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Even if you don't live in a flood-prone area, you could nontheless find your basement and even your first floor inundated as melting winter snow and spring rains create overflow in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and ponds. 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.
Flood insurance is the only coverage that will indemnify you for flooding caused by weather and other external forces. Homeowners insurance doesn't. NFIP flood insurance, the most popular coverage, kicks in 30 days after purchase. So now's the time to buy.
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.
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. Refrigerators, ranges, and built-in appliances like dishwashers, washing 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.
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 mudslides. 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.
Flood insurance does have 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 nonresidential structure and contents policies. Check here for more details from FEMA.
You can buy national flood insurance directly from the National Flood Insurance Program, 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. Those 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 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.
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 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 won't provide.