Serious questions to ask yourself before you purchase a home that has flooded
Updated: May 16, 2019
One of the biggest questions I get, aside from understanding the home purchase process in general is, "Is it worth it to risk buying a house that has flooded?" Since Hurricane Harvey wrecked it's havoc on Houston in Late August 2017, our city has seen tens of thousands of homes hit the market that were effected either in the massive flooding of that event or in one of the 3 major flooding events in the years prior. And, sooner or later every single home that has ever flooded will return to the real estate market in one form or another.
My truthful answer to that question is: I can't answer that for you. I don't know what risks you're willing to take, what your budget is for the home and flood insurance, and if you're life is easily flexible should a flood event effect you in the future. That being said, I can help you navigate these questions to help you make the best determination for you and your family.
So, let's go through the process of understanding Houston flooding and whether or not you'd be down to buy one of these houses in the future, because let's be real - Somebody is gonna be buying these houses.
1. How many times has this home flooded?
This is important to ask because it immediately gives you an indication of the potential risk of it happening again. The follow up question to this would then be, What has been done to area infrastructure to help alleviate or mitigate future events in this area. When Nick and I first bought our house in Westbury just after the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 we seriously thought "Man, I'd live on Braeswood. These houses are gorgeous and I love the walking and biking path on the bayou. Now, that answer is completely different. After those homes have now flooded three times and HCFCD has made only minor adjustments downstream in the bayou, I personally wouldn't take the risk unless the home has already been raised. IMO One quick warning, although Texas property code requires sellers disclose these things to potential buyers, they may not always be honest, but if you're working with an experienced agent you should have the tools at hand to uncover the history of the home like building permits and insurance claims.
2. How high each time did the water rise inside the home?
What I've noticed with each of the consecutive flooding events in Houston was that each event was different but a little worse each time. Sticking with Meyerland and Westbury as an example - homes that never flooded in Memorial Day or Tax Day Floods suddenly flooded in Harvey and if they flooded in prior years, they flooded much worse the third go-round. If you're willing to hedge your bets in buying a home that has flooded multiple times, you really want to have a good idea of how high the water came to understand the cost you may incur to rebuild in the future. Sorry if I'm a little *whomp whomp* on this, but I feel it's better to be informed an pragmatic than naively optimistic.
3. How much did the previous owners pay for their flood policy?
This question is important for a number of reasons. You want to have a good understanding of whether or not the policy has always been in a flood plan, was recently added in the latest FEMA Map updates, or if it's in the "optional" zone, that effects the price. Yes, you can get this information from your own insurance company when they run an elevation certificate on the property, however, your insurance company won't tell you whether or not the policy they are quoting you is more or less affordable than what the prior owners had. Flood policies are written strictly through FEMA and they are purchased for a year at a time. In some situations, the seller's have recently purchased or renewed their policy and may be able to transfer it to you with the sale. It never hurts to ask. Also important to note, FEMA is in the works of drastically changing how much they charge for flood policies and why. Definitely keep your ear to the ground on this one, it could have some major implications in Houston.
4. If the home has been remediated and renovated, who did the work?
For better or worse, Houston is the wild west of real estate and construction - very little zoning and no licensing required for general contractors. Ideally, you would like to see a long standing, reputable company attached to that work and not necessarily a big name franchise. Have they been in business for years prior to that flood event? Were they working in Houston prior to that flooding event? What OSHA and EPA certificates does the company hold and what tests did they conduct on the property prior to, during and after rehabbing the property. And biggest questions: Is that company still in business and working in Houston? If the home was purchased by an investor that rehabbed it themselves, you would still expect them to be able to answer all these questions and provide documentation and paperwork for ever step of the remediation and rehab process. When disasters happen in Houston, fly by night "contractors" tend to run around town making a bad situation worse and it's a smart idea to ask enough questions to protect yourself from future problems that may arise from shotty work.
5. What has been done in the area alleviate future flooding?
With this, I'm talking about major area infrastructure. In Houston we pay taxes to Harris County specifically for flood control. In addition to funds allocated for projects and maintenance by Harris County Flood Control District, there are a handful of Public-Private Partnerships working to fund larger scale capital improvements that regular tax dollars simply haven't been able to cover. Remember in Question 1 when I said Nick and I wouldn't live on Braeswood now - that's because I honestly don't feel the improvements made downstream to Brays Bayou are enough to alleviate flooding into homes in a future flood event and that the responsibility in a lot of ways has fallen on the homeowners to either tear down and rebuild at a higher elevation or spend an exorbitant amount to lift their homes about the flood waters. However, I feel differently about the area of Westbury that flooded in those same storms. My reason being, major work has been done to improve Willow Waterhole Bayou and to add two additional reservoirs to the Willow Waterhole system since 2015. Here's a December 2018 Article of the Westbury Crier further explaining the extensive updates to Willow Waterhole. And in fact, July 4th of last year (Y'all! What's the deal with Houston's floods always happening on holidays) and this past week of crazy storms, that bayou and reservoir system was put up to the test and held up to the task. As residents were checking nearby flood gauges certain the bayou was going to spill out of it's banks and into their homes - the gauges suddenly stopped just inches from the top as water moved downstream to the new weirs designed to overflow into retention ponds and the interconnected system that is Willow Waterhole. It was a feat of hydro-engineering that many people didn't even notice saved them from another catastrophe.
To learn more about ongoing efforts to alleviate flooding disasters - check out what's happening over at Project Brays.
Important Links regarding Houston Flooding:
Harris County Flood Control District - https://www.hcfcd.org/
Harris County Flood Warning System Map - https://www.harriscountyfws.org/
FEMA Flood Map - https://msc.fema.gov/portal/home
City of Houston Floodplain Management Website - https://www.publicworks.houstontx.gov/floodplain.html
City of Houston Building Code Chapter 19 Revisions regarding floodplains - https://www.houstontx.gov/council/g/chapter-19-revisions.html
I honestly hope I gave you great information to really take into consideration when you are thinking about your next home. As always, do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions, big or small. I'm here to help.