Homeowner finds way to avoid buying flood insurance

June 7, 2010 7:22:28 PM PDT
An East Bay man has found a way to get out of buying flood insurance for his home -- something thousands of homeowners are now being forced to purchase by their lenders.

The homeowner is retired and living in a quiet Livermore housing development. He never thought his retirement savings could be threatened by of all things -- a map.

Robert Cummings' backyard is bordered by a shallow creek, four inches deep after a heavy rain.

His house sits 13 feet above it, as do all the other homes in his complex. So, why is Cummings being singled out?

"When they overlaid the maps they showed we are in a flood zone when in fact we are not," he said.

New flood maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency show Cummings' house sits just inside a flood zone, although his neighbor's homes do not. As a result, Robert's mortgage lender required him to buy flood insurance.

"Altogether, we were billed $3,150 for flood insurance we don't need," he said. "There is absolutely no risk it would flood. For it to even get up to the walking path outside our house, the entire area behind us would have to flood," said.

City planners agree there's no reason to single out Cummings' home as a flood risk.

"The homes are specifically required to be out of the flood plain," city engineer Pamela Lung said.

Lung says the city required the developer years ago to build all of these homes "above the flood plain" and that includes Cummings' house.

The whole complex was engineered specifically to meet FEMA standards, with all homes at least one foot above the flood plain and FEMA signed off on it 13 years ago.

"The entire track was taken out of the flood plain including all the land that all the homes were on," Lung said.

Lung says nothing's changed since then to make it a flood risk. But the new FEMA maps ignore all that and, she says, they aren't quite accurate. FEMA laid aerial photos over hand drawn flood maps -- and the two don't quite mesh.

"It's nearly impossible to match them up exactly," she said.

Lung says incorrect lines push Cummings' house in the blue hazard zone in one map, when it's really in the safer white zone on another map.

None of that mattered to Cummings' lender, Chase Bank.

"It's a sorry state of affairs. You should be able to talk directly to the people who are billing you, for one thing," Cummings said. "So yeah, it was really frustrating."

Cummings sent the bank all the planning and FEMA documents. No one responded, so he contacted 7 On Your Side and we contacted Chase.

The bank said it must abide by the latest FEMA maps, right or wrong.

It's up to Cummings to appeal to FEMA, not the bank. Since he holds a federally insured mortgage and the map says he's in the hazard zone, he must buy flood insurance.

"Unless we can get FEMA to prove that they made an error there's not much we can do," Cummings said.

Cummings would have to hire an engineer, file an appeal and persuade FEMA its map is wrong. He figured it could cost thousands of dollars and possibly take years.

So Cummings took a quicker and more drastic approach. He liquidated a big portion of his retirement savings and used it to pay off the entire $69,000 mortgage on his house in one lump sum. Now, there's no federally insured mortgage, so nobody can make him buy flood insurance.

"Paying off our mortgage was definitely not in our retirement plans. But it was either that or pay $3,000 a year for flood insurance premiums when I don't need flood insurance. it would be easier to jut pay for it and be done with it and get it out of our hair," Cummings said.

There could soon be help for homeowners caught up in the bureaucracy, like Cummings. Following our investigation into inaccurate FEMA maps, Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced sweeping flood insurance reforms.

One provision would give homeowners access to a consumer advocate to fight these types of changes and five years' notice before being forced to buy the insurance.


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