In a flooded room, white-haired man thigh-deep in water reaches for items

Of the millions of North and South Carolina homes damaged by recent flooding from Hurricane Florence, only about 339,000 are covered by national flood insurance, according to the most recent records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The many victims without flood coverage will not get help from their homeowners insurance policies. Only flood insurance covers water damage caused by weather and other external forces.

It’s wise to consider buying flood insurance even if you don’t live in a flood-prone area, because flooding isn’t only caused by big storms. In fact, some 20 percent of claims through the government-run National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) are from homeowners and renters in areas considered at low or moderate risk of flooding. 

You might, for instance, find your basement and even your first floor inundated by winter snow melt. Or a water main could break in your neighborhood. In areas that are heavily paved, leaving few places for water to be absorbed in soil, spring rains can create overflow—from lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and ponds—that enters homes. Even homes in desert areas can be affected by flooding if sudden, intense rains can’t quickly be absorbed by the dry ground.

Flood insurance covers all these perils. Homeowners insurance doesn’t. NFIP flood insurance, the most widely sold coverage, kicks in 30 days after purchase. 

Still, flood policies don’t cover everything in your home. Here’s a rundown of what is—and isn’t—covered, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the NFIP’s administrator.

What's Covered

Essential systems in the home. This includes electrical and plumbing systems, furnaces, water heaters, central air conditioners, heat pumps, and sump pumps. It also includes cisterns and the water in them, fuel tanks and the fuel in them, solar energy equipment, water tanks, and pumps.

Appliances. Refrigeratorsranges, and built-in appliances such as dishwasherswashing machines, and dryers are all usually covered. So, too, are portable window air conditioners, and freezers and the food in them. Food inside refrigerators, however, is not covered. 

Carpeting and window treatments. If you have permanently installed carpeting over an unfinished floor, or any other kinds of carpets over wooden floors, your policy should cover them. Your policy should also include window blinds and curtains

Permanently installed paneling, wallboard, bookcases, and cabinets. If you have to replace your cabinets, your policy will pay only for the ones that were damaged. That means that if some cabinets were ruined but others were not affected, you might have trouble getting cabinets that match the older ones. 

More on Weather Emergencies

Foundation walls, anchorage systems, and staircases attached to the building. There is an exclusion for “loss caused directly by earth movement even if the earth movement is caused by flood.”

A detached garage, used for limited storage or parking. You can use up to 10 percent of your total building coverage toward your garage, but that amount will be subtracted from the total amount of building coverage available to you.

Personal property. This includes clothing, furniture, and electronic equipment—though only if they’re not stored in the basement. 

Certain valuables. Your policy is likely to cover items such as original artwork and furs, up to $2,500 in value.

Other coverage. Some events are covered even if they’re not strictly floods, like groundwater seepage and mudflow. These would include a neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool collapsing, causing the water to flow into your home, or a water main break that damages your home and at least one other in your neighborhood. However, damage caused by a sewer backup is covered only if it’s a direct result of flooding.

What's Not Covered

Flood insurance has eligibility requirements and numerous exclusions. For example, furniture or other personal property in a basement, crawl space, or “walkout” basement isn’t covered, including bookcases, window treatments, carpet, TVs, and audio systems. 

Federal flood insurance coverage is also capped at $250,000 per building and $100,000 for contents, though you can purchase policies with lower limits.

There are separate deductibles for your dwelling and contents. Higher coverage limits are available for policies for nonresidential structures and their contents. Check here for more details from FEMA. 

How to Buy Flood Insurance

You can buy national flood insurance directly from the NFIP, as well as through dozens of private insurance companies throughout the country. Check with an agent who sells homeowners coverage for details.

People who live in low- and moderate-risk areas and buy federal flood insurance pay standard premiums set by FEMA. These rates are the same regardless of where you buy your coverage.

To get an estimate of your annual premium and a link to agents who sell federal flood insurance, go to the FEMA Flood Map Service Center, plug in your property address, and click on “Interactive Map.” This will take you to the official flood insurance rate map for your area. To request an agent referral, contact the National Flood Insurance Program agent referral call center at 888-379-9531. 

You can also go to FloodTools.com, a commercial site, to see your property on a flood map and get detailed estimates of premiums.

If you’re in a high-risk area, your premium is likely to be tailored to your property. According to FEMA, there are many variables that go into the pricing, including the age and construction of the home, its proximity to water, the elevation of the house, and the home’s value. 

Renters, too, can get flood insurance. That may be particularly worthwhile if you live in a first-floor or below-ground apartment. As a renter, you’re entitled to buy coverage only for the contents of your apartment or house. You’re entitled to the same maximum coverage limit on the same items as homeowners: $100,000 for your home’s contents. Check FEMA’s details here


Consumer Reports’ ratings of homeowners insurance can help you find a carrier with the best track record for claims and customer service.
 

Private Flood Insurance

Increasingly, private insurers are offering flood coverage. The policies either supplement federal flood insurance by providing higher coverage limits or replace it as the homeowner’s primary flood policy. A few insurance carriers provide it as an optional rider on their homeowners coverage.

Depending on your situation, you may find that private flood insurance has lower premiums than the federal version. Or it may require fewer add-on costs. For example, in about 20 percent of cases, the government will require that a professional come to the home to draft an “elevation certificate” to determine the insurance rate. The homeowner pays that bill.

In addition, private coverage may cover your living expenses if you have to relocate while your home is being cleaned up after a flood. That’s something federal flood insurance doesn’t provide.