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Moving? 6 Questions To Ask About Flood Risk In A Changing Climate

Floods are the most deadly and expensive natural disaster in the U.S. And yet, in most parts of the country, it's easy to move into a flood-prone building and not even know you're in harm's way.
Floods are the most deadly and expensive natural disaster in the U.S. And yet, in most parts of the country, it's easy to move into a flood-prone building and not even know you're in harm's way.

When you start looking for a new place to live, there are a lot of factors that you probably consider. Flood risk should be one of them.

As the Earth gets hotter, flooding is becoming more common and severe in most of the United States. More than 10 million apartments and houses have a substantial risk of flooding in the next 30 years — from sea level rise and storm surge along the coasts, and heavy rain and river flooding inland.

Because the climate is changing, many places that flooded a little in the past will flood a lot in the future, putting lives and property at enormous risk. It's already happening: One-third of the federal disaster money distributed after floods goes to people who live outside official flood zones, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Floods are the most deadly and expensive natural disaster in the United States. They can cut you off from emergency services. A flooded home can make you sick when mold grows in its walls, or when you're exposed to polluted water. Studies have found that the cost of flood damage can derail higher education by displacing students as well as wipe out savings.

And yet, in most parts of the country, it is easy to move into a flood-prone building and not even know you're in harm's way. Despite the risk, 21 states do not require that any information about flooding be disclosed to potential home buyers, and the vast majority of tenants in the U.S. receive no flood-related information at all.

So, what questions should you ask about flood risk before you move? And how easy is it to find answers? NPR talked to flood experts and put together this guide. For a downloadable PDF, click here.

1. Has this building or area flooded before?

Why Should I ask this?

Places that flood once often flood again, especially as the climate changes.

Where to start?

Landlords or real estate agents may share information about past flooding, but in most places they are not required to do so. Longtime residents and local media reports are often some of the best resources.

2. How likely is it that this building will flood while I live there?

Why Should I ask this?

The flood history for your building or neighborhood isn't enough information. What you really need to know is how sea level rise and more extreme rain are going to contribute to your flood risk in the future.

The answer depends on how long you intend to live there. If you're buying a house using a 30-year mortgage, you're much more likely to experience a flood at that address than if you're planning to rent the same house for one year.

Where to start?

Realtor.com is the only major real estate site that includes flood risk in every listing. You can also look up the 15- and 30-year flood outlook for your neighborhood on the Flood Factor website, or on the Climate Central Riskfinder for coastal areas.

A few states and cities publish local information about flood risk, including Rhode Island's coastal management mobile app and Louisiana's coastal protection forecast. If you have successfully obtained local information about future flood risk while you were moving, we want to hear from you. Fill out the form below at the end of the article.

3. Is this building in a FEMA-designated flood zone right now?

Why should i ask this?

FEMA publishes the flood maps that are used to set public flood insurance premiums. Many local and state governments also use them for planning.

It's important to know your FEMA-designated flood zone because you might need to buy flood insurance.

But even if the FEMA map says you're at low risk, you might not be. Many FEMA flood maps are out of date, and even newly updated ones don't take into account climate-driven heavy rain or sea level rise.

Where to start

FEMA flood maps are publicly available and searchable online. Just put in your addresshere. Watch out: The map loads very slowly.

4. How much does flood insurance cost, and what does it cover?

Why should i ask this?

Most renter and homeowner insurance does not cover flood damage. Instead, you may want to purchase a separate flood insurance policy to cover flood damage to your belongings, building or both.

If you live in a flood-prone area, flood insurance can be expensive. If you're moving to a place that FEMA thinks is at lower risk, however, your insurance premium will be much lower. That could end up being a good deal: About 25% of the flood damages covered by insurance are outside the highest-risk areas.

Flood insurance is sometimes mandatory. For example, if you buy a home in a high-risk area using a federally backed mortgage, or if you buy a house that flooded before and was rebuilt with federal disaster aid, you must buy flood insurance. In some states, including Louisiana and Texas, the seller is required to tell you if this is the case.

Where to start?

In most states prospective renters or buyers don't have a right to know how much flood insurance will cost. FEMA provides the vast majority of residential flood insurance. However, the agency will not disclose to prospective buyers or tenants whether a property has a flood insurance policy, or how much that policy costs.

You can still ask the landlord, previous tenant or seller whether they have flood insurance and how much it costs. You can also ask others who live in the building or neighborhood or ask a local insurance agent for a quote.

5. What are landlords or sellers required to disclose to me?

Why should i ask this?

In most places, landlords and sellers do not have to tell you much about flood risk, and usually they are only required to disclose information after you've made an offer or applied for a lease. Tenants have a right to much less information than buyers. The details vary by state.

Where to start?

The Natural Resources Defense Council and National Association of Realtors both track state flood disclosure requirements.

6. Has anyone in the neighborhood taken a buyout?

Why should i ask this?

Some local governments are trying to move people out of the riskiest areas. One way to do this is to purchase homes that have flooded repeatedly and demolish them to make room for water to spread out harmlessly.

This only applies to a small percentage of neighborhoods, but if your new neighborhood is one of them, you probably want to know before you move there.

Where to start?

You can search for your ZIP code in this NPR database to see whether any homes were purchased and demolished in your area between 1989 and 2017. It's most helpful in places that have had a lot of flooding for a long time.

We want to hear from you

Have you ever tried to get information about the risk of floods or wildfires when moving to a new home? NPR would like to hear about your experience. Share your story in the form below, and a reporter might contact you.

Your submission will be governed by our general Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. As the Privacy Policy says, we want you to be aware that there may be circumstances in which the exemptions provided under law for journalistic activities or freedom of expression may override privacy rights you might otherwise have.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.