Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Business

No flood insurance required! Realtors find selling points in soaring-premium nightmares

ST. PETERSBURG — The for-sale sign outside the "Cotton Candy Home," a 1913 charmer known for its Halloween sweets, says nothing of its new kitchen, heart-pine floors or bucolic wrap-around porch.

Instead, the home's sellers in this city's vaunted Old Northeast neighborhood have chosen a single bragging right to catch buyers' attention: no flood insurance required.

"It's a big, big selling point," said Nancy Driver, the Hofacker Homes agent who listed the home. "People driving the streets to pick the area they want will know it's on there for a reason."

It has never been harder, Realtors say, to land a buyer for a flood-insured home. The Biggert-Waters act, which began revoking big federal subsidies for older flood-zone homes Oct. 1, has driven premiums skyward, spooking buyers and killing deals.

So in hard-hit counties like Pinellas, which leads the nation in subsidized rates, homes that don't need insurance have suddenly surged into vogue. Agents have taken notice and are touting the no-strings-attached message in online listings, yard signs and magazine ads for everything from a log cabin in Wimauma to a million-dollar mansion in Seminole.

The once-minor line item of flood insurance, agents said, has become one of the only things buyers seem to care about. In the land of flood-policy nightmares, the no-insurance home has become king.

"That's the big buzzword right now," said Stonebridge Real Estate agent Debra Bellmaine, who last month represented the buyer of a no-insurance-needed home in Palm Harbor. "Most of the buyers right now are saying, 'Only show me places that aren't in a flood zone.' "

Rising insurance rates could sock more than 50,000 homes sprinkled across Tampa Bay's coastal and inland neighborhoods, property appraisers say. Most of those affected, records show, are far from beachfront mansions: The median Pinellas home value is $132,000, and most don't even have a glimpse of the water.

Agents at those homes have tried to keep buyers interested by sharing premium stubs, insurance quotes and elevation certificates, used in calculating rates, to help dull the shock of jumping costs. Other agents have turned down listings, thinking the homes will be too tough to sell.

That uncertainty has helped make homes that don't need flood insurance a lot more enticing. In listings, agents have been all too happy to show off their homes' clean bills of health, attaching flood maps alongside exclamation-point-heavy assurances that the home will stay high and dry from big insurance bills.

"All the buyers are thinking about it," said Coldwell Banker agent Ron Jackson, who in the past few months has sold several homes in Trinity in part by sharing stacks of paperwork that show the home is unlikely to flood. "That just removes one major barrier."

Though Realtors as a type are unrepentant braggarts, promoting something the homes don't have has proved a surprising switch. Buyers' attentions, many say, changed almost overnight: They ask now about flood zones the same way they've always asked about nearby highways or school districts.

Because homes facing high premiums are in every corner of the local housing market, and because a series of complicated rules define which homes are most at risk, agents for even high-elevation inland home have used no-insurance notes to attract buyers and looky-loos.

And agents are pointing out the distinction regardless of the home's price. Realty Executives agent Sandy Hartmann added no-insurance notes on every active home listing she could, from a $99,000 concrete-block rancher in Pinellas Park to a $2.5 million Seminole mansion with a six-stall horse stable and a "showcase for exotic automobiles."

As attorneys talk of suing Realtors they say didn't share information on insurance hikes, many agents have revisited their listings to alert buyers and cover their tails. Keller Williams listings say "it is unknown whether this property will be determined to require flood insurance," and advise buyers to meet with insurance agents.

And those agents still in flood zones have begun to get creative. When insurers of a Dunedin home said its $1,200-a-year policy was going to quadruple, freaking out a hopeful buyer, Keller Williams agent Jeanine Metts called out a surveyor to help lower the policy and hurried the closing to one day before the Oct. 1 deadline, helping keep rates low for the first year.

But some agents expect the insurance hikes could lead to a great shunting in the recovering housing market, as buyers speed away from flood dead zones and funnel their spending farther upland. If that happens, agents say, they want to be there to reap the benefits.

"So many things are up in the air, and there's that fear of the unknown," said Kathy Congdon, a Re/Max agent whose Palm Harbor home listing included a no-insurance-needed status with all capital letters and four exclamation points. "The things I can control — ha, with my type A personality — I control."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]

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