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Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014

Bryce: Elevation certificates can mitigate some flood insurance woes


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I was recently talking to some friends who live along Pinellas County waterways, and they’re nervous about their property values based on the recent changes in federal flood insurance subsidies. One heard rumors property values were going to plummet; another feared he wouldn’t be able to sell his house in the future.

With similar concerns being raised across Florida and other flood-prone areas, I decided to sit down with Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov to learn more.

Whereas market values of homes have traditionally been driven by their locations, age and physical dimensions, elevation could now become a bigger factor under the changes to the National Flood Insurance Program that took effect Oct. 1.

“In order to get the tax roll to follow the market accurately, I need the elevation data,” Dubov said.

The Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s office, though, currently lacks the tools to measure elevation accurately, and Dubov is not alone. Across Florida, property appraisers are working overtime to change their systems to accommodate elevation data into their databases. Dubov’s office is going so far as to merge aerial photographs and oblique imagery (aerial photos at a 45-degree angle) with maps and just about anything else they can lay their hands on. Based on that information, Dubov’s office will make educated guesses and adjust its data, and that’s no small effort.

Understand that a couple of feet in elevation can make a big difference in a property’s market value and its assessed taxes. Values for comparable homes may even vary on the same street. For example, a street appearing to be level may actually be sloped, such that a house on one end may be elevated a few feet higher than a house at the other end. Those differences will affect property values.

Dubov said her staff will be working hard through the fall, winter and spring to put it all together for the 2014 tax roll. Nonetheless, the elevation data will be less-than-perfect.

Knowing this, the tax appraiser’s office will gladly accept certificates of elevation to supersede its own elevation figures. Such certificates can be prepared by surveyors or engineering firms at a cost ranging from $200 to $500. Without such a certificate, calculating the elevation defaults to the property appraiser’s office, with its amalgamation of maps and photos.

Surprisingly, many homeowners whose homes are paid off and, consequently, do not need flood insurance have seemed apathetic about the changes to the flood insurance program, Dubov said. But what about when they try to sell their homes? Potential buyers will shy away from homes and condos in areas with skyrocketing flood insurance rates, unless they don’t need to take out a mortgage. Naturally, this has local Realtors nervous about the future.

Like it or not, though, this is going to affect a lot of people in Pinellas County, as shown by a new map developed by the property appraiser’s office. To take a look, go to www.pcpao.org.

The changes won’t impact newer homes built to accommodate flood-prone elevations. But people in older homes built before flood maps were redrawn will see dramatic increases.

Pinellas County has the highest number of properties in the nation that could be affected by the law — more than 50,000 parcels, according to Dubov’s office.

Legislation introduced this week in Congress could freeze the dramatic rate increases for four years and, ultimately, reverse some of the impacts of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act — or phase in rate increases more gradually. State lawmakers have also been exploring options for encouraging more private insurance companies to offer flood insurance or to create a state-backed system.

Regardless of what happens in Tallahassee and Washington, homeowners can help themselves by getting elevation certificates for their properties. To me, the message is loud and clear: It’s no longer a matter of just location, location, location; it’s now all about elevation, elevation, elevation.

Keep the faith!

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