When people buy homes, they generally hope to make an investment, not buy a crushing economic burden. That’s why South Carolina law requires that sellers inform potential buyers about problems with the roof, plumbing system, pest infestations or lead-based paint, among other costly fixes.
When it comes to flood risk, which is a major concern for homes located in the roughly 70 percent of the Charleston region considered a floodplain, buyers are mostly on their own. With stronger storms and higher seas a fact of life in the Lowcountry and an increasing threat down the road, the rules on disclosure need to change.
Under state law, sellers have to mention existing flood damage and any problem flooding they’re aware of in the area. That’s better than nothing, but it’s limited to the scope of the seller’s own knowledge or whatever research a buyer can cobble together.
It would be far more useful to grant homebuyers access to histories of insurance claims through the National Flood Insurance Program. The data can offer hard numbers on the frequency and severity of flooding on specific properties — and how much it cost to repair.
But the federal Privacy Act of 1974 keeps NFIP claims secret.
That incentivizes a kind of perverse game of real estate “hot potato,” where homeowners unwittingly saddled with flood-prone properties have to spend thousands on unplanned improvements or try to pass off the home to another unsuspecting buyer.
Meanwhile, the NFIP, which is already billions of dollars in debt, keeps shelling out billions more in damage claims each year, a troubling portion of which goes to properties that keep flooding over and over again.
None of it makes any sense.
NFIP records should be public information. They are obviously of vital importance to homebuyers. And they detail the use of a tremendous amount of public funds. The badly mismanaged program is well-deserving of far more public scrutiny.
Of course, revealing flood insurance claim records would also strand thousands or even millions of homeowners in significantly devalued and perhaps unsellable properties.
Opening up the records should coincide with a massive shift in the way the NFIP uses its resources. Far more money should be spent floodproofing homes or relocating residents to higher ground than is spent repairing still-vulnerable properties.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., are pushing a bill that would help, which a guest op-ed by Laura Cantral and Robert Moore detailed on our Commentary page on Sunday. The Promoting Flood Risk Mitigation Act would require a full evaluation of the way the federal government helps homeowners recover from flooding. It already passed the House.
But some problems have long been apparent.
Congress should repeal the portions of the Privacy Act that pertain to the NFIP and demand that the program focus its efforts on a more sensible, long-term strategy.
We need to make our communities, particularly vulnerable coastal ones like Charleston, more resilient to existing and future threats, not simply rebuild homes that are already in harm’s way.