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What is a flood insurance elevation certificate?

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

If you buy or build a home in an area prone to flooding, you might need a special kind of documentation when buying flood insurance. If you buy a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-backed program, and you live in a Special Flood Hazard Area, you’ll probably need to provide an elevation certificate when buying insurance.

Too many people assume homeowners insurance covers flooding, but it doesn’t. Just one inch of water can cause $25,000 of damage to your house. Flood insurance is vital to avoid these costs if you live in a risky area. 

If you live in an area with a high risk for flooding, it’s worth getting an elevation certificate and a flood insurance policy to protect your home. 

What is an elevation certificate? 

An elevation certificate is technically an administrative tool the NFIP uses. Primarily, it uses these certificates to check that new buildings or recent remodels in historic flood plains are elevated enough to mitigate flood damage. 

You might need to show a flood elevation certificate even if you bought a house that was built decades ago. When you buy a flood insurance policy through the NFIP, the elevation certificate plays a role in determining the right rate for your premium. If the certificate shows that your house is properly elevated to minimize flood damage, you’ll get a lower rate for flood insurance. If the certificate shows that there should be some concern if water levels rise, your coverage will cost more. 

The NFIP issues the flood elevation certificate. You can see a template for this certificate to get an idea of what it entails. Some of its pieces include:

  • Location and flood zone: FEMA issues flood maps showing which areas have the highest likelihood of flooding. For the purposes of the elevation certificate, FEMA calls this a Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM). The address on your elevation certificate shows if you live in a Special Flood Hazard Area, marked by an “A” or “V” on the flood map. 
  • Building characteristics: Being located in a 100-year flood plain isn’t enough to put your home at serious risk for flooding. Many homeowners take measures to elevate and shore up their houses, safeguarding them. Your elevation certificate marks specific, difference-making building characteristics, like flood openings to your crawlspace or attached garage. 
  • Base flood elevation vs. lowest floor elevation: In Section B, you’ll see a form field for “Base Flood Elevation.” What is elevation in this case? The elevation you care about is the elevation of your home’s lowest flood compared against your area’s base flood elevation, or the elevation that has a one percent chance of flooding in any given year. You want your lower floor to be situated comfortably above your local base flood elevation.

Based on this information, the certificate helps evaluate your risk of flooding.

Are elevation certificates required to buy flood insurance? 

If you don’t live in an area with a history of flooding, you probably won’t need this document. Also, if you buy flood insurance through a private insurer, there’s a chance that the insurer won’t request an elevation certificate. 

However, if you live in a Special Flood Hazard Area and you’re buying a policy backed by the NFIP, you’re need to show a FEMA elevation certificate as part of the process. 

There’s a chance you might be able to skirt the requirement to provide a flood elevation certificate. If your house was built before your area got a FIRM from FEMA, for example, you may not need the certificate to get coverage. But these pre-FIRM policies are increasingly getting phased out, so don’t count on it. 

The best way to know if you’ll need to show a FEMA elevation certificate is to contact a flood insurance provider and start the process of getting a policy in place. The provider will tell you if you’ll need this certificate as part of the underwriting process. 

How to get an elevation certificate

You might not need to do much to get your elevation certificate. If you live in a Special Flood Hazard Area, there’s a high likelihood your home’s builder or developer was thinking about things like base flood elevation during construction. These people may have already secured an elevation certificate from the NFIP.

To find out if the NFIP already has this certificate on file for your property, you can contact your state flood plain manager and ask. You can also check your deed to see if the elevation certificate was attached. Alternatively, you can reach out to the people who sold you the house or its builder or developer. 

If none of that works, work with a surveyor, engineer or architect. This individual will visit your property to fill out the elevation certificate. 

Should you get an elevation certificate?

While getting an elevation certificate might seem like an extra hassle, it could be well worth the effort. If you live in a historic flood plain, you can expect to pay more for flood insurance than people with a comparably lower risk of flooding. That doesn’t mean you need to pay top dollar for your coverage, however.

With your elevation certificate, you can show that your home is properly elevated and secured (e.g., minimal flood openings in your garage) to mitigate flood risk. This can help you get a more affordable flood insurance policy.

Assuming you’re going to have that policy in place for years to come, putting in the effort and money to keep the cost as low as possible makes sense. Plus, Trusted Choice (a flood insurance provider) says getting a surveyor to come out to complete your elevation certificate should only cost $350

The takeaway

If you live in an area with a high risk of flooding, you’ll probably need to get an elevation certificate as part of the flood insurance buying process. This tool helps your insurer set the right rates for your policy because it shows:

  • Your home’s address in relation to your local flood zone
  • Your home’s distance (if any) above base flood elevation
  • Your home’s characteristics that increase or decrease your risk for water damage if a flood reaches your property

Fortunately, there’s a chance the NFIP already has this document on file for your property. Even more fortunately, getting an elevation certificate can potentially help you get more affordable flood insurance.

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