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New data: Modest homes hit hardest by flood insurance rate hikes effective Tuesday

Bruce Sinclair, 72, pays $1,784 per year for flood insurance on this 1950s home in the Snell Isle neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Sinclair said the home, blocks from the water, has never flooded. His rates will go up after Oct. 1, and he may move to Tennessee.
Bruce Sinclair, 72, pays $1,784 per year for flood insurance on this 1950s home in the Snell Isle neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Sinclair said the home, blocks from the water, has never flooded. His rates will go up after Oct. 1, and he may move to Tennessee.
Published Feb. 11, 2014

The proof is in: Dramatic flood insurance rate increases taking effect today will have the biggest impact on owners of modest single-family homes not on the water.

The median value of the 33,000 affected homes in Pinellas County: $132,245. The typical size: 1,430 square feet.

And roughly two thirds of the homes don't have water frontage or a water view, according to newly released county property appraiser figures.

The biggest shock will come when the owners try to sell, which is now a trigger for losing lower, subsidized rates. Case in point: Lloyd Bean, an electrical contractor who lives in the Shore Acres section of northeast St. Petersburg.

Bean, 50, recently put two houses on the market, his own 882-square-foot home and a similar size house he owns next door. Neither is on the water, but both are in an area where mortgage lenders require flood insurance.

Spooked by the idea of annual flood premiums as high as $8,000, two potential buyers already have walked away. And Bean doesn't expect any takers soon.

"What the law is telling me,'' he said Monday, "is that I can live here, but I can never sell here.''

Both of Bean's houses have qualified for lower subsidized rates until now because they were built before the federal government determined flood levels for Pinellas in the mid 1970s. As shown by a map released two weeks ago by Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov, homes that will lose their discounted rates are scattered around the county, some of them miles inland from Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

The situation is similar in Hills­borough County, where the property appraiser there has identified more than 21,000 older single-family homes facing dramatically higher rates. Only about 2,000 of those are directly on a bay.

In Pinellas, the new figures from Dubov's office belie a popular perception that most of the affected homeowners are rich people living on the beaches or investors who can afford the new, higher rates.

In fact, about 23,000 of the 33,000 affected houses have homestead exemptions because generally the owners live there.

About 2,000 of the houses are owned by low-income seniors or people with disability exemptions. Another 2,600 have widow or widower exemptions.

Bruce Sinclair, a 72-year-old retired Army officer, owns an older, 1,200-square-foot home on St. Peterburg's Snell Isle that is blocks from the water and has never flooded. Yet he pays $1,784 for flood insurance and will face rate increases of up to 25 percent a year until the house reaches full rates.

He doesn't plan on sticking around that long.

"I'm so tired of Florida's humidity and worrying about hurricanes,'' said Sinclair, who is considering a move to Tennessee, where his brother lives.

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The Pinellas and Hillsborough property appraisers estimated the number of affected homes by overlaying parcel maps on federal flood maps. The numbers are not exact because it's hard to determine which structures are elevated or which ones don't require flood insurance because the homeowner doesn't have a mortgage.

Dubov's figures also don't include condos or businesses, even though those, too, are subject to steep increases in flood insurance premiums. Owners of business properties with subsidized rates face 25 percent annual increases; FEMA has not yet set the new rates for condos.

Discounted rates are being phased out as part of the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012. The law was intended to keep the National Flood Insurance Program sustainable for the long term after it had to borrow more than $18 billion to cover claims from Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA has downplayed the effect of the new law, saying only about 20 percent of all flood policyholders would be affected by losing their subsidies now or gradually. Florida, however, has more flood polices than any other state by far, and Pinellas has more subsidized policies than any county in the nation.

Opposition to the new law has begun to snowball — from Realtors, property owners, lenders and much of Florida's congressional delegation.

Gov. Rick Scott, who maintains Biggert-Waters will hurt Florida property values, will talk about the issue in Pinellas County this morning.

Even one of the named sponsors of the law, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has joined the chorus clamoring for a delay.

But there's little anticipation of a quick congressional fix. Not with Congress focused on a looming government shutdown, with Republicans and Democrats going head-to-head over funding the launch of Obamacare.

George D. Shaeffer of Redington Beach is a realist. He's not looking to Washington, D.C., for a resolution.

"I don't expect anything to change on this," he said.

Shaeffer, 62, was prepping his 1,000-square-foot, 61-year-old cottage to put it on the market, anticipating a move up North with his girlfriend.

Biggert-Waters intervened.

"The (flood) premium I just paid for this was $2,200. If I sell the house tomorrow, the new buyer will have to pay $16,000 for the same coverage," he said.

Shaeffer said he still may put his house on the market, hoping for the best from a cash buyer who would not be required to get flood coverage. Maybe Shaeffer will get enough to pay off his mortgage and credit line if he's lucky.

He just wishes he'd acted sooner, before Pinellas County became the poster child as the country's hardest hit area for rate increases.

"What an honor to be first in something," Shaeffer mused.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at or