Property Owner Tips: Flood Zones 101

June 28, 2021
traffic sign covered with water from flood

One of the biggest reasons people love living and working in Tampa Bay is our gorgeous waterfront. That waterfront also, unfortunately, puts us at risk for flooding. Flood damage is actually the number one cause of property damage in the US—causing as much as $10 billion in damage each year

When shopping for a property or planning a renovation, it’s important to understand your flood risk, and the flood zone your property falls in. In this blog, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about living, working, or renovating in a flood zone. 

What is a flood zone?

Flood zones are designations created by FEMA to indicate the risk of a flood in a particular area. Flood zones determined using a combination of data about flood history, elevation, and other statistical data.

You might hear reference to the “100-year floodplain” when talking about flood zones. This refers to an area that only has a 1% chance of flooding in a given year (that is, a flood event is estimated to occur only once every hundred years). There are also 500-year floodplains, which have an extremely low likelihood of flooding (an estimated once every 500 years). That said, it’s important to understand that weather patterns and water levels don’t read maps or predictions—Houston, TX, for example, has had three 500-year flood events in three years. 

In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, a wide range of flood zone designations. You can find your flood zone using the map tools on FEMA’s website. These letters refer to your risk of flooding, and help insurance companies determine your flood insurance rate:

  • There’s a low flood risk in zones C and X (unshaded) as they fall above the 500-year flood plain. Flood insurance isn’t required in these zones. 
  • There’s moderate flood risk in zones B and X. (shaded). These zones are above the 100-year flood plain, but below the 500-year flood plain. Flood insurance isn’t required in these zones. 
  • High risk areas with flood insurance required may carry designations A, AO, AH, AE, A99, AR, AR/AE, AR/AO, AR/A1-A30, AR/A, V, VE, or be numbered A1-A30 or V1-V30. While each designation has a slightly different meaning, what’s important to understand is that you are below the 100-year floodplain—meaning you have more than a 1% chance of flooding. 
  • Designation letter D refers to a risk that isn’t determined. This is very rare, especially in Florida. 

What does it mean when a listing says “non-flood zone” or “no flood insurance required?”

If you’re shopping for a property, either commercial or residential, you might come across the phrase “NO FLOOD ZONE!” or a statement that “no flood insurance is required.” That doesn’t mean that the property will never flood, or that you’re covered by standard homeowner’s insurance in the event of flooding. All it means is exactly what it says: you’re not legally required to carry flood insurance on that particular property. 

“Just because flood insurance isn’t required doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand your risk. If it can rain at your location, it can flood. Always be sure to explore options for flood insurance coverage,” says Jim Albert of Neptune Flood. “That’s my biggest advice to any property owner—understand your risk, and make an informed decision. There’s nothing worse than trying to save a few dollars a month, then losing everything with no protection in place.”

Jim also recommends that everyone who owns a property should take full advantage of the available resources to make that decision. Whether you’re shopping for a property or looking to gain a better understanding of a property you already own, you can research your flood risk at, which is a free tool that is not tied to any insurance company. Simply input your address and you’ll get information about flood risk and flood history at your address and in your neighborhood.  

How do you renovate a property in a flood zone?

Renovating a property, whether it’s your personal home, an income-generating property, or your place of business, requires specific considerations to make sure you’re making the most of your renovation dollars. 

When you’re planning a renovation, keep FEMA’s 50/50 rule in mind. This regulation states that if you are making “substantial” improvements equal to or greater than 50 percent of that structure's permitted market value, you’re required to make updates to bring the building to the latest flood code. If your planned project exceeds that 50 percent mark, your project will need to be broken into phases. In some areas, you’re limited by the number of permits you can pull per year—which can make it difficult to plan a major project. 

When renovating your building, you’ll need to break the renovation into smaller projects that fall within the allowed amount based on FEMA’s outline. Your contractor should work with a professional property appraiser to ensure that your project is planned appropriately and the depreciated value of your property improvements are assessed accurately. 

