Flood Zone Information: Change Your Home's Flood Zone Rating

Flood zone information: do you suspect your property has been incorrectly rated as a Special Flood Hazard Are? This imformation may save you hundreds of dollars.

My husband and I recently purchased a home in a small rural community. We chose the area for the beautiful natural setting and for the low real estate prices. Unfortunately, we discovered that along with our affordable mortgage came a very expensive flood insurance policy. Our insurance agency had determined that our home was located in a Special Flood Hazard Area, or Zone A, which carried the most costly coverage. The annual premium for our new home was $1,200, due in one lump sum payment. Ouch!

Several weeks later I was complaining to my new neighbor about the high insurance premiums. "It's ridiculous!" I moaned. "This is the desert, not the Mississippi river bank. How can the insurance company say we're in Zone A?"

"Zone A?" my neighbor responded in surprise. "My insurance company says my property is in Zone C!" A Zone C rating means the area has a minimal chance of flooding due to unusually heavy rains, blocked storm drains and the like. It also meant that my next-door neighbor paid almost a thousand dollars less per year for flood insurance.

Filled with righteous indignation, I marched home and immediately called my flood insurance agency to inform them they had made a mistake. Yes, call me naive. "Well, his property may be in Zone C. But that doesn't mean your property doesn't fall in Zone A," said the agent smugly.

"Our lots are only 5,000 square feet!" I tried not to shout. "I can open my kitchen window and spit on his house, it's so close. How can I be in a flood plain when he's not?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. The system clearly says your property is in Zone A," responded the not-very-helpful agent in a tone that indicated the conversation was finished.

Not ready to give up so easily, I began canvassing the neighborhood, speaking to every property owner I could find. The results were surprising. Some homeowners stated that they were rated in Zone B, others in Zone C, some didn't carry flood insurance at all, and only one other resident was determined to be in Zone A.

Realizing my informal survey wasn't likely to have much effect on my insurance agent, I instead went directly to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to determine what course of action I could take. FEMA is responsible for managing the National Flood Insurance Program. All flood insurance policies are actually provided by FEMA; they merely utilize private insurance companies to sell the policies for them. FEMA is also responsible for maintaining the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM), used by insurance companies to determine the flood zone private residences are located in. The FEMA representative proved to be extremely helpful and presented the following information of which every homeowner should be aware.

The Flood Isurance Rate Maps used by your insurance company may not be current. They may not reflect flood control improvements made by community officials. Or, as in my case, the housing development simply didn't exist when the map was created. As a result, it is left up to each insurance agency (or their subcontractor) to "interpret" the outdated maps, often in error. Therefore, one insurer may determine a property falls in Zone A, while another determines the same property is in Zone C.

Visit your county clerk, recorder, or registrar's office (I recommend you call them first) to view the Plat map and the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) for your area. They should have more current information that could easily clarify the zone your residence is located in. Pay the nominal fee to get a copy of these maps - you will need them later. To find the correct maps, the recorder will need the recordation information for your property, which can be found on your deed.

Contact your community flood official to see if any flood control improvements have been made or are proposed. If you aren't sure who that official is, try starting with the county superintendent's office or local civic/homeowner's association.

Hopefully, you have gathered enough information at this point to convince your imsurance company to downgrade your flood zone determination. If not, there is still another option available to you. Contact FEMA and request an application for a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA). If approved, FEMA will send a letter stating that the base flood will not inundate the existing structure.

Before completing the LOMA application, the homeowner must obtain the following documents:

1. A copy of the Plat Map from the county recorder.

2. A copy of the deed for the property accompanied by a tax assessor's or or other suitable map showing the surveyed location of the property. You can also obtain these from the county recorder.

3. A copy of the effective Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) panel. If the county recorder doesn't have this map, FEMA can direct you to a federal map depository that will mail you one for a small fee.

4. An elevation certificate completed by a professional surveyor, engineer, or architect. You can usually find one of these professionals in the yellow pages.

As you can see, gathering these documents can take some time, so it's best to start the LOMA application several months before your next insurance premium is due. If it is determined that your mortgage company required you, in error, to purchase special flood hazard insurance, you may be due a refund for up to two years worth of back payments.

Of course you can skip all the paperwork and simply shop around until you find an agent who is willing to provide you coverage for the least expensive flood zone. Be aware there are some serious drawbacks to this option. First, assume a flood does damage your property, and the FEMA agent arrives to make his or her assessment. If that agent determines you were really in Zone A, when you had purchased a Zone C policy, you will be charged the difference between the two policies for every year you lived in that residence. That can quickly add up to thousands of dollars. Also, by investing the extra time and money to get a LOMA, you may increase your home's appeal on the real estate market. You don't want potential buyers dropping out of escrow when they discover your home is in a special flood hazard area.

By the way, I did get my flood zone downgraded from Zone A to Zone C. After some arm twisting, I also received a nice, fat refund check for the previous year's policy, just in time for Christmas. And finally, I changed insurance companies to one with a much friendlier customer service department!

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