How is Flood Damage Defined by Insurers

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sets the legal definition of flood damage as a "general and temporary condition where two or more acres of normally dry land or two or more properties are inundated by water or mudflow." Understanding this definition is important if you're a homeowner, since your insurance policy may not protect you from all types of water damage your property sustains. Sudden surges of water, sewage back ups, or rain water from a hurricane may all cause your property to flood. However, as we'll explain below, not all of these conditions will result in what an insurer would define as flood damage. These distinctions become important during the processing of a claim, when your insurer decides what is and isn't covered by your policy.

How Does Flood Damage Differ From Other Types of Water Damage?

Though many types of water damage can affect your home, insurers are specific about what constitutes flood damage. The most common categories of water-related damage include those arising from a sudden discharge, sewage/water backup or a storm or hurricane. By contrast, falling mud from a landslide is not considered flood damage. On the other hand, mudflows—such as those originating from nearby rivers—are covered by flood insurance.

These distinctions can become quite nuanced. Your best course of action is to find out what hazards constitute the biggest risks in your area, then discuss those with an insurance agent to ascertain what would and wouldn't be covered under a policy.

Type of Water Damage

DescriptionWhat Type of Insurance Do You Need?
FloodDamage damage that occurs when a normally dry land, two acres in size, becomes inundated by water or mudflow.Flood Insurance
Sudden water dischargeA sudden water event that affected your home or the immediate surrounding area. (e.g. sprinkler system activating)Homeowners/Renters Insurance
Sewer/Water BackupWater damage resulting from a below-ground water feature leaking.Special Sewer and Water Backup Coverage
Storm/HurricaneNatural weather events with heavy rainfall and winds.Homeowners/Renters Insurance will cover damage so long as water doesn't cover over 2 acres of normally dry land.

Flood Damage vs Sudden or Accidental Discharge

A Sudden Discharge of water is defined as a water event that affects your home or the immediate surrounding area over a short span of time. It doesn't cross into the realm of a flood, unless it affects over two acres of land. Any accidental overflow of water from within a plumbing, heating, air conditioning, or automatic fire protection system is typically covered by your standard homeowners insurance policy. Examples of an Accidental Discharge:

  • Water damage from extinguishing a fire
  • Automatic fire protection system going off
  • Accidental cracking, burning, or bulging of a steam, heating or AC system
  • Frozen pipes
  • Leaking roof

If the discharge occurs because of your neglect, your homeowners insurance will not payout any claim. For example, if your pipes freeze because they were inadequately maintained, your homeowners insurance policy may deny your claim.

Flood Damage vs Sewer or water backup

If your home floods due to a sewage or water backup, most flood and homeowners policies will not cover the damages. You need to purchase separate coverage as an add-on to your homeowners insurance policy in order to be covered. Payout limits on these policies usually vary between $5,000 and $25,000.

Backup coverage will not protect you from damage caused by a leaking in-ground swimming pool or other subsurface water feature on your property.

Sewer and water backup coverage works the same way no matter where the backup originated. If the water came from beyond your property, such as a pipe maintained by the city, your insurer will still not cover it unless you purchase the special coverage we outlined above.

Flood Damage vs Storm/Hurricane Damage

Flooding is common in times of heavy rainfall if the water cannot drain properly—a set of conditions commonly created by hurricane damage and storms. However, certain flooding that results from storms and hurricane winds can be covered as part of your homeowners insurance. The distinction comes down to when the damage occurs.

If strong winds from a storm damage your roof or windows, which then cause rainwater to flood your home, your homeowners policy should cover the claim. However, as time passes and flood waters rise any damage resulting from groundwater will require a flood insurance policy. Flood status will trigger the moment two or more acres of normally dry land or two or more properties are inundated by water or mudflow, as per FEMA's definition.

Flood Insurance & Mold Damage

Mold damage is only covered by insurers if the original source of the water damage that cause it is also covered by your policy. For example, if the mold grew as a result of a flood, and you don't have flood insurance, your insurer will not pay for the resulting mold.

If you do have flood insurance, damage arising from mold or mildew is covered provided it was caused by a flooding event. Prior to the flooding, if your home had mold or mildew your flood policy will not pay for it. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) expects policyholders to take reasonable actions to reduce or eliminate mold after a flood. If it is discovered that the mold arose from negligence on the homeowner's behalf, the insurer is within their right to deny a claim. Reasonable actions include: applying drying-out techniques or mildicide in the days after a flood occurred.

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