No state is more vulnerable to sea level rise than Florida. Yet in this fast-growing state, home sellers are not required to disclose their property’s flood history to potential buyers. This information gap is bad for consumers and ultimately the economy, creating hidden surprises that bring uncertainty to Florida’s real estate market.
The issue was highlighted again recently by the Miami Herald. Heather Gaker of Boynton Beach found her dream home in 2015, and she said the sellers and the Realtor told her the property had no history of severe flooding. But in 2017, weeks after Hurricane Irma bore through Florida, water got inside her house. The insurance company paid out more than $100,000, over half the home’s value. And Gaker was startled to learn this was her home’s fourth reported flood with more than $5,000 in damage, sending her home into a category known as “severe repetitive loss.” Had she known the flood history, Gaker said, "No way on Earth I would have gone near this house.”
In other states, homeowners like Gaker have access to detailed flood information. As of last month, sellers in Texas must disclose additional information about flood risk and flood history, informing potential buyers if a home has flooded or is in a flood-prone area. The new law reportedly doubles the at-risk footprint for disclosure in Houston’s Harris County. Meanwhile, in Florida - the state most vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise, where sunny day flooding already impacts Miami - no such law exists.
While Florida courts have held that sellers must disclose anything that could have a “substantial impact” on a property’s value, it’s unclear if that ruling applies to flood hazards. Florida uses a voluntary form issued by the Florida Realtors Association that includes several questions about flooding. But the state doesn’t treat flooding like sinkholes, which sellers must disclose if they have been found on their property. As the Herald reports, a Natural Resource Defense Council review of various states’ disclosure laws faulted Florida, finding that buyers here "are greatly disadvantaged when it comes to learning of a home’s past flood history or potential for future flooding.” Experts say that lack of transparency stems from the interests of both business and government in maintaining high property values. Homeowners are left in the dark, and with sea levels rising, the threat will only worsen.
With recent projections showing that the Tampa Bay region can expect seas to rise up to 8.5 feet by 2100, area cities and counties have embarked on a number of initiatives. The city of Oldsmar is planning to spend upwards of $125,000 on a plan that identifies climate-related threats and potential solutions. Tarpon Springs formed a citizen-led advisory committee to recommend protective steps for a city threatened on two sides by water. Tampa is only the latest local government in the bay area to create a new staff position of chief resiliency officer. And the Tampa Bay Regional Resilience Coalition, coordinated by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, has been formed. A requirement that sellers disclose a property’s flood history would work hand-in-hand with these steps to better protect homeowners and communities alike.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news