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Lack of flood disclosure laws is putting home buyers at risk as extreme storms become more frequent

<i>Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>
AFP via Getty Images
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

By René Marsh, CNN

It was a bright, sunny day, but Jackie Jones was still overwhelmed with anxiety at the prospect of rain.

“It’s psychologically traumatic for me because I’m on constant alert — waiting, dreading the next rainfall,” Jones said. When the 59-year-old bought her southeast Georgia home four years ago, she had no idea how much the weather forecast would affect her.

“I’ve lost 40 pounds,” Jones told CNN. “I’m not supposed to be this thin you know — worrying, dreading. Every time it rains or if it looks like it’s going to rain, I’m thinking ‘oh God.'”

Since she moved in, Jones said the property has seen some level of flooding about 30 times, but the most severe was in March 2020.

“The water was literally over 3-feet high at my house,” Jones said. “Where it got to at the windowsills, it was almost 4 feet.”

No one told Jones the biggest financial investment she was making, her new home, was prone to flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps show a low risk for her property. The first time it flooded, around six months after she bought the house, Jones found out from neighbors that flooding had become an issue for the area long before she moved in.

But Georgia does not have flood disclosure laws that require sellers to reveal a home’s flood history.

“If I had better information, up-to-date information, accurate information, I would not have purchased this house,” Jones said.

Now she feels “trapped” in a 30-year mortgage for a property susceptible to frequent flooding, and she’s not alone. The Natural Resources Defense Council tracks state flood disclosure laws and most states either have inadequate laws or none at all, leaving homebuyers completely in the dark.

“If you are buying a home in the majority of states you are not going to be told up front about past flood damage,” said Rob Moore, director of the water and climate team at the NRDC.

The non-profit environmental advocacy group’s data shows 21 states — including flood-prone states like Florida and West Virginia — have no flood disclosure requirements. A recent NRDC study found that homebuyers can incur tens of thousands of dollars in flood costs over the course of their mortgage if they purchase a previously flooded home.

“We are talking about some of the most populous states in the nation that lack adequate disclosure laws, we are talking about Florida, states like New York, New Jersey,” Moore said. “These are not states where we have small populations nor states where there are small amount of real estate changing hands.”

As climate change makes rainfall more intense and severe flooding more frequent, NRDC said there’s even more urgency for a federal flood disclosure law similar to the federal lead disclosure rule, which requires homeowners to tell buyers if there are lead hazards in a home. And lawmakers have introduced several bills that would address the need.

The NRDC worked closely with Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat, on the Flood History Information Act, which would create a national flood disclosure requirement as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, also included the disclosure requirement as part of his more comprehensive National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act.

Both bills were introduced late last year but remain stalled in Congress, even as Americans’ flood risk continues to grow.

In the meantime, the NRDC recommends home buyers ask pointed questions about the properties they are considering. Even in states that do not have flood disclosure laws, sellers cannot misrepresent what they do know about a property’s flood history.

“If they refuse to give you specifics, that’s a telling piece of information too,” Moore said.

Real estate-technology company Redfin is also trying to fill the information void by pair property listings with flood risk based on climate projections, which could protect homebuyers like Jones from unknowingly buying a flood-prone property.

“If you don’t know, how are you supposed to make an informed decision? You can’t,” Jones said. “Something has got to change.”

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