How to Check for Flood Risk During Home Buying

Work with professionals who can assess flood risk and help you decide how much you can tolerate.

You’ve found the perfect home — sunny kitchen, the right number of bathrooms, and a big, beautiful yard. And then someone mentions a case of flooding in the area — far from any major body of water. You start wondering, Could my dream home be at risk for flood damage?

The fact is home buyers need to pay attention to their flood risk and the need for flood control. All home buyers. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency fact sheet says, “Anywhere it can rain, it can flood.”

Unexpected flooding caused major problems for Mabél Guzmán, a broker at Coldwell Banker Realty and the 2020 vice president of association affairs at the National Association of REALTORS®. “I moved into a townhouse that was not even near a flood zone and didn't require flood insurance,” she says. “I lived there for over five years and had no flooding issues until a storm caused so much flooding that we had to replace the furnace. Moreover, FEMA had to help, and each homeowner impacted received $2,000.”

Property owners outside of high-risk flood areas file more than 20% of all claims with the National Flood Insurance Program (one in five!). Plus, they receive one-third of all federal disaster assistance for flooding.

But your real estate agent and other resources can help you contact flood risk experts. They can assess the flood risk on a particular property and sharpen your view of how much risk you can tolerate. 

How to Assess a Home's Flood Zone and Flood Risk

If you start your home search on realtor.com, you’ll find flood risk information baked into some of the listings. Specifically, you might see a link beneath the home photo and map that looks like this:

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This link shows the ratings from two flood risk tools: FEMA flood maps and Flood Factor.

The FEMA flood map ratings use letters to indicate risk level:

  • An A or a V — high-risk flood area
  • B, C, or X — moderate-to-low-risk area
  • D — area that hasn’t been mapped, so the risk is unknown

If you’re intrepid, you can visit FEMA’s flood map service center for maps and data. But FEMA information isn’t available everywhere and is updated only every 5 to 30 years. In addition, it doesn’t factor in rainfall for areas away from major water bodies. In fact, the best person to translate FEMA data is your city or town’s floodplain manager. (More on this below.)

The Flood Factor rating system, developed by nonprofit First Street Foundation, works on a scale of 1 to 10:

  • 1 — minimal risk 
  • 2 — minor risk 
  • 3 to 4 — moderate risk
  • 5 to 6 — major risk 
  • 7 to 8 — severe risk 
  • 9 to 10 — extreme risk

The more consumer-friendly Flood Factor website lets you search by property address. You can see an aerial image of the property and a summary explaining overall flood risk. You can also read about flooding sources like rainfall and historic information. Given its newness, the database is evolving and updated quarterly.

Your Agent Can Help Provide Flood Information

While not a flood map expert, your real estate agent is a knowledgeable partner. Agents can provide relevant market and inventory information. Be upfront about how much flood risk you’re comfortable with and whether you need contacts for flood professionals. Then, together, you can look for that dream home with confidence.

How Your Local Floodplain Manager Can Help

Once you have a sense of the flood risk associated with a property you’re interested in, the next step may be to consult your local floodplain manager. They are trained to decipher FEMA flood maps for consumers and answer flood risk-related questions, and those services are free, says Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Management.

This step is an especially good idea if the FEMA flood maps and Flood Factor both show your flood risk is high and flood control is an issue. But even if one shows moderate risk, a floodplain manager will probably advise you to talk to a reputable insurance agent. Flood insurance is cheap outside of high-risk areas. The peace of mind may be well worth the price.

Local floodplain managers can also provide resources that may not be included on FEMA maps. Resources include historical reports and local information about known flood hazards. And, Berginnis says, they can even answer some basic insurance-related questions. One might be whether your prospective home falls into a special flood hazard area.

FEMA defines an SFHA as a location with special flood hazards. If you’re interested in a house in one of these areas, you’ll likely be required by federal law to buy flood insurance.

For homes in an SFHA, the floodplain manager may also have an elevation certificate on file. You will likely need an EC if you’re required to purchase flood insurance. The EC documents the elevation of the home and lets the floodplain manager compare the building’s elevation with the estimated height of floodwaters during a major flood.

FEMA recommends hiring a licensed land surveyor from the National Society of Professional Surveyors to create the EC. A floodplain manager will provide an EC free of charge, but a licensed land surveyor will charge a fee. The cost can range from an average of $600 up to $2,000-plus.

Your state’s floodplain management office can help you connect with your local floodplain manager.

Consult Your Insurance Agent About Flood Risk

You’ll likely want to check in with your insurance agent about your flood risk. That's especially true if you’re looking in a high-risk area. Even in a moderate-to-low-risk area, mortgage lenders may require you to buy flood insurance, says a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.

Your standard homeowners policy won’t provide flood insurance, the spokesperson adds. “Coverage is available in a separate policy from the National Flood Insurance Program and a few private insurers” that partner with the NFIP.

Flood insurance costs on average $700 per year. But premiums could run much higher depending on your risk zone. Private market insurance options in addition to the NFIP are also available. Both will offer policies to cover damage to the structure of the house. You can also buy coverage for your personal property.

The III spokesperson recommends sharing your FEMA flood maps and EC with your insurance agent. You can also ask the current homeowners to request the claims history of the property directly from the NFIP.

The NFIP insurance provider locator can help you find a nearby provider.

Your Home Inspector Can Provide Clues About Flood Risk

When you’re ready for a home inspection, you’ll want to work with an experienced home inspector. Pay close attention to clues. Ask if the inspector uses a moisture meter or has experience with flooding. Water lines in a basement or crawl space, or a musty smell from behind the walls may signal flooding in a home, says Bruce Barker, a home inspector and 2021 president of the American Society of Home Inspectors.

However, a home inspection may not tell the whole story, he says. “If the area has been repaired, flood damage may be hidden behind the walls. The damage would then be ‘out of scope.’ It would not be accessible to the home inspector, who only does a visual inspection.”

Check the Seller’s Disclosure for Flood Risk

Once you get serious about a home, you’ll have another chance to learn more about its potential flood risk.  All states require sellers to disclose knowledge of prior flood damage to a home. But depending on your state’s law, sellers may have to also complete a disclosure form. That may include statements about flooding. 

In Illinois, for instance, a seller must complete all applicable items on the state disclosure form. This includes questions about water. In California, sellers must note if the property is in a special flood hazard area. 

Georgia doesn’t require a standard form for sellers to make specific flood-related disclosures. But the state does require the seller to inform a buyer about any known material defects in the home. That could arguably include flood damage.

Your agent is an excellent resource for disclosure forms and follow-up questions. For instance, you could ask whether you should consult a flood professional for a property specific risk assessment or inspection.

Just as a blood pressure test can’t definitively predict a particular ailment, flood sources can’t make spot-on flood warnings about a home. But if you do some research on a home and ask your agent for flood risk contacts if flooding is a question, you’re more likely to make an informed decision.

Catherine Mesick

Catherine Mesick writes on a variety of real estate topics with a special emphasis on regulatory issues. Her all-time favorite home is still the raised ranch house she grew up in, and she enjoys spotting “famous” houses in movies and TV shows.