So you’re ready to renovate your beach house… Exciting! Before you hire an architect, a contractor, or attempt a heroic DIY, do yourself a favor and read this post. Even homes without water views can be in a flood zone, so it is always smart to have a professional check to see what impacts may be on your project before you begin.

What is a FIRM map? FEMA, along with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), work together to identify flood risk areas throughout the U.S.  They identify risk areas through a series of maps called the Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRM maps. These maps are what we use in order to determine if a property lies within any special flood hazard areas (SFHAs).  These are complicated maps and require knowledgeable people to read them correctly.  A misread or misunderstood map can lead to costly mistakes. Your flood designation on the FIRM map becomes the primary basis for design decisions and insurance rates.

What is an elevation certificate? An elevation certificate is issued by a licensed surveyor, architect or engineer. This certificate identifies your Base Flood Elevation (BFE), the floor level elevations for your building and the classification of your existing structure type. It is the secondary basis for design decisions and insurance rates. Even if you don’t renovate, this certificate could pay for itself and save you money on your existing flood insurance!

What is my BFE? If you missed our Q&A on BFE (Base Flood Elevation) and why it is important for resiliency and insurance – check out our post Just Add Water.

Am I grandfathered-in? Your existing beach house is “grandfathered-in” to the flood insurance program if it was built “pre-FIRM” (before the FIRM maps were published in 1975), or because it met the FEMA standards at the time it was built. Even if you are grandfathered-in, you might want to consider lifting your house anyway. Why? NFIP won’t leave you stranded, but they will allow your insurance company to raise your rates every year until they reflect your current risk. When you look at that cost over 10 years, it often makes sense to consider a lift.

What is the 50% Rule?  If you are ready to renovate but you don’t want to lift your house, chances are that you have heard about this rule. Each municipality interprets it differently, so talk to your local design professionals. In many towns, this is how it works: You can renovate up to 50% of the value of your structure (not your total appraisal – only the value of the house without the land) before you have to comply with FEMA. This includes any emergency repairs like leaking roofs & electrical damage. It also includes cosmetic changes like new flooring or cabinetry. You cannot put a new addition or structure in a flood zone if it does not comply with FEMA no matter what.

What is a 10-year look-back? Most towns in Connecticut apply a 10 year look back to the 50% rule. This means that all renovation work over a rolling 10 year period counts against your 50% allowable renovations and repairs. So if you bought your house with an “updated kitchen” that you don’t really love, guess what? If that renovation was done in the last 10 years, it counts against the total that you can spend on your renovation today!

Call in a design professional early! Be sure to work with a professional that has extensive experience designing homes in coastal locations. We offer a low-fee coastal site evaluation which can help homeowners who are considering buying coastal property or making large scale renovations to their existing homes. We believe in educating homeowners about coastal concerns early in their projects, so they can make the best, most informed decisions for their family. Keep in touch with us to learn more!


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