Wouldn’t it be cool if real estate buyers were able to tell if a property of interest was currently at risk of flooding — or, due to sea level rise, might flood in the years to come — with a few taps on their smartphone screen?
Of course! This type of app would level the playing field between buyers, who don’t know the current and future flooding risk, and sellers who do — or should. As we’ve discussed before in posts and videos, it isn’t always easy for a buyer to tell if a property floods or is at risk of flooding.
In some instances, sea level rise-related flooding occurs during the so-called “king tide” season in the fall, when the alignment and proximity of the sun and moon to earth create extra high tides. Buyers who visit a property during other times of year likely won’t see evidence of flooding.
Another challenge is that state seller disclosure laws range from Virginia’s wide-open “let the buyer beware” approach to Louisiana’s pretty stringent “tell them everything you know”-style law. Most states fall somewhere between the extremes, and buyers can easily fall through the cracks. The situation is so dire there are many documented cases where buyers didn’t know a property regularly flooded until the water showed up at their doors.
Further compounding the situation, is a privacy law passed in the 1970s that requires seller permission for the release of a property’s flood insurance claims history. Many buyers don’t bother to request the information.
So back to the app idea. I’ve sampled a few smartphone apps that are basically toys. They show you virtual reality-style what different levels of flooding would look like on a given property, but they don’t seem to rely much on actual data regarding a specific property’s elevation, flooding history, and other factors that would help buyers to weigh the real-world risk of flooding.
The best resource I’ve tried — not yet in app form but available on a webpage — is Flood Factor. The free service was developed by researchers at First Street Foundation, a non-profit research and technology group committed to defining America’s flood risk.
The Flood Factor interface is as easy as it gets. Users enter an address into a simple field and, if all goes well, they receive a detailed report regarding the flood risk for a given property. What really makes this a standout is the fact that the data is delivered in an easy-to-understand format. You get a clear understanding of the current flood risk on a 1-to-10 scale AND the risk for the next thirty years, which is the average lifespan of the most common mortgage. First Street’s researchers even figure sea level rise into their forecasts.
Coastal and inland buyers can benefit from Flood Factor, too. The researchers not only estimated coastal flooding risk, they also evaluated the risk of flooding due to strong storm surge, rivers overtopping their banks, and heavy rainfall events.
Flood Factor’s researchers combined many data sets to generate the detailed flood risk reports for specific properties. They say that their data is much more rigorous than that used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA’s flood maps are notoriously outdated and inaccurate, so relying on them alone for real estate decisions is, in itself, risky.
The only problem I had with Flood Factor was that when I entered certain addresses located in areas known to flood in my town, the program said there was no data available. When I clicked on a link that said it would give me more information, I ended up back at the address input screen.
Despite this shortcoming — and I have no idea why it happened or the extent of the problem — Flood Factor is definitely a service that real estate buyers should use. It’s also of value to sellers, who might not know the full extent of the flood risk to their properties, and real estate agents, who need to know their farm areas to deliver top-notch service.
One final important note, despite Flood Factor’s comprehensive approach to flood forecasting, buyers shouldn’t rely solely on the reports when making real estate decisions. For example, if a property is at risk of flooding, buyers should find out what, if anything, is being done to mitigate the risk. An effective mitigation project — such as a sea wall — might reduce the risk for the period the buyer intends to enjoy the property. Buyers should also consider how flooding on the property of interest or in the greater community might impact their maintenance costs and tax and insurance rates. In short, taking the time to understand the big picture might prevent costly mistakes.
While not technically an app, Flood Factor can easily be accessed and used on a smartphone. Give it a spin.