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A House's Flood History Can Be Hard To Find


If you're looking to buy a home in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, one question probably jumps to mind first. Was this house flooded? After it's been rebuilt, it can be pretty hard to know if a property suffered water damage. And in Texas, along with some other states, finding a house's flood history can require some detective work. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Josh Manor has never bought a house before. He and his wife are hunting for three or four-bedroom in one of Houston's most flood-prone neighborhoods, Meyerland. And he says trying to figure out if floodwater has ever touched a house has turned into a game of trust.

JOSH MANOR: Yeah, you hope that the seller will tell the truth because if he or she's lying, you can sue them. But it doesn't seem like a very good weapon that you have against them that is easily implementable.

WANG: Texas is one of at least 30 states that require almost all home sellers to tell buyers about any past flooding they know about, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Manor says that's important information because before he makes what will probably be the biggest purchase of his life, he wants to make sure he's making a good investment.

MANOR: The fact that it already flooded is some sort of a scar that you put on the house when try to resell it.

WANG: So he's been asking friends who live in the neighborhood if they remember any past floods on their street. And he's been talking to real estate agents like Susan Brock. She says she always points homebuyers to the seller's disclosure form.

Do you really know for sure, though?

SUSAN BROCK: No, no. We do have some listings that I've come across where the disclosure was not made. And it was later determined that, yes, in fact, the house had flooded, and the seller did not disclose.

WANG: The tricky thing in Texas is not every seller is required to tell buyers about a house's flood history, including those who are selling a foreclosed home or selling it to carry out a will.

BROCK: Maybe they grew up in the house. They're older. Mom and dad have passed away. Maybe all the kids live in another state. They may not have seen the house for decades.

WANG: It all leaves home buyers in a bind at a time when extreme weather and flooding have become more frequent around the U.S.

ROBERT MOORE: What you're looking at is a really dangerous game of musical chairs. Nobody wants to be the last owner that gets stuck with the flood-prone home they can't sell.

WANG: Robert Moore studies flood policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. And he says you could look at government flood maps to see if a house is in a high-risk zone. But flooding after Hurricane Harvey and other recent storms has shown that these maps aren't very good predictors.

MOORE: Doesn't tell you very much about what your flood risk is today - and it tells you virtually nothing about what your flood risk is in the future.

WANG: Congress is working on renewing the National Flood Insurance Program. And Moore says he hopes it will add a new requirement for all policyholders to disclose flood history in the future. In the meantime, homebuyers trying to avoid homes that have flooded in the past will have to keep hunting in the dark.

Still, Sam Brody, a flood scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston is trying to shed a little light by doing some homework for house hunters.

SAM BRODY: Yeah, they have to go to multiple websites and download data and spreadsheets. And it would take 40 hours. And time is money, right?

WANG: He's part of a team that's developed an online tool called Buyers Beware. Homebuyers can just type in an address and get flood risk scores based on flood maps and pass flood insurance claims filed around the neighborhood.

BRODY: If people have the information, naturally over time, maybe we'll end up deciding to buy homes that are on higher ground or further away from toxic release sites.

WANG: So far, the tool only covers houses around the Houston area. But Brody says he hopes to expand one day to the rest of the country. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "JUBI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.