“Having prepared FEMA 50 percent rule appraisals in greater Tampa Bay for the last 21 years, and also having personally gone through renovations within flood zones, the best recommendation is that the property owner and general contractor, upon estimating renovation cost, determine if the depreciated value of the current improvements, per county property appraiser, are less than double the estimated cost. If the costs aren’t aligning, you need to reach out to a local valuation expert to more accurately determine the structure’s depreciated value,” says John Barkett, owner of Barkett Realty and state-certified general appraiser and MAI. 

How do you reduce the risk of flooding and lower the cost of flood insurance? 

The easiest way to reduce the cost of your flood insurance is by implementing mitigation measures. There are a variety of options for flood mitigation—up front, they might seem like a costly addition to a new property purchase or planned renovation, but in the long run, the savings on flood insurance (and the protection from major flood losses and water damage) will help offset the cost! 

Flood vents

Flood vents are some of the simplest mitigation devices you can install, and require relatively minimal changes to your home or business. Of all the mitigation techniques out there, flood vents are some of the most cost-effective. These are small pressure-latched vents, which are placed over openings cut into walls and doors, typically in a crawlspace or garage. Flood vents work by opening when water pressure is detected and allowing flood waters to flow through the space. Without this type of vent, pressure builds up and could lead to walls (or an entire structure) being swept away. Because they remain closed when no water pressure is present, there’s no impact to your heating and cooling costs.

Flood vents are required on new construction of buildings that have enclosed spaces below the base flood elevation (BFE). While construction code doesn’t allow for new living spaces to be constructed below BFE, you can have non-living space, such as a garage or crawlspace, at lower levels. If you’re renovating a building with a crawl space or a garage, adding flood vents—whether or not you’re required to by code—can help mitigate your risk and significantly lower the cost of your flood insurance. 

Flood barriers

Flood vents are what’s known as “wet floodproofing,” meaning they’re intended to let water flow through to mitigate major losses. Dry floodproofing, on the other hand, is meant to completely seal a building and prevent floodwaters from ever reaching it. 

Flood barriers are a technique for dry floodproofing. While you might be familiar with the idea of building a sandbag barrier as a storm approaches, far more sophisticated flood barrier technologies exist. You might consider installing flood walls or barriers, which can be quickly erected when a storm approaches. 

When building a flood wall, remember that water needs an escape route when there is not a flood happening—be sure to also create a proper drainage system for rainwater. Because of the costs involved, flood walls are more common in commercial properties than residential ones. Flood wall construction may require permits or specific approvals, so be sure to work with the zoning board in your specific area before you begin the project. 

Elevate your building

The most surefire way to escape a flood? Head for higher ground. This is, of course, easier said than done—especially if your building rests on a foundation that’s below that base flood elevation level. With new construction, it’s easier to build up a lot and construct an elevated foundation to meet flood level requirements. If you have an existing building, the process of elevating your foundation is much more involved.

Elevating an existing building requires detaching the structure from the existing foundation, lifting it to the appropriate height, and building a new elevated foundation underneath. This process is the most expensive floodproofing measure listed here, but will offer long-term benefits of reduced flood damage and savings on your flood insurance. 

You should pair elevating your structure with other wet floodproofing mitigation techniques, such as flood vents or washaway walls, on the newly raised foundation space. This space can also be quite large, and can be used as a non-living space such as a garage, workshop, or storage area—just understand that the space will be at risk of flooding, and don’t keep anything precious or irreplaceable on the ground level. 

Don’t just tread water

Finding your perfect property in Tampa Bay will likely involve at least some degree of flood research—whether you’re directly on the waterfront or just within a flood zone. Having a real estate partner with a detailed understanding of our market from both the commercial and residential perspective can help you not only find your perfect property, but understand its full potential and any risks you might encounter. 

At Barkett Realty, we have unmatched expertise in the area. We’re happy to help you find your perfect property and connect you with our partners who can help with flood insurance, flood mitigation, and more. Ready to get started? Get in touch today! 

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