s absolutely apparent that weather patterns have become aggressive, and you should be thinking about how you should protect your home with the right coverage in place.” As she says, “No one anticipates they’ll have a natural disaster, but we see it happening all over the world.”

Environmental risk comes in many forms, from flooding to earthquakes. Each natural disaster is measured and covered by insurance agencies differently. It will take research to determine the type of risk associated with your property and how to best minimize them.

Curbed spoke with experts in insurance, flooding and property risk to understand how to best protect your home from natural disaster.

Sunny Eckerle

Work with an insurance agent from the offset

Every property a home buyer considers will come with its own set of environmental risks—and the risks associated with one house might not be the same for another right down the street. “It’s a good idea to talk with an independent agent who understands what kind of hazards are in that area or even associated with a specific property,” says Camp.

An early report on prior damage to the home, environmental or not, will give you clues about what you can expect. “It can also help you understand the cost of insuring the home properly before you go into the buying process,” Camp says. Insurance can be tailored to the type of risks associated with the home—but some types, like flood insurance, will add a significant annual cost if you buy in a high-risk area.

Study FEMA flood maps

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) determines flood risk throughout the United States and maps it for the general public. The agency’s FEMA Flood Map Service Center “is the official public source for flood hazard information produced in support of the National Flood Insurance Program,” according to the organization’s website.

Using it is simple: enter an address, place, or coordinates into the portal, and it will produce a map showing its flood risk. If you find that you own a home located in a floodplain, it's not so much a question of if a flood will damage your property as it is when. Once you know your risk, the next step is securing the proper level of insurance.

According to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, the most hazardous flood zones are ‘V’—usually first-row, beach-front properties—andA’, which are often properties near water. Any building in either an ‘A’ or ‘V’ zone is lower than the so-called “base flood elevation” (or BFE), and considered part of a Special Flood Hazard Area.

X zones are minimal-risk areas where flood insurance is not mandatory, while D zones are areas that have not been studied, but where flooding is possible. Even if you’re in a low-risk area, check its proximity to a higher-risk zone. “Everyone lives in a flood zone,” Camp says, “The reality is, you can flood anywhere.”

Living in a V Zone

V zones have a one-percent or greater chance of annual flooding alongside the additional hazard of storm waves. Naturally, living in the highest risk zone comes with home ownership requirements.

First off, flood insurance must be purchased for the property. It’s a good idea to receive insurance quotes before you put down a downpayment, as flood insurance in a high-risk zone can add a significant cost in addition to your mortgage. There are also design and construction requirements for homes located in the V Zone. Here they are, from the Federal Alliance of Safe Homes:

  • The bottom of the lowest horizontal structural member of the lowest floor elevation must be at or above the Base Flood Elevation.
  • Enclosed areas below the lowest floor cannot be used for living space. The building must be elevated on piles, piers, posts or column foundation.
  • Electrical, heating ventilation, plumbing, air conditioning equipment and other service facilities must be elevated to or above the Base Flood Elevation.

Living in an A Zone

Living in A zones means you have a one percent annual chance of flooding. This means that over the course of a 30-year mortgage, properties have a 26-percent chance of flooding. Flood insurance in this zone, too, is mandatory.

This zone includes many different designations (like AE, AH, AO, AR and A99) depending on the way in which it might be flooded, but each designation comes with the same insurance rate. The three construction requirements for homes in V Zones, noted above, are instead recommendations for homes in A Zones.

Double checking the zone designation

“FEMA has the whole United States to map out, and know they tend to make mistakes,” says Chad Worms, a Flood Map Specialist with the company Second Look Flood. “They tend to paint with a broad brush.”

Companies that measure flood risk, like Second Look Flood, take a magnifying glass to specific properties, measuring the elevation of the home to see exactly which zone they belong in. “It’s cost effective to take a second look,” he says, as insurance rates in Zone X come in around $400/year, while Zone A rates are closer to $1,500/year for the same coverage.

FEMA also updates its flood map regularly due to changes in infrastructure, climate, and improvements in technology. “People will find themselves in a high-risk flood zone,” says Worms, “And this can blow people’s budget out of the water.” If you decide to challenge the designation and have received input from a professional, FEMA is receptive to map amendments.

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Consider other risks

“The geography of the area you’re looking to buy a home is important to consider,” says Bert Sperling, of the website Sperling's Best Places. Check out natural disaster maps that go beyond flood risks. Is the area prone to tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires? Severity of those threats will vary wildly depending on the location, of course. “Hurricanes and tornadoes are an annual occurrence, but something like an earthquake may or may not happen in your lifetime,” Sperling says. You should also be aware of less-discussed environmental risks, like hail storms.

Beyond the actual disaster, explore the surrounding infrastructure put in place to protect from extreme weather. Have nearby highways, storm walls or levees been damaged by previous storms? Sperling says you should be wary—cities that are prone to flooding, and have been damaged because of it, are likely to flood again and face the same consequences. “Despite everyone’s best intentions, it’s hard to get taxpayers to pay for the type of infrastructure to stand up against natural disasters,” he notes.

Determine your risk tolerance

After you’ve combed through the maps, double checked your flood designation, and consulted an insurance agent, it’ll be time to determine your personal risk tolerance. “Maybe you can manage higher deductibles, because you have the assets in the event that something goes wrong,” says Camp. “But if someone wants to make sure they have as broad as protection as possible, with as limited out-of-pocket costs as possible, they need to be talking with an independent insurance adviser about the broadest breadth of coverage they can purchase to make sure they have limited risk for things not covered by their policy.”

Maintain your property

Of course, there are small things a homeowner can do to minimize the risk to their house in the event of a natural disaster. Camp recommends maintaining trees on the property, keeping the roof maintained and regularly clearing out the gutter in case of a storm. “It’s just sound advice for safety and cost savings if there’s any loss that occurs,” she says.