Against the backdrop of rising electricity costs, cable bills and fuel prices, thousands of Charleston County homeowners are seeing their flood insurance bills recede starting this year.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which provides flood insurance to tens of thousands of Lowcountry homeowners, discounts a homeowner's annual bill depending on how strictly the homeowner's county building codes are enforced.

Charleston County's enforcement level improved its rating a notch after its most recent inspection, which will lower annual flood insurance bills by up to 5 percent.

Homeowners who want to know the exact amount of their discount should contact the insurance agent who sold them the policy.

Building inspection departments, often blamed for delaying construction and increasing building costs, aren't usually credited with saving homeowners money. But the county's high rating is expected to save Charleston County homeowners a total of $7.5 million each year.

"It drives up the cost of development and construction, but this county has such a variety of higher regulatory standards, they are really helping businesses and homeowners protect themselves as they build in the coastal area of Charleston County," said Brad Loar, mitigation director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Atlanta-based Region 4 division.

Residents began seeing the lower premiums last month.

Only four communities throughout the country -- Roseville, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla.; King County, Wash.; and Fort Collins, Colo. -- top Charleston

County's rating. And the county holds the highest ranking in the coastal Atlantic hurricane region.

"We're quite proud of it," said Carl Simmons, the county's director of building inspection services. "The bottom line is, how good you enforce the regulations has a direct relationship to how much damage a building will get if there's a disaster."

Program inspectors visited Charleston County's office last fall, poring over thousands of files and enforcement records. They looked at how closely the county inspects buildings, the number of employees who enforce building codes and the overall building inspection process.

Simmons said his department improved despite a shrinking budget and fewer staffers. Charleston County has seen its general fund budget fall 3 percent from its $172.2 million peak during 2007-08.

The better rating means that the county's roughly 22,000 homeowners who buy NFIP flood insurance and live in unincorporated areas will see their annual discount improve from 25 percent to 30 percent. That 30 percent discount translates to a savings of about $202 per year.

Residents who live within city limits will also see a savings of up to 5 percent, but the exact amount varies because some municipalities have their own rating system that factors into the discount.

Berkeley County's rating saves its NFIP-buying homeowners 5 percent. Dorchester County doesn't participate in the rating system, which is administered through what's called the National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System.

The program provides an incentive to county and municipal building departments to act as watchdogs against shoddy buildings that would be more susceptible to flood damage.

"Even though we're collecting less in premiums, we're benefiting in the long run because there's going to be less disaster declarations in the long run," Loar said.

The federal agency estimates that for every dollar it spends on outreach efforts such as the community rating program, it saves $4 in damage costs.