Monthly Archives: July 2013

Big Changes to Flood Insurance Rates

 CHANGES TO FLOOD INSURANCE PROGRAM: We paid our first revised flood insurance premium today – a 20% increase from what we paid last year for the same level of coverage. Our premiums will continue to rise for the next four years, up to 25% at a time. Why? The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a federal program under FEMA, is broke. With a debt of more than 18 billion dollars, the program is not sustainable. Who covers this huge deficit not covered by flood insurance premiums? Taxpayers do.

Wind and Flood damage from Hurricane Sandy - 2012

Wind and flood damage from Hurricane Sandy – 2012

Brief History of Flood Insurance: In 1965, Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans. The ensuing floods destroyed numerous homes. No flood insurance existed to help the homeowners recover. Traditional insurance companies did not want to offer flood insurance because there were no ratings, models, or statistical probabilities available. So the government stepped in making flood maps, models, and generating the necessary statistics to account for the probability of a flood event. The National Flood Insurance Program was formed in 1968. It allowed individuals to purchase insurance (via insurance agents) through the government to cover floods.

In 2005 Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. The cost of recovery proved to be greater than incoming insurance premiums could cover. FEMA was forced to borrow 16 billion dollars from the government to cover the cost. This was a major set back to the program. Something had to change.

In July 2012, Congress signed into law extensive changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). This was before Super Storm Sandy served up a path of destruction, covering an area the size of Europe, in late October of 2012. The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, as it is called, has significant implications for anyone who has flood insurance. The short summary: your flood insurance rates are going to go up. These rates are allowed to go up as much as 25% per year (for the next 5 years) until actuarial rates (estimate of the expected value of future loss) are achieved.

How high your rates will go up will vary depending on your location and situation. The short list of homeowners who can expect to see their rates rise dramatically:

  • residential property that is not the primary residence of an individual (vacation homes)
  • any severe repetitive loss property (four or more claims over $5,000 or two claims that exceed the value of the property)
  • flood damages that cumulatively exceed the fair market value of the property
  • any new policy or newly purchased property in high risk flood areas

The taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize people whose homes are known to be in high-risk floodplains. The rates have to go up to cover the costs and risks inherent in living in these areas. Ultimately, some homes will have cost prohibitive rates resulting in homeowners who can no longer afford the flood insurance premiums. There are no easy or simple remedies.

Flood insurance rates are determined by the home’s base flood elevation. A house above the base flood elevation entitles the owner to pay a lower flood insurance premium – a very good reason to consider lifting your house.

Houselifted well above the base flood elevation for this property

House lifted well above the base flood elevation –  for this property

For more information on how your flood insurance rates will be impacted:

A video summary of the Biggert-Waters Reform Act:

Heavy Rainfall + Brief Time Frame = Big Problems

FLASH FLOODING: This past weekend several cities across the U.S. were hit with severe rainfall amounts causing flash flooding and plenty of destruction. Everyone knows that a hurricane with its strong winds and heavy rains will cause significant damage and a rainy Nor’Easter will flood large areas at a time, but even a heavy summer rainstorm can be disastrous. Too much water in a short amount of time is going to be a problem. It’s a bit akin to blasting a bathtub full of water with a fire hose – the water can only drain so fast.

Parts of coastal North Carolina endured more than 9 inches of rain in just six hours as thunderstorms unloaded their wrath resulting in numerous roadway closures, flooded homes and at least two deaths. It was the “worst flash flooding in decades.”

A narrow band of record setting rain dumped more than 8 inches of rain near the Philadelphia International Airport in just four hours.

Located 100 miles south-east of Las Vegas, Kingman, Arizona had many road closures after 2 inches of rain fell in about 90 minutes.

One of the challenges with this flooding event is that it will not be declared a “National Disaster” by the President. Although FEMA will be on the ground, it will not be en masse, nor is the American Red Cross likely to be going door to door with assistance. Relatively few people were impacted. But to those who were, who are now dealing with a flooded home, my thoughts go out to you today. These flash floods will be but a blip on the news, but it will be months before your home will be put back together.

