One weekend last fall, I was checking out a real estate listing on realtor.com of a cute 19th-century house near a creek. But underneath this idyllic photo, I noticed two words in small, blue print, “Flood Factor,” followed by a number,10/10.
Alarmed, I delved deeper, and learned that this property’s flood risk was as high as it gets.
I texted my real estate agent, who’d sent me this listing: “Let’s skip this one. I don’t want to live in a flood zone.”
Still, our house hunt had been going from bad to worse all summer. Our quest for a second home in upstate New York had stalled, as the ongoing pandemic sent droves of home buyers into the market. A new listing would hit, our real estate agent would book a showing for a day or two later, and by the time we were driving to see the property, I’d learn there was already an accepted offer.https://b2c-banner.marketing.moveaws.com/welcome/banner/WSJ/wsj300x450.php
On this particular weekend, this flood-prone house was near the one tour we’d scheduled.
“We’ll be so close to it, why not just swing by?” my agent asked.
I agreed. After all, what did we have to lose?
Buying a house in a flood zone: Is it worth the risk?
This house was a charmer and then some: an 1870s homestead with three fireplaces, wide-board floors, a beautifully renovated kitchen, and a roomy addition that meant more space for our family. Outside, the creek burbled, filling the house with sounds of nature. In the yard, a hummingbird darted to and fro, a frog hopped in the water, and butterflies circled about. It was like a scene from “Enchanted,” a Disney movie come to life.
In short order, my husband and I huddled with our real estate agent, deciding how much to offer for the house. As for the flooding, we were provided with a massive file of information about bridge and dam improvements that diminished the flood risk, as well as documentation of what the sellers had done to safeguard the property from rising water.
We learned the house had indeed flooded during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. But, we wondered, who on the East Coast hadn’t felt the impact of that devastating event?
My husband pored over the property’s survey, noting the elevations of the yard, basement, and house, and then cross-referenced that with historic flood data on high tidal surges. He felt we were OK, so onward we went.
Getting the flood insurance facts
As we progressed toward closing the sale, we became acquainted with the ins and outs of flood insurance, which our bank required to approve our mortgage.
Flood insurance is similar to other insurance coverage: The lower your deductible (what you pay out of pocket to fix problems before insurance kicks in), the higher your premium (what you pay for the insurance). Once an insurance broker laid out our options, it was clear that our property would run several thousand dollars a year.
My husband and I thought long and hard about the numbers. The additional cost of flood insurance at a time of historically low mortgage rates seemed like a decent trade-off. We paid the first year of flood insurance upfront, and then had the next year’s premium rolled into our monthly mortgage payment. This assured the bank that we were committed to ongoing coverage through the life of our loan.
Blame it on the rain
We closed on the house just before the holidays. Feeling safe and snug, we were so happy to be in our little haven in the country. Up went a Christmas tree, which one of our sons had chopped down himself a few miles from our new home. Down came snow, lots of it. The house looked so pretty, frosted in white, and the yard was carpeted in snow drifts.
But this bucolic scene took a turn for the worse, and fast.
The weather service announced there would be torrential rain on Christmas Day. In addition, temperatures would be unseasonably warm, in the 50s, causing all the snow to melt and run off. Flood watches and warnings were issued.
At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about wrapping the last of the holiday gifts and sliding them under the tree. Instead, I was anxiously imagining how the next day might unfold.
The next day: unrelenting rain and temperatures warm enough to melt every inch of snow.
In the back of our yard, where the creek merged with another stream, we noticed that we had less yard. The water was overflowing its normal boundaries and advancing toward the house. My husband stuck a measuring stick in the ground. We watched and waited.
By midafternoon on Christmas Day, about half of our yard was under a few inches of water. My plans for a gazebo by the rear property line were clearly dashed, as that area turned out to be semiaquatic. We realized we were in only a flood watch (meaning potential danger), not a full-on flood warning (which basically means prepare to evacuate).
We held our breath—the creek surged, and retreated.
Making peace with major risk
We had Christmas dinner in our new home, overlooking a very soggy scene outside. What had we gotten ourselves into? More than we’d bargained for, that’s true. We are going to live with a layer of uncertainty and worry about rising waters that we’ve never had before.
But then again, we’ve never before experienced the joy of opening our windows and listening to a babbling brook. Or seeing all kinds of ducks come bobbing through our backyard. Or catching trout 10 feet from our kitchen.
We rolled the dice, and so far, we’re keeping our heads and hopes well above water.
Janet Siroto is a journalist, editor, and trend tracker. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and other publications.