Who teaches young home buyers about flood risk? No one in my experience.
More than forty years ago, I bought a new house next to a creek in a Dallas suburb. The trees and the view attracted me. Before I put money down, I asked about flooding and was assured that the home was two feet ABOVE the hundred-year flood plain. The homebuilder even showed me a survey and a drainage study, and pointed to the engineers’ stamps. I pulled out my checkbook and made the most tragic, costly decision of my young life.
Within a year, other developers just upstream from me built the Collin Creek Mall and Plano became the fastest growing city in America. With each passing month, rains made the creek swell higher. Then one day after a modest rain, I saw a pickup truck floating down the creek and the water creeped into my house.
Alarmed, I called the City Engineer. He convened a task force that included Garland, Richardson and Plano City Engineers. They asked the Army Corps of Engineers to re-survey the creek. The Corps found that…
Had I known such dramatic change could happen so quickly, I never would have bought the home. I decided to sell, disclosed the flood risk, and lost a pile of money.
Costly Lessons Learned
That experience taught me several lessons.
- Flood forecasting is a very inexact science. Changing conditions – such as upstream development, climate and political priorities – make it so. They are beyond the ability of engineers to predict.
- Developers use the surveys and analyses that engineers produce to obtain building permits.
- Their documents do not reflect the potential for future change.
- Homebuilders, nevertheless, use the engineering documents to reassure future buyers that they are safe.
All along the way, people throughout the value chain make expensive binary decisions based on documents that don’t reflect future flood-risk. Permit or don’t? Invest or don’t? Build or don’t? Lend or don’t?
Flood Risk is Non-Binary, Flood Education Non-Existent
Professionals understand the flood risks involved. Members of the public rarely do. And that’s a powerful argument for flood-risk education and fuller disclosure.
But buy a house with a view of a river! You’ve achieved the American Dream, paid a premium, and the only information people volunteer along the way is a reminder to buy flood insurance.
It’s as if the chance of flooding equals the chance of getting hit by lightning.
According to the CDC, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are only around 1 in 500,000.
But the odds of flooding in a “500-year rain” are 1 in 500 – a thousand times greater. But most home buyers don’t worry about that. So builders keep building in flood plains. And buyers keep buying.
Everyone along the way – land owners, developers, public officials, engineers, and home builders – is financially incentivized to “make the sale.” Growth is good – especially to the people who enable it.
Example: Need for Flood-Risk Education
Below is a photo that shows part of a new development in Porter between Sorters-McClellan Road and the San Jacinto West Fork. At the start of 2019, it was all woods and wetlands bracketed by streams and a drainage ditch. Wetlands and the proximity to floodways increase flood risk.
However, FEMA’s current flood map (see below) was developed in 2014. That was before Harvey. It shows about half of the development (outlined in red) to be in the 100- or 500-year floodplains. But those floodplains will soon expand based on data collected after Harvey. The new flood plains will likely cover most of the site. But is anyone disclosing the current or potential flood risk?
Selling the Dream vs. Disclosing Risk
Young, first-time home buyers will mortgage themselves to the hilt to get a nice home with a water view. But there’s less risk disclosure on this developer’s website than on the back of a candy bar.
New homes here range from $225,000 to more than $300,000 with estimated mortgages starting at about $1,000 per month. The developer claims, “Our homes are where memories are made, families are raised and stories unfold. Our mission is to create thriving, enduring neighborhoods by building new homes with lasting livability.”
The developer’s website also boasts of “close proximity to the West Fork San Jacinto River where locals enjoy swimming, fishing, boating and skiing…” And they brag about nearby championship golf courses, owner financing, online buying, and $95 down. But they never mention flood-risk or even flood insurance once the website that I could find.
A home in the 100-year floodplain has, on average a 1-in-4 chance of flooding during the life of a 30-year mortgage. And keep in mind that those floodplains are shifting targets. Even a home in the 500-year floodplain has a 6% chance of flooding in 30 years.
All up and down the West Fork, East Fork, Bens Branch, Spring Creek, Peach Creek, White Oak Creek, Luce Bayou, Tarkington Bayou, and other area watersheds, similar developments are sprouting up in risky places.
Realistically, that’s not going to change. So “Buyer Beware”! People must educate themselves about flood risk. Start by referring friends and relatives in the market for a home to these posts. They explain where to find reliable, objective information about flooding and flood risk.
- How to Find and Verify Flood-Related Information: Part 1
- How to Find and Verify Flood-Related Information: Part 2
- Easy Way to Find the Elevation of a Home and the Slopes Around It
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/16/2022
1601 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.