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If you live in a high-risk area for flooding and are purchasing flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), you will almost certainly be required to provide an elevation certificate to complete your purchase. An elevation certificate documents important features of your property, including its location, flood zone, building characteristics and, most importantly, the elevation of its lowest floor. The form is issued by the NFIP and used by insurance agents to determine your flood insurance premiums.
What is an elevation certificate for?
An elevation certificate is a document that measures your property's susceptibility to flood damage and is one component used by your insurance agent to calculate your flood insurance premium. The certificate contributes to the calculation of your premium by estimating the likelihood that rising floodwaters will reach the lowest floor of your home. The document is issued by the NFIP, a federal flood insurance program that is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and includes the following important information about your property.
- Location and flood zone: The NFIP has different zones designating your property's level of flood risk.
- Building characteristics: Notable features of the property such as an attached garage
- Lowest floor elevation: The lowest floor of your property is typically the most vulnerable to flooding. Depending on your type of home, this may include your basement or garage, and it will be up to a professional surveyor to correctly assess the appropriate elevation based on FEMA guidelines.
The document's most important factor affecting your flood insurance premium will be the lowest floor elevation. This will be compared to the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) for your location, the elevation at which the NFIP estimates there is a 1% chance of floodwaters reaching in any given year. The further above the BFE your lowest floor is, the less risky your home will be considered for flood damage and the lower your flood insurance premium.
Do you need an elevation certificate to buy flood insurance?
An elevation certificate contains valuable information about your property, but you will only be required to provide an elevation certificate to your insurer if your property and flood insurance purchases meet all three of the following conditions:
- Your property purchase is financed by a mortgage from a federally regulated or insured lender.
- Your property is located in a Special Flood Hazard Area, defined by FEMA as an area at high risk for flooding.
- You are purchasing a flood insurance policy backed by the NFIP. You should be aware that private insurance companies will often offer flood insurance in their name that is ultimately backed by the government, making it public, rather than private, flood insurance.
If any of these conditions do not apply to you, you will not be required to obtain an elevation certificate. If all these conditions apply to you, an elevation certificate will be necessary to calculate your premium before you purchase flood insurance, with some exceptions.
However, there are exceptions to the elevation certificate requirement for certain high-risk structures. If your building was constructed before your community established a flood insurance rate map, you may be eligible for a subsidized flood insurance rate without an elevation certificate requirement. The subsidies are intended to help property owners afford flood insurance despite the fact that their building wasn't constructed while incorporating comprehensive flood regulation measures.
This advantage is disappearing as the NFIP raises its annual premium for subsidized policies, and it's possible that the unsubsidized rate for your property will actually be lower than subsidized rate. We recommend talking to a flood insurance agent or insurer about how the NFIP calculated your premium, but keep in mind that your premium will be the same no matter your insurer, as rates are set by NFIP through a standardized methodology.
Should you get an elevation certificate?
Even if you don't need an elevation certificate, obtaining one could be worth the effort, as it provides valuable information about your property that could help to lower your flood insurance premium. Your property may be in a low-risk area, precluding the need to obtain a certificate for NFIP-backed insurance. But if the certificate proves that the lowest floor of your property clears the Base Flood Elevation level, it may qualify you for lower rates.
Finally, if you choose to purchase private flood insurance instead of a policy backed by the NFIP, you may not need an elevation certificate, even in high-risk areas. However, some insurers do offer discounts for customers who are in possession of their certificates. For instance, we pulled a sample quote for a "V" zone building in Florida from the Flood Insurance Agency, a private insurer. For our sample home, we found that possessing an elevation certificate would lower your annual premium by 32%.
How to get an elevation certificate
Your elevation certificate could already exist, and you should always check if it does, as obtaining a new certificate can be quite expensive. If a certificate for your property doesn't exist, you can hire professional help to certify elevation information for your property and complete the document. We've listed the most common sources for finding an existing elevation certificate below.
Where to find your elevation certificate for free
- Your local floodplain manager: Your local floodplain manager may already have a certificate on file. A floodplain manager is the main community administrator for implementing flood loss reduction activities, such as updating the flood maps, plans and policies for your community. You can find your state floodplain manager on the website for the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
- The seller of your property: If you're buying a property, the sellers may already have the certificate, and you can ask them for it before purchasing.
- The property developer or builder: The developer of your property may have needed to obtain an elevation certificate, especially in high risk areas.
- The property deed: The certificate may be included with your property deed.
Cost of a new elevation certificate
If you can't obtain an existing elevation certificate from one of these sources, you can hire a professional surveyor near you to certify elevation information of your property for a fee. The process of hiring a professional surveyor to complete the certificate should not take more than a week or two, depending on your location.
Examples of professional surveyors include a licensed land surveyor, engineer or architect who is authorized by law to complete an elevation certificate. FEMA recommends finding a professional surveyor by checking your state professional association for land surveyors, asking your state NFIP coordinator or talking to your local building permit office.