Flood Zones 101

Cryin’ won’t help you prayin’ won’t do you no good
Now cryin’ won’t help you prayin’ won’t do you no good
When the levee breaks mama you got to move

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV, adapted from Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie’s song of the same name

If you’re a fan of classic rock, no doubt you’ve heard Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks. Did you know it’s actually an adaptation from a late-20s blues song about the great Mississippi flood of 1927? That’s the deep cultural impact of a flood – even a century later we still drive down the highway listening to the soulful, sorrowful sound of a people whose lives were washed away.

If you live in Savannah, no doubt you’ve heard of flood zones. Do you live in one? Is the house you’re interested in buying in a flood zone? Is the spot you want to park your new Challenger likely to flood when a hurricane rolls through?* How can you check? How much is flood insurance? Let’s find out.

*This is a Savannian inside joke circa Hurricane Irma. If you know, you know.

There are two key resources I use when checking if a property is in a flood zone:

  • SAGIS, short for Savannah Area Geographic Information System.
  • Georgia DFIRM

If a property is in Chatham county, I typically just use SAGIS. SAGIS is good because I can also check other data at the same time, like school districts or zoning. Any property outside of Chatham will have to be checked on DFIRM. Also, DFIRM is the official data and will be where the insurance agency goes, but honestly SAGIS is fine when we’re just scouting around for prospect properties. Once we get ready to actually put in an offer on a property is when we’ll go looking for more official data. We’ll just stick to SAGIS for the purposes of this article, please reach out to me directly if you’re interested in learning more about DFIRM.

How can I find out if a property is in a flood zone?

Let’s learn how to use SAGIS to check if we’re in a flood zone. Click on the SAGIS link above, you should see this:

We’ll need to open up the list of layers so we can turn on the flood map layer, click here:

Once the layers box pops up, we’ll want to click the checklist that says “effective flood zones (2018).” The flood zones will then populate on our map.

Here’s a close-up depicting the four zones an owner or buyer needs to be concerned with:

This screenshot is from the intersection of the Islands Expressway and 80. The four zones you’ll typically see are the following:

  • X – Light Green – Areas of minimal flood hazard, determined to be outside the 500 year flood plain.
  • X-500 – Dark Green – Area of moderate flood hazard or 0.2% annual chance of flooding, usually the area between the limits of the 100yearand 500 year floodplains.
  • AE – Light Blue – Areas with a 1% annual chance of flooding and a 26% chance of flooding over the life of a 30 year mortgage. Base flood elevations (BFE) and flood hazard factors are determined.
  • VE – red – Coastal areas with a 1% or greater chance of flooding and an additional hazard associated with storm waves. These areas have a 26% chance of flooding over the life of a 30 year mortgage. Base flood elevations (BFE) derived from detailed analyses are shown at selected intervals within these zones.

Now, take a look at this screenshot below. It’s of a property that appears to be in zone X-500 based on the map, but the detailed information suggests it’s AE. This is why we can’t solely rely on the SAGIS map, or any map for that matter. I use these maps when screening properties, and if I’m serious about making an offer on a property in or near a flood zone I’ll call up the seller’s agent to find out for sure.

The property I’d like to buy is in a flood zone. How much will my flood insurance cost?

Good question, and the answer depends on many different variables. The first step I’ll take is to ask the listing agent how much the owner currently pays, and if his/her policy is transferable. If it’s transferable, then we know exactly how much it will cost.

If there’s no current policy or the current policy isn’t transferable, then we’ll have to ask an insurance agent for a quote. We can get this quote during the due diligence period, and if we’re not satisfied with the answer then we can kill the deal before we go through with the sale – problem solved.

Is it bad to buy in a flood zone?

It depends on your risk tolerance. Would I personally buy in a flood zone? Yes, if I could make enough rental income on the property to offset the risk I’m taking on or if I just really wanted to live there. We also have to be cognizant that the federal government subsidizes the flood insurance market — what happens if they decide to stop? Do you think climate change is happening? If you do (and it is whether you believe in it or not), then you know that the sea level is set to rise over the next few centuries, which is something else to take into account. Like any other big decision, there are risks and rewards that you will have to balance.

Personally, I’m not big on flood zones. Someday I wouldn’t mind having ocean front property, but I don’t quite have the money for that just yet!

I’ve got more questions about flood zones. Where can I find more information?

You could start by sending me a message on Facebook – I’d love to answer your specific questions in detail, even if you aren’t interested in buying or selling real estate in Savannah!

Disclaimer: This article is intended only to give general advice on how to see if a property might be in a flood zone. I’m not your agent, and even if I was, I’m not qualified to make a flood zone determination for you. You’ve been warned!

Sources:

https://www.sagis.org/Content/floodzonedefinitions.pdf

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