This piece originally appeared in the December 2021 edition of DS News magazine, online now.
As extreme weather and flooding continues to plague the U.S., so, too, does the threat of property damage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in its midseason update, reaffirmed its initial assessment that the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season would be above normal, predicting 15 to 21 named storms. While the worst is likely behind us, it is imperative that landlords and renters have a firm grasp on flood risk and take steps to protect themselves and their property from flood damage.
What’s at Stake?
While statistics vary, 2020 testimony from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative Michael Grimm revealed that between 2010 and 2018 the cost of flood damage was about $17 billion annually in the U.S. As we look ahead 30 years into the future, flood damage is estimated to increase by 61%—equating to $32 billion in damages by 2051—according to research by First Street Foundation. Unfortunately, most landlords and renters don’t realize that their standard insurance policies exclude flood. The juxtaposition of COVID-19-era migration to vacation hot spots prone to flooding against the reality that only one in six homes in the U.S. are insured against flood could illustrate a very real problem hiding in plain sight. Moreover, as 90% of natural catastrophes in the country involve flooding, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a lack of flood insurance could be a ticking timebomb for so many landlords and renters across the country.
Common Misconceptions and Blind Spots
Landlords who own homes in FEMA-designated Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs), historically, tend to be underprepared for flooding. The same study by First Street Foundation found that nearly 4.3 million residential homes are threatened with substantial flood risk across the country, which could result in financial losses. This underscores the importance of landlords and renters alike having proper flood insurance policies in place to protect their property (in the case of the landlord) and personal artifacts (in the case of the renter).
Unfortunately, flood insurance is often an afterthought—particularly for those not living in SFHAs. However, not having flood insurance can be catastrophic as damage from flooding can prove to be difficult—if not impossible—to recover from without it. For example, FEMA estimates that just one inch of water can cause $25,000 in damages to a home. Few people have that kind of cash lying around, so it begs the question: can you really afford to not protect yourself against flooding?
Despite the growing threat of flooding, many landlords and renters are misinformed about what is and is not covered by landlord or renter’s insurance. Landlords’ insurance typically protects the landlord from liability for damages such as fire, hail, wind, snow, and some water damages. However, these policies often exclude flooding. The same goes for renter’s insurance. And while all states require flood insurance if the dwelling is in a SFHA, flooding can occur anywhere, at any time. Take, for example, Hurricane Ida, which caught many in Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey off guard. Many were shocked to learn that their standard insurance policies would not cover losses, leaving them wondering how they would pay to rebuild what was lost. This should serve as a cautionary tale for landlords who have a responsibility to educate and alert their tenants about flood risks and what is and is not covered by the landlord in the event of a flood.
How Can Landlords Protect Themselves, Their Tenants, and Their Investments?
It is the landlord’s responsibility to notify the tenant of any knowledge concerning flood hazard on the property. Being transparent upfront and serving as a source of education to would-be renters can help protect both the landlord and tenant and ensure preparedness in the case of a flood. Here are some steps landlords can take to protect themselves, their tenants, and their investments from the threat of flood damage:
- Be proactive. It is imperative that you, as the landlord, have a strong grasp on the flood hazards associated with your properties and that you are relaying this to your tenants (which can be a requirement by law, depending on your state) and any property management partners you have. If you are unsure of flood risks, you can order a flood hazard report through a third-party flood partner online, which can provide your state’s specific requirements for the disclosure of a rental property’s flood risk to the tenant.
- Make sure your properties are properly insured and relay to tenants what that covers. The foundation of a landlord/tenant relationship is established during the rental agreement phase. Therefore, taking every precaution necessary to ensure a tenant is fully educated and aware of what is and is not their financial responsibility in the case of a flood—or any other disaster—is crucial to establishing that strong relationship early on. While some landlords encourage or require their tenant to get renters’ insurance before they sign on the dotted line, it might not be as common for the landlord to discuss flood insurance with the tenant in the upfront. Landlords should be prepared to discuss “worst case” scenarios with tenants, so they understand what they are liable for in the case of flooding or other natural disasters (and what is expected of them in terms of helping to secure the property). Additionally, all landlords should consider getting flood insurance as an added precaution, even if they don’t have properties in SFHAs. Lastly, a landlord can support the tenant by providing disaster preparedness best practices and a list of helpful resources and phone numbers they can call for help.
- Take steps to weatherproof your properties and assess risks before they occur. There are many precautions a landlord can take—big and small—to help lessen the blow of a potential flood event. For example: floodproofing basements and installing a sump pump, installing flood-resistant insulation, replacing carpet with tile or other waterproof flooring, sealing cracks around windows, adding water-resistant sheathing to exterior walls, and even choosing not to rent out first-floor units that may have flooded in the past. FEMA’s website has more tips on how to protect properties from flooding.
- If flooding occurs, work swiftly to clean up impacted areas. While contacting your insurance company should be the first item on your list after a flood, next you should think about cleanup efforts. Once local authorities have deemed it is safe to return to a property, it is crucial you act quickly with cleanup and remediation efforts to minimize further damage and mold and so that tenants can return to the properties as soon as possible (or, if the damage is minimal, they may be able to live in the home or apartment while repairs occur). You can turn to support from a restoration company to help with cleanup efforts, too. If you take a DIY-approach to cleanup, make sure you are using protective gear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website includes more information on cleanup and remediation after a flood event.