The Super Important Home Factor You’re Probably Not Considering

published Jan 6, 2019
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(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

Shopping for a home means weighing wants and needs, and making careful compromises to squeeze as many of those must-haves and wish-list items into your budget as possible. But many buyers focus on typical home features while overlooking one potentially important detail.

Nine out of 10 home buyers would like a laundry room, for example, while 82 percent want hardwood floors. Most buyers are looking for a three-bedroom house with two bathrooms, a new kitchen, and an open floor plan. Amazingly, some care more about having a garage than a living room. Beyond those mostly aesthetic concerns, buyers have to consider the local school system, the safety and walkability of the neighborhood, and what their commute to work would be like.

But there’s one home factor few people consider, even though it’s nearly impossible to change or remodel away, and could have a huge impact on your home’s value—and that’s elevation.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Why you should consider elevation when you’re home shopping

A home is probably the biggest purchase you’ll ever make, so you owe it to yourself to look past the cosmetics at the stuff that could potentially sink your investment—literally.

Climate change is already responsible for rising sea levels and more intense precipitation, both of which will cause ever more destructive flood damage in the decades to come. A recent Zillow analysis found that nearly $1 trillion in residential real estate is at risk from rising sea levels by the end of the century, including more than three quarters of homes in Miami Beach.

And while higher high tides and storm surges obviously put coastal communities at risk, low-lying inland areas are also susceptible—from overflowing rivers and simple storm runoff during more intense weather systems.

Consider Houston: Many homes that flooded during Hurricane Harvey weren’t in a designated 100-year floodplain, which would have required them to carry federal flood insurance. Part of the problem was that FEMA hadn’t updated its flood maps this century. But another reason many of these homes are now in a de facto flood zone is that decades of development replaced huge swaths of naturally draining, spongy grasslands with impermeable pavement and concrete.

Now, Harvey brought truly historic rainfall that would have created a flood disaster in even the best designed city. But many areas of Houston had already been damaged multiple times before by rainwater runoff in smaller storms. And the scary truth is that Houston’s panoply of pavement isn’t that remarkable—it resembles the car-centric growth found in many late American suburbs.

“Local flooding from poor drainage from excessive rainfall is a lot more frequent now, and will only get worse as extreme rainfall increases as the climate changes,” said Paul Kirshen, academic director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at the University of Massachusetts Boston, when I spoke to him in early 2017 — months before Harvey made his point tragically clear.

And as many Houston homeowners learned, even if a home doesn’t require flood insurance at the time of purchase, that’s no guarantee that you won’t experience water damage—or end up paying for flood coverage at some point later on.

When we bought our home in the Boston area, we were about three houses from the edge of the floodplain—all clear, we foolishly thought. A few years later, FEMA revised its flood maps, and the edge of our property fell into the newly defined flood zone.

Just like that, we owed mandatory flood insurance—an expensive albatross on the house that lowers its value, because any future homeowner who takes out a mortgage will be on the hook for the payments, not to mention the risk of flooding.

Nowadays when I daydream on Trulia or Redfin, I check a home’s WalkScore and other stats—but I also consult and FEMA’s flood maps.

Check the elevation to start, but also the grading of the nearby landscape (a downhill slope can create its own water issues), and FEMA’s flood maps. “I would want to be at least 10 to 20 feet above these floodplains,” Kirshen told me, referring to FEMA’s 100-year flood hazard areas.

There are a lot of things you can change about a house after you buy it: You can remodel a kitchen, update a tired bathroom, build a deck, or maybe even finish an attic to add square footage. But you can’t change a home’s location—famously touted as the three most important factors in any real estate decision. And you can’t change a home’s elevation, either. Maybe it’s time this detail gets some more attention.

Re-edited from a post originally published 01.10.18-BM