The ABCs of Flood Insurance


By Barbara Pronin

Many home buyers are surprised to learn that while most standard homeowner’s insurance policies may cover water damage caused by a burst pipe within the home, they may not cover damage caused by an overflowing river. Because only a few inches of flood water can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage, some lenders may require the purchase of flood insurance before closing – even if the property in question is not in a high-risk area.  Lender requirements in this regard are communicated in their instructions to escrow when loan documents are issued.

Who determines whether, or how much, flood insurance is required? What do agents and their clients need to know? The answers are as simple as ABC:

A: Who must have it? With assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local flood control authorities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maintains flood insurance rate maps for communities nationwide. The maps are divided into flood zones denoting high, moderate or low risk of flooding. It makes sense that mortgage lenders require flood insurance for coastal homes or homes in other high-risk areas. But historically, says the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), about one in every four flood claims comes from moderate or low-risk areas, where federal law does not require insurance. Hence, many lenders may require flood insurance in all flood zones, regardless of risk, especially for federally regulated or insured (such as FHA) loans.   

B: Who sells it and how much does it cost? The NFIP, managed by FEMA, offers flood insurance to homeowners in participating communities, and provides small discounts to communities that take steps to mitigate flood risk. The actual policies are sold not by FEMA, but by private insurance companies. Since NFIP coverage tops out at $350,000 for one’s home and possessions (see C, below), ‘excess flood insurance’ may be purchased to cover claims above the NFIP limits. In many regions, state flood insurance plans offer perks such as a 15-day waiting period before coverage kicks in, as opposed to 30-days with NFIP plans.  The cost is determined by such factors as the level of flood risk and the estimated cost to rebuild. While flood insurance premiums are government-regulated, homeowners can retain some control over their cost by varying the deductible amount.

C: What does it cover? Flood insurance generally covers direct losses caused by flood waters, but actual coverages will vary based on the specific facts of the incident and the provisions and exclusions in the applicable insurance policy. The maximum insurance amount allowed by law is $250,000 for the structure. (While people tend to associate floods with total loss, the average flood claim is about $30,000, according to NFIP.) Contents coverage for furnishings of up to $100,000 is optional. However, neither building nor contents flood insurance will most likely cover the loss of certain personal property (such as currency) or living expenses such as temporary housing while the home is being repaired.

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