Global Extreme Weather And Climate Events – A 2013 Timeline

A VERY TELLING VISUAL INDEED: Of the 24 events highlighted on this timeline, eight involve massive flooding and two others involve excessive rainfall. Extreme flooding events not included on this timeline for 2013 so far: Australia in January, Europe in May and June and Canada in  June. Though I don’t know how to prevent this seeming epidemic of wide spread flooding, I do know of one cure. For homeowners living in these risky flood prone areas around the world – two words: House Lift

Staircase Options for an Elevated House

NEW STAIR DESIGN: One of the trickier elements to elevating a house is creating the new access stairs. Whether you are lifting your house two feet off the ground or a full story, functional yet attractive stairs will need to be designed for your home. Three things will greatly dictate  your options: the number of steps you need, the size of the property, and where your house is located. For instance, beachfront property (“V” zone on a flood map) is restricted by FEMA e.g., no massive staircases that would act as an obstruction to flowing water are allowed. For everyone else, you have more choices.

STRAIGHT STYLE STAIRCASE: One of the standard designs is the straight staircase (see photos below). On these elevated homes, the stairs enhance the look of the house and blend into the neighborhood. There is always the option to add a landing 1/2 way up the run of steps to break it up a bit, provided you have enough property to extend out that far. One of the limiting factors to using the straight style staircase is a shallow front yard. Straight style stairs extend roughly one foot per stair, plus however big the landing to your front door extends.

straight style stairs

straight style stairs – 10 steps

straight  style steps - 12 steps

straight style steps  with a flair at the end- 12 steps

Straight style with a landing in the middle.

Straight style steps  with a landing in the middle

L-SHAPE STAIRCASE: This shape is great at breaking up a long run of steps or using when your front yard has a small set back. They are an attractive alternative to consider based on your personal preference.

The "L" style staircase on a house in progress

The “L” style staircase on a house in progress

T-SHAPE STAIRCASE: This design is similar to the L-shape, except the run of stairs tends to extend closer to the ground before landing on a platform that splits off in two directions, in a T.

This single family home is designed with an L-Shape staircase

This single family home is designed with a T-shape staircase

U-SHAPE STAIRCASE: The U-Shape staircase is a spacious design that allocates room for planting beds to be merged into the structure. As a result, they take up quite a bit of room and are best reserved for wider homes on an expansive property. Otherwise, the stairs will overpower the house.

Note how much real estate these stair consume. Fine on a wider property, like this one.

Note how much real estate this staircase consumes. It works on a  wider property, like this one.

SWITCHBACK STYLE STAIRCASE: Very similar to the U-style stair design except that the large planting bed in the middle of the U is eliminated to condense the size of the staircase. This style works well on a house that requires many stairs in the design, but does not have a lot of space in which to work. Like the U-shape, this style of staircase utilizes landings to break up a large run of stairs.

Initially, we had hoped to utilize a straight stair design on our house (and we still might). On closer inspection, we realized that our house will require more steps (about 16) than the ones we had seen with a straight style design. The verdict for our house is still out …

The choice of staircase style is a personal one that the homeowner will make based on what they prefer and what works best on their property. One upside to all of those stairs – a regular workout for your derrière. Another bonus – your house is above the flood zone.

Foundation Walls

WEEK 7: This week finds the crew feverishly at work completing the new foundation. Cinder blocks meticulously trimmed with cement were built up, to the requisite new height for our house, creating our new foundation walls. This process was a bit reminiscent of the story of the “Three Little Pigs” when the third Little Pig, the smart one, built his house of bricks to ward of the Big Bad Wolf.  In our case, the “Big Bad Wolf” happens to be flood water – and lots of it.

Crumbling old foundation

Crumbling old foundation

What was left of the original foundation walls had to be demolished in several places as it had deteriorated.

Fresh new walls in the making

Fresh new walls in the making

New footings had to be poured before the walls could be erected.

No foundation walls ...

No foundation walls …

After several weeks of hard work under the scorching hot sun, the foundation is just about complete.


