Flood Factor, a Revolutionary New Service, Aims to Help Real Estate Buyers, Owners & Real Agents Evaluate a Specific Property’s Flood Risk

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.

When it Comes to Sea Level Rise Real Estate, Timing is (almost) Everything

When buyers are considering purchasing coastal properties in areas that are forecast to experience sea level rise flooding in years or decades to come, one of the questions they have to ask themselves is: “How long do I expect to enjoy the property?”

This question came to light bluntly when I had lunch today with friends who live on an island in San Francisco Bay. My friends, a husband and wife in their mid-60s, said they weren’t too concerned about sea level rise — though they know it’s coming — because it’s not predicted to actually flood their property for another 50 years. As the wife put it, “We’re pretty sure we’ll be dead by then.”

Actuarial tables say she’s probably right. As long as the current sea level rise forecasts hold, they probably will get to enjoy their property for the remainder of their lives.

Sea level rise vs. life expectancy is an important issue for buyers and owners in coastal areas to consider when they’re pondering their real estate options. Sea level rise forecasts are putting a potential expiration date on many communities along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines. Knowing when rising seas will begin to inundate cities and towns is critically important for buyers and sellers. Other factors that have to be considered are how will sea level rise impact carrying costs, such as home maintenance, taxes, flood insurance and condo and homeowners’ association fees.

Combining sea level rise forecasts, your life expectancy, and your ability to afford the carrying costs as you age, is a good way for buyers and owners to tell if it makes sense to get involved or stay involved in real estate in a coastal community. When you’re talking about such fun areas to live in, this level of analysis can sound like a real downer, but not taking this dry-eyed look at the sea level rise situation could lead to an even greater downer: financial disaster.

This issue is discussed in greater detail in “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions.”

Owners of Real Estate Impacted by Sea Level Rise Flooding Have to Make Tough Decisions

Video: Owners of real estate impacted by sea level rise flooding have to decide “Should I stay or should I go?”

In the fourth Sea Level Rise Real Estate introductory video, we take a look at the challenges owners face when sea level rise flooding shows up in their communities or at their doors. The challenge for owners is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that considers the extent of the flooding and what they and their local government can do to address it.

Owners also have to consider their ability to absorb higher costs for home maintenance, flood insurance, homeowners association and condo association fees, and taxes — revenue the government will need for resiliency or retreat. Every property owner has to decide for themselves — based primarily on their age, financial resources, and ability to manage property that floods or is at risk of flooding — how to proceed.

“Sea Level Rise Real Estate for Owners” gives owners a general picture of the issues they need to consider. “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners, and Real Estate Agents” goes more in-depth.

2019 Ends with Sea Level Rise Flooding on the Map

As a licensed real estate agent, experienced journalist, and avid reader of sea level rise-related media report and studies, there’s one major transition I’ve noticed in 2019: sea level rise flooding is shifting from a nebulous scientific fact to a has-to-be-addressed-now reality.

After decades of reading studies describing how sea level rise will one day impact our world, I’m seeing more and more reports from cities and towns all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines that are now being forced to deal with actual sea level rise flooding that’s impacting real estate and critical infrastructure. (Search the term “sea level rise flooding” online, and you’ll see what I mean.) Of special note is the fact that the coverage is also shifting from storm surge events, where hurricanes, tropical storms and other extreme occurrences send floodwaters over land, to so-called seasonal king tides that due to an alignment of the sun and moon cause flooding even on the sunniest of days.

In South Florida, where I live, not too long ago king tide/sea level rise flooding was easy to hide. It occurred mainly in the fall and only seemed to affect a smattering of vulnerable neighborhoods. Now, the flooding is occurring with greater frequency, for longer periods, and with increasingly harmful effects. The now very obvious flooding is starting to set off alarm bells for public officials and private and commercial real estate owners as they come to realize that sea level rise flooding is going to get worse in the years to come.

To try to help buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents to get a firm grip on the nature of the problems posed by sea level rise flooding, I wrote “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions” and released it this month in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com.

The book explains what sea level rise flooding is, and the threats it poses to real estate buyers, sellers, owners, and agents, as well as communities and entire regions. For example, property owners who are experiencing actual sea level rise flooding can face increased home maintenance costs and the potential for their homes to lose value. These property owners and owners in areas that are experiencing flooding but whose property isn’t itself being inundated at this time are both at risk of ballooning flood insurance premiums and higher taxes, as governments try to rescue infrastructure by taking steps such as raising roads and water and sewer pipes, building higher sea walls and installing pumps. In addition, those who own property located in communities governed by homeowner’s associations and condo associations could also see a spike in dues and special assessments to fund remediation efforts.

The simple fact is sea level rise flooding will get worse in 2020. To protect their financial futures, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents in coastal areas need to get educated and stay informed about this challenge.

In the coming year, I will post the latest developments on SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com and release an updated version of “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions” in December.