June 5, 2016

Buying, Selling or Building a Home in a Flood Plain: What You Need to Know

One of the first questions prospective buyers ask about a house they are considering purchasing is: "Has the basement ever had water?"

And with good reason. The heavy rains and repeated instances of "100-year floods" in recent years have become a nightmare for homeowners and municipal governments alike, causing extensive damage and costly clean-up and remediation.

Flooded street

And "flood plain" has become a dirty word, even though location in a flood plain does not necessarily mean that a property or surrounding area has ever flooded. In fact, most of the flooding you may have heard about or experienced in recent years was not caused by overflow of rivers and lakes. Instead, the most common source of overland flooding in residential areas has been heavy rainstorms when the capacity of the storm sewers has been exceeded and backs up into streets and basements. This can occur anywhere, whether or not the area in located in the floodplain.

Even so, location in a flood plain can mean added costs and additional restrictions for the homeowner, even if they don't have flooding problems.

What Is a Flood Plain?

A flood plain (also known as a Special Flood Hazard Area - SFHA) is land that is adjacent to a body of water that has its ground elevation at or below the 100-year Base Flood Elevation (BFE) for a 100-year flood event. This means there is a 1% chance of a flood occurring in any given year (or a 25% chance of flooding over the life of a 30-year mortgage). In New Trier Township the main sources of flood plain are the Skokie River and Lagoons and the North Branch of the Chicago River. 

Floodplain diagram


Buying a Home in the Flood Plain

If a building is located in the flood plain and will be purchased with a mortgage that is backed by the Federal Government, the lender (or Federal agency) is required by law to require the buyer to purchase FEMA flood insurance. The required coverage is equal to the amount of the loan excluding the appraised value of the land, or the maximum amount of insurance available from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), whichever is less. The maximum amount available on a single-family residence is $250,000. This can cost you up to a few thousand dollars per year.

To find out if the property is in the flood plain, go to the FEMA website, enter the address of the property and you will see a map with the flood plain highlighted.

Here's a FEMA map of my neighborhood, showing in blue which areas are in the flood plain.

FEMA map

If you are buying a property that appears to be in the flood plain, or you suspect it is (and this should be disclosed on both the Illinois Property Disclosure form and in the MLS), you should visit the Village Engineer to learn how this will impact your ability to make improvements to the structure.

The FEMA flood insurance you have to buy is completely separate from your homeowner's policy and does not cover flooding from sewer back-up. That is handled separately via a rider in your homeowner's insurance.


How To Get Your House Re-zoned Out of the Flood Plain

If your property is located in a Special Flood Hazard Area but seems to be at a higher elevation than the surrounding area, and has no risk of flooding, you can apply to get FEMA to re-zone your property out of the flood plain.

The first step is to hire a surveyor to perform an elevation certification on your home. This must be a licensed land surveyor or a registered professional engineer in order for the document to qualify for consideration by FEMA. The surveyor will inspect the construction and compare the location and elevation of the house to the flood plain requirements to determine if your home sits above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE).

Once you have the elevation certificate showing your home is above the flood plain, you need to submit an application for a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) to FEMA. You can submit the application either electronically through FEMA's eLOMA system or by sending in FEMA application package MT-1 or MT-EZ.

FEMA will review your application, which usually takes between 6-8 weeks. If your application is approved, they will give you a Letter of Map Amendment, which effectively re-zones your property out of the flood plain. Provide this to your lender and you will no longer be required to carry FEMA flood insurance.

Go to this page on the FEMA site to get more information about getting your property re-zoned out of the flood plain.


Building in the Flood Plain

If you are looking to build on a lot that is located in the flood plain (or expand an existing structure) the process will be lengthier, more complex and more expensive than if the lot is not in the flood plain: 

  • Any property or structures that are located within 100 feet of the flood plain must comply with the Village's local flood ordinances and the MWRD Watershed Management Ordinance.
  • A topographic survey (also known as a topo) is needed to make exact flood plain determinations and to develop a grading plan with compensatory storage calculations.
  • If any existing grade adjacent to the foundation of the existing or proposed home is at or below the BFE, the entire home is then considered to be in the 100 year flood plain.
  • The total cost of improvements to an existing structure must be less than 50% of the current market value of that structure, excluding land value, OVER THE LIFE OF THE STRUCTURE, from May 2014 onwards. 
  • New construction must be protected from the flood plain by elevating the structure's lowest floor at least two feet above the BFE.
  • Compensatory storage is an excavated volume provided in the flood plain to offset any fill placed in the flood plain, at a rate of 1.1 to 1, and must be freely draining without the use of a pump. Basically it's an underground storage pit for the water displaced by the construction or the fill.
  • A permit must be obtained from the Village for all work within the 100-year flood plain.

Want to know more? You can download the Quick Guide to Flood Plain Management in Illinois here. 

Village of Winnetka Flood Plain Information

Village of Wilmette Flood Plain Information

Village of Northfield Flood Plain Information

Village of Glencoe Flood Plain Information

Thinking of buying or selling a home on the North Shore? We can help you navigate the process. Give us a call at 847-881-6657 to set up a buyer or seller consultation  or send us a note.

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