The majority of the foundation is now complete.

Flood Vents on an Elevated House

FLOOD VENTS: If you’re considering elevating your house, chances are pretty good that you live in a special flood hazard area (SFHA). By “special” they (FEMA) mean that your house gets rocked by a flood every now and again and therefore requires a homeowner to adhere to strict FEMA building codes. Once your house is elevated, the foundation will continue to be subjected to an occasional pummeling by floodwater. In effort to eliminate the destructive force from a flood, flood vents will be added to the foundation walls.

Flood vent tucked into the landscaping

Flood vents tucked behind the landscaping

WHAT IS A FLOOD VENT? Simply put, a flood vent allows for a free flow of flood water in and out of a home’s foundation walls. They serve to equalize the pressure on both sides of the foundation walls, decreasing the chance of significant damage.

So while it may seem counterintuitive to welcome the flood water in, it’s the best way to protect your foundation in the long run. These vents are placed around the perimeter of the house near the ground, but can easily be blended into the surrounding landscape.

Interior view of flood vent

Interior view of flood vent

This style of flood vent is only appropriate for hydrostatic pressure resulting from slow moving/rising water. Homes located near the ocean or a fast moving river would be subjected to hydrodynamic forces and would therefore require an entirely different foundation system (break-away walls or an open foundation with the house built up on pylons).

As the new foundation wall is completed, space is allocated for a flood vent.

As the new foundation wall is completed, space is allocated for a flood vent.

These vents are an important part of the National Flood Insurance Program regulations that apply to all new build, repair of substantially damaged homes and substantial improvement of existing homes in SFHA’s. Flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs) put together by the NFIP determine which properties are located in a SFHA based on base flood elevations. Confused? Let’s try an acronym you may be more familiar with instead …

SUMMARY: Install flood vents around the perimeter of your elevated home or your foundation walls may by S.O.L. with subsequent flooding events.

Choosing an Architect

CHOOSING AN ARCHITECT: Starting any major renovation project can be overwhelming. Who you choose to help you with that project will impact you for months to come. When the task is to elevate your house, you’re going to need an architect. Choose wisely. Like most service providers, going by word of mouth is a good place to start. You also want to make sure they have a proper license as well as sufficient experience. These are things you already know.

TIP: If you notice a house in your neighborhood doing some work that you like, ask them which architect they are using. Whenever possible, you’ll want to determine if they are happy with the quality of his work, the timeliness of his drawings and if s/he brings any creativity to the table. You might be surprised to realize how common it is in this profession to suffer from a creativity deficiency. It’s good to know up front if you’ll have to design the majority of the project yourself. Most times they’ll play it like they really are capable of generating something you’re going to love. In our experience, most times they’re wrong.

Because prices can vary wildly, make sure to interview several potential prospects. You’ll want to find out what sort of projects they tend to work on (big or small) and how busy they are at the moment. If an architect’s plate is too full already, chances are you’ll end up waiting a long time to get any drawings, delaying your plans or renovations. Also, if the the architect has several employees, be certain who will actually be doing your drawings and overseeing the job. Sometimes the most experienced architect shows up at your house to win the job only to pass it off to someone with less experience in the office. Someone with less experience can work out well, particularly if the scope of your project is not very complicated.

DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS: One of the things that help a project to run smoothly are drawings with accurate and sufficient details for the builders to follow. Think of these drawings like the directions to a complicated LEGO set with lots of pieces. Do you want your builder to know where to put the wall outlets or have him guess? Do you want your builder to know what type of material you want to have on your floors (wood, tile, carpet) or do you want to be surprised when the builder tells you that what you want is not part of the plans? Anything left off of your drawings will, more times than not, end up costing you more money. The more details, the better. Discuss the level of detail you desire as specifically as possible. Sometimes these drawings will cost you more money up front, but save you a bundle in the long run.

CONTRACTS:  Be sure to read the fine print. Try to include a clause that dictates deadlines so you are not left in limbo with an architect who gets too busy or turns out to be a slacker.