HOUSTON -- The 11 News I-Team has uncovered how potentially thousands of Houston-area homeowners may be paying too much for federal flood insurance.
The issue is elevation: just because the federal government estimates that your neighborhood is in a flood zone, that doesn't mean your specific house is. And the difference could mean, literally, hundreds of dollars a year in insurance costs.
"I think most people do not know about it," said Terry Wille, a homeowner in Pasadena.
Wille is one of thousands of area homeowners getting notices from their insurance or mortgage companies that they need to pay more for federal flood insurance.
That’s because updated federal flood maps show thousands more homes are now in flood zones.
“When I bought the house 10 years ago it was not (in the zone),” said Wille.
But now that it is, the effect on his insurance is big.
“My flood insurance premium went up from about $250 a year to
about $1,200 a year," said Wille.
That’s a whopping 500 percent increase. But what Wille said his insurance company didn't tell him was that those maps might be wrong. He started asking around and a neighbor mentioned something called an elevation survey.
An elevation survey is done by surveyors using GPS instruments and laser measuring devices. The survey can determine the exact elevation of a home, and how much above or below it is compared to the base flood elevation -- the level at which the government figures waters will likely reach in a so-called 100-year flood.
"The equipment we use is very accurate, within that much," explained Christopher Gareri, holding two fingers about an inch apart.
Gareri is with DaRam Engineers, a Houston company that does the surveys. Homeowner Wille paid them about $300 to measure his home’s elevation. And lo and behold, it wasn’t so low. It was above the base flood elevation by nearly a foot. That means he doesn’t have to pay the higher rates for federal flood insurance.
He said once he presented his insurance agent with the official elevation certificate he got from the surveyors, his $1,200 annual flood insurance bill dropped to just $600.
And those surveyors told the 11 News I-Team what they found at Wille’s home is what they find in about 80 percent of properties they measure.
"We generally do find that the property, and the home, is above the base-flood elevation, in which it would make the insurance premiums cheaper," said Gareri.
Other homeowners have seen even bigger reductions; annual premiums that were over $2,000 plummeting to as little as $400, according to customers and insurance agents who spoke with 11 News.
It all bothers Wille because he said no one told him about the option to get an elevation survey -- not his insurance company or FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency which administers the federal flood insurance program.
One Houston independent insurance agent that is trying to be proactive is Douglas Johnson.
We asked him if anybody is out there telling people about the elevation survey option.
“No, I don't think so," he said.
Johnson said insurance agents may have a profit motive to not tell because they get a percentage cut of the FEMA premium. But he said it’s more likely some agents are simply unaware.
"My experience is some agents do a good job and some do not," Johnson said.
He said he tells his clients about getting the surveys, but shouldn't FEMA tell homeowners?
The 11News I-Team asked FEMA's Texas spokesperson, Linda Delamare.
Delamare said FEMA does talk about the elevation surveys when the agency holds community meetings to explain the new flood maps.
"We also have a website, FloodSmart.gov, where they can get general information, find a local agent,” said Delamare.
We asked her if that website tells about elevation certificates or surveys.
“No, I'm not sure that it does," she said.
The I-Team checked FloodSmart.gov and could not find a mention of elevation certificates on the homepage.
But, if you click on "Questions for your agent," it does mention elevation certificates, but never once says they could save you money.
Be that as it may, FEMA said it’s actually up to local officials to explain all this.
So the I-Team did some searching on the Harris County Flood Control District website and to its credit, it does clearly explain how elevation certificates might reduce the cost of your insurance.
Bottom line: check with your insurance agent and ask specifically about your home’s elevation. Is a certificate on file with the agent? If not, getting the elevation survey done will cost you $300 to $400, but could save you thousands by reducing your insurance costs for years to come.
Agents tell us the homeowners likely to save the most are those with homes that:
-Were built before some cities began requiring new homes to be elevated (roughly 1979 but check with your local city officials)
-Have never flooded in the past
-Are not near a bayou
-Currently have FEMA insurance that costs more than $1,000 a year
Harris Co. Public Infrastructure Flood Map Information
List Of Your Community’s Flood Plain Administrators
Interactive Flood Plain MAP
Is Your House In A Flood Plain?