When David Sutherlin checked his mortgage statement last summer, he noticed that roughly $2,500 had been added.
The charge covered a quarterly flood insurance fee for his waterfront home, but Sutherlin didn’t agree to the purchase. To the San Juan Island homeowner, the transaction felt like a theft.
“It’s absolutely anti-American to force anybody to do anything with their own property,” he said.
For the first time in roughly 40 years, flood zones in San Juan County have been updated, altering which property owners are required to buy insurance in case of water damage. When those owners forgo coverage, federally regulated mortgage lenders step in by legally charging customers for insurance.
Homeowners in high-risk zones don’t always have the option to gamble on whether floods will hit; the federal government has already waged where inundation will occur and who needs to prepare.
There are about 45 feet between Sutherlin’s San Juan home and the Salish Sea but he never bought flood insurance in the six years he has owned the house thanks to its high elevation. Yet, by last August, Sutherlin was facing a new, roughly $10,000 annual premium.
“If, [when I] bought that property,…. there was an elevation on it so low that it needed flood insurance … I would have known going into the transaction,” said Sutherlin. “But that’s not how it was. When I purchased the home, there was no requirement.”
Sutherlin owns one of 841 structures that fall within the updated flood zones, according to a county report. Homeowners whose property falls within these zones are legally required to buy flood insurance if they have a federally regulated mortgage lender. The Federal Emergency Management Agency determines these flood zones to have 1 percent chance of inundation within any given year.
There are owners who have to add coverage under the updated maps, while others are no longer required.
A Wells Fargo representative explained that the company is legally required to insure property purchased with one of its home loans. Mandating insurance prevents buyers from abandoning buildings if there is water damage and leaving the lender responsible.
The representative said Sutherlin was notified three times of the requirement for insurance, and when he did not follow through, staff “purchased a flood insurance policy on his behalf … and charged the premium to his mortgage escrow account.”
To avoid the fee, Sutherlin paid off the remaining $300,000 on his home about five days later. He received a partial refund, according to Wells Fargo, as some was used toward the premium before the payoff.
With no lender attached to the home, Sutherlin is free of obligations to buy flood insurance.
Even when no coverage is required, FEMA warns of the high costs of floods. According to its website, “just 1 inch of water in a home can cost more than $25,000 in damage.”
FEMA offers government-subsidized flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program to provide affordable insurance policies, in exchange for communities to adopt floodplain management regulations.
By adopting the updated flood zones last June, the county enabled residents to purchase insurance through the federal program, as well as to receive other benefits like federal aid in the wake of a disaster.
The NFIP offers uniform rates and coverage throughout the country and the plans can be purchased locally. Leo Michael said a couple dozen new customers have bought federal or private flood insurance from his company, Safe Harbor Insurance, in Friday Harbor. Annual premiums range from as low as $350 to as high as thousands of dollars, depending on where structures are located, he said. While the NFIP covers up to $250,000 for structural damage and $100,000 for personal property, Michael noted that private insurance can be bought in addition.
Jennifer Doll Oettinger, of Tammy M. Cotton Insurance Agency in Friday Harbor, said private insurance does not have a coverage limit, but if there are a large number of losses, the homeowner pays.
Zack Sanders, an agent at San Juan Insurance in Eastsound, said the private insurance offered at his employer is often cheaper than the federal option, though it is not offered in all home locations.
NFIP premiums can be lowered by hiring a land surveyor to prove the buildings are higher than the property’s base flood elevation.
However, according to the county, few islanders receive payouts from the national program. Since San Juan joined the NFIP in 1991, only four claims were filed, and two have been paid.
Despite the low amount of local payouts, Sanders assured that flood insurance is still the best bet for those listed in FEMA’s high-risk zones, as flood and earthquakes are typically excluded from home insurance policies.
“When a catastrophe happens, you’ll want to have something to fall back on,” he said. “If you lost everything, you have something so you can begin again.”