NPR Shines a Spotlight on the Government’s Failure to Require Sellers to Disclose Sea Level Rise Flooding Risks

It’s a tough nut to crack, but it shouldn’t be. Real estate buyers should have a right to full disclosure of the risk sea level rise flooding (or any flooding for that matter) poses to a home before they submit an offer. But, in reality, with no effective national disclosure policy and a hodge-podge of mostly toothless state laws, real estate buyers are too often left unaware of the risk until floodwaters show up in their neighborhood or at their doors.

This point was hit home in a recent article titled “Undisclosed: Most Homebuyers And Renters Aren’t Warned About Flood or Wildfire Risk” published on National Public Radio’s website. Reporters Ryan Kellman, Rebecca Hersher, and Lauren Sommer used real-life experiences of people living in flood and fire prone areas to explain how buyers and even long-time owners have faced damaged or destroyed homes due to a threat they didn’t know about or didn’t fully appreciate. Reading their article gives you a real sense of the human cost of America’s failure to disclose a property’s risk of falling to natural disasters.

The problems examined in the NPR article have been explored in great detail on this website and in our book “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents”. Essentially, buyers are left at a disadvantage when purchasing property in a flood-prone area because: 1) There is no federal law that mandates seller disclosure of sea level rise flooding risk; 2) State laws, in most cases, don’t require either the disclosure of any and/or enough information for buyers to make an informed decision before submitting an offer; 3) The people buyers count on for the information — including sellers, real estate agents, mortgage providers and insurers — aren’t required to warn buyers that they’re purchasing a home that is subject to or could soon be subject to sea level rise flooding; and 4) The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) produces maps that identify flood zones that are notoriously out of date and do not take into consideration sea level rise flooding. This leaves many buyers ill-informed when making decisions that will impact their lives, livelihoods and financial futures.

The risk to homeowners and buyers purchasing property in coastal areas can’t be overstated. In many coastal communities, neighborhoods, roads and properties are already being inundated by sea level rise flooding. As the NPR article states, many homeowners have inadequate insurance that will fall short of making them whole should they experience flooding. In some areas repeated flooding is so bad states are setting aside millions of dollars to buy-out and demolish homes that repeatedly flood to stop the expense of the rebuild-destruction cycle.

Taxpayers, too, pay a price for the current situation. When properties flood and the federal government pays out billions of dollars for repairs the funds ultimately come out of their pockets.

The only fair solution to this problem is the passage of tougher national and state flood disclosure laws. Alice Hill, who led disaster planning efforts at the President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, told NPR that the federal government should take responsibility for giving Americans information about flood risk so they can make informed decisions.

Until that day comes, buyers and owners need to practice due diligence and determine a property’s flood risk to protect themselves from the expense and inconvenience of a flooding event. This entails putting on their detective’s hat and taking steps such as studying FEMA flood maps and asking residents, local real estate agents, mortgage providers, insurers, home inspectors and government planning officials if they’re aware of flooding in and around the property of interest. Researching media reports can also be of value. Throughout the fact-gathering process, buyers and property owners must fight the urge to rely on a single source for information as there are shortcomings to all of them.

A final issue to factor in when evaluating real estate opportunities in coastal communities is future sea level rise projections. Properties that don’t flood today, might flood over the course of a 30-year mortgage as sea level continues to rise.

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.