You need to get flood insurance. Here's how.

How to stop flooding from wrecking your home and finances

This has been a brutal winter, with Americans suffering more than a billion in economic losses through the relentless storms. And it’s not over yet. When the snow and ice start to melt and the spring rains begin, expect even more damage.

Yesterday kicked off Flood Safety Awareness Week, so it’s a perfect time to talk about keeping your priciest investment safe and secure.

Flooding causes more than 90 percent of all disaster-related property damage in the United States, says the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Since nothing short of a huge stack of sandbags can really stop a flood, you have only two options to protect your biggest investment: add equipment to keep your home dry, or insure it enough so you can repair or replace what gets soaked.

Here’s a simple primer on what you need to know and what you can do…

Figuring out flood insurance

The most common misconception is a homeowner’s insurance policy covers all the soggy destruction. Most don’t.

Even just a few inches of water can cost you big bucks. Check out the nifty interactive tool above to show you just how much. (You can also find it here.) Spoiler alert: Just two inches of water can cost you up to $10,000.

That tool is courtesy of the National Flood Insurance Program, which also tells you just what your flood risk is, lets you estimate your premiums for flood insurance, and helps you locate an agent. Just fill out the “One-Step Risk Profile” in the red box.

And make no mistake: Unless your home is built in the middle of a desert or on top of a mountain, you’re at risk. But if you live in a “high-risk” area — check here to see if you do — there’s actually some good news: You have the option to buy insurance through the NFIP, a federal program that’s been around since 1968.

So what’s flood insurance get you? Like any other kind of policy, it depends on what you pay for…

The average cost of coverage is $650 per year. If you have a basement — obviously, the most vulnerable part of your house — the cheapest policies won’t cover anything down there. You’ll need to pay extra to cover the “foundation elements” and “equipment that’s necessary to support the structure.”  That means the furnace and water heater in your basement are covered, but your pool table and flat-screen TV aren’t.

Above ground, your policy covers items like  your couch, clothes, and kitchen appliances. But even then, you can only insure yourself for up to $250,000. So if a flood destroys more than that, you lose out.

If you want more coverage than your federal policy can offer, you have to buy what’s called an excess flood insurance policy from a private insurance company. Here’s how Allstate explains it. But if you want to study other companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides a list of all private insurance companies that offer flood insurance.

So now that you’ve gotten this simple primer (and really, this is as simple as it gets), her are two crucial pieces of advice…

  1. When floods threaten, move all your personal belongings out of your basement if you not only want to spare them from rising water but also protect them in case of a deluge.
  2. To save money on flood insurance, start with your agent who provides your current homeowner’s insurance. He might be able to bundle it together and save you some money.

Easy and hard home improvements

The cheapest way to prevent water damage? Clean out your gutters. They’re the main drainage system most homes have, but when they’re clogged with leaves and branches, the water can pool on your roof and run down the sides of your home.

Unfortunately, it gets more complicated and costly after that…

1. Water-powered or battery-powered sump pump: Some homes have sump pumps in their basements already. They’re electric-powered pumps that help for awhile. But if the trickle becomes a flood and the power goes out (or you shut it off yourself for safety concerns), you’re all wet.

You can install a battery-powered or even water-powered sump pump as backup, and the cost is reasonable. (At Home Depot, sump pumps range from $150 to $500.) Water-powered pumps, which use the pressure from your municipal water system, are cheaper, but electric models pump better.

However, sump pumps require maintenance, like cleaning the gunk that builds up inside. See Sump Pump Tips from North Dakota State University for ways to prep your sump pump for flood season.

2. Rubber roof underlay: It’s a simple concept. You lay a rubber material on top of your rooftop or install it underneath roof shingles. It’s easy enough that you can install it yourself. (Here’s a guide from Black and Decker.)

Unfortunately, the rubber roofing isn’t entirely weather resistant. Some rubber underlays become brittle at -49 degrees, so if you live somewhere that gets that cold, you might need something called a “hot box” to keep the temperature of the adhesive at its optimum.

Black and Decker places the cost of the rubber at $100 per 10-by-20-foot sheet. You’ll need other items if you attempt the job yourself – paint roller, adhesive, contact cement, etc. So you’re looking at a little more than $500 and 4-8 hours of your time for most homes.

3. French drains: A French draining system is a fancy name for a trench with a pipe that directs surface water away from your home. It works best when your home is on or near a downhill slope, and it’s ideal for protecting against minor flooding, soggy lawns, and wet basements.

French drains can cost $3,000 to $12,000, according to Houselogic. If you’re in high-risk areas that are more likely to flood, you may need an interior drainage system that drains water as it enters your basement (or ground level), and those cost more.

4. Raising your home: The only surefire way to prevent flooding is to rise above it. Sounds crazy, but FEMA actually advises that if you live in high-risk areas. The federal agency even provides the how-to…

During the elevation process, most frame, masonry veneer, and masonry houses are separated from their foundations, raised on hydraulic jacks, and held by temporary supports while a new or extended foundation is constructed below.

As you might guess, this is neither quick nor cheap. You need a professional to assess your property and see if you even qualify for raising your home. (FEMA says most do.) You’ll also sacrifice your basement if you go for this option.

Costs vary wildly, but this construction group in New Jersey estimates the price tag between $30,000 to $100,000.

Bottom line: Protecting your house against water damage is complicated, even when it’s inexpensive. And the only sure cure is the priciest